Meeting Recap: The Myth of Laura Secord by Alun Hughes

On February 26, Professor Alun Hughes of Brock University methodically retraced the famous and heroic trek of Laura Secord using primary evidence in an effort to remove the myth and to uncover what most likely happened on that historic night.

A quick retelling of the classic story: on 21 June 1813 in Queenston, Laura learned of the American’s plans to surprise attack the British forces at Beaverdams.  The next day Secord set out on foot to warn Lieutenant FitzGibbon all the while taking a harsh route through forests and swampland to avoid being detected by the American pickets.  After her harrowing journey, Secord came across a First Nation’s encampment.  These British allies took Laura to FitzGibbon at John DeCew’s house where she relayed the information.  On 23 June, the British and First Nation forces ambushed the Americans at Beaverdams and were victorious.  The story of Laura’s journey became mythologized over time and she has been honoured in countless means such as statues, monuments, postage stamps, books, plays and more.

Alun asked two questions:  1) Did Laura Secord’s walk make a difference?  2) What route did she actually take?

Question 1: In 1932, W. Stewart Wallace wrote The Story of Laura Secord: A Study in Historical Evidence in which he looked at all of the contemporary reports, histories and newspapers.  There was no mention of Secord’s acts.  The only evidence of Secord’s efforts came from Laura herself.  In 1837, Laura made a petition to run a ferry and outlined her heroic efforts.  In 1839, FitzGibbon verified Secord’s petition in a open statement.  Secord made another petition for a pension after her husband died.  Again, she states her key role in the outcome of the Battle of Beaverdam.  Wallace did not buy Secord’s statements as her need for money in both cases was seen as a motive to embellish.  When other resources started to use Secord as part of the War of 1812 narrative, details became erroneous and Laura’s role became increasingly important and detailed.  To Wallace, Secord could not complete the walk as recounted because the timing of the episode did not work out.

However, in 1934, new evidence surfaced verifying Secord’s story.  In the 1820s, James Secord, Laura’s husband, made a petition for land and used FitzGibbon as proof that she left Queenston on June 22.  He made a second petition to manage the Brock Monument that included an even more detailed account from FitzGibbon further verifying Laura’s importance to the events that transpired from June 21 to June 23.

Ultimately, we will never truly know if Laura Secord’s walk made a difference to the Battle of Beaverdams.  However, there can be no doubt that she did the walk at considerable risk and with the most noble intentions.

Question 2:  There have been a number of inaccurate maps of Laura Secord’s route created over the years.  One such map was created by Jacob Cotton in 1917.  Cotton was commissioned by J. Ross Robertson to paint the Decew House, Laura Secord’s home and other landmarks in Niagara including a map of Secord’s route.  Cotton used the verified statements by Secord and FitzGibbons as sources.  Essentially, Cotton’s route resembled most of the others.

Professor Hughes (a cartographer and historian) taking into account the landscape and history, recreated the route as follows:

• Secord left Queenston towards St. David to see her brother Charles Ingersol who was ill
• Towards Homer she went through the swamp – not true; more likely followed the First Nation’s trail south of the Swamp
• At Homer, she crossed the 10 Mile Creek over the bridge
• In St. Catharines, we went along Queenston St. and St. Paul to cross 12 Mile Creek over the bridge
• She moved down Pelham Road toward the Village of Power Glen where she would have passed the Tourney house (family friends)
•  Crossed the 12 Mile Creek again before climbing the Niagara Escarpment
•    Arriving in John DeCew’s field, she encountered the First Nations who lead her to the DeCew house.

Conclusion on the route according to Alun Hughes:  If this new route is correct, Laura Secord travelled approximately 15 miles on foot – from sunrise at about 4:30 a.m. to nautical twilight around 9:30 p.m.  Total 17 hours.

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