SPECIAL REPORT

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

LAURA SECORD WARNED THE BRITISH OF AN AMERICAN ATTACK

D’ARCY JENISH July 6 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

LAURA SECORD WARNED THE BRITISH OF AN AMERICAN ATTACK

D’ARCY JENISH July 6 1992

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

SPECIAL REPORT

LAURA SECORD WARNED THE BRITISH OF AN AMERICAN ATTACK

On a sunny midweek morning, the Niagara River below Queenston, Ont., is peaceful and deserted, except for a few fishermen casting for speckled trout on the Canadian side. As he scans the river, William Severin, curator of the Niagara Historical Society Museum, describes a time when the surrounding countryside was a war zone. He locates the narrow strip of shoreline where American soldiers landed during the War of 1812, and he identifies the British positions used to shell the invading troops. In that long-passed colonial conflict, British Maj.-Gen.

Isaac Brock was killed while leading an uphill charge, winning immediate fame among the settlers of Upper Canada. For contemporary Canadians, however, the more well-known figure from that war is not a soldier at all, but a woman whose name is now synonymous with chocolate. Although Laura Secord’s bravery went largely unrecognized in her own day, says Severin,

“she gained more importance after Confederation because it was important as a nation to have heroes.”

A Loyalist, a pioneer and a mother of five children, Secord earned her place in Canadian history by walking 30 km on June 22, 1813, to warn British Lieut. James FitzGibbon of an impending American attack. Although some historians now claim that FitzGibbon’s Indian allies may already have tipped him off, there is no doubting Secord’s courage in a war in which the Americans ultimately failed to achieve their end: conquering Canada. The route of her daylong trek has been wiped out by agricultural and urban development. But her Queenston home, which she shared with her husband, James, and their children, has survived. It is now a museum, refurbished and operated during the summer tourist season by Laura Secord Inc., the Scarborough, Ont.-based chocolate and ice-cream company that adopted her name when it was founded in 1912. In a separate building, wholesomelooking students in long skirts and frilly blouses sell the firm’s products.

Secord’s heroics, however, need no sugarcoating. At the time, American forces had occupied communities along the British side of the Niagara River and were set to advance farther into Upper Canada. Most Queenston families had been forced to provide lodgings for the American soldiers. While preparing dinner for her American guests, Secord, then 37 years old, overheard them discussing a surprise attack on FitzGibbon and 50 British troops stationed at the home of merchant and miller James DeCew on the Niagara Escarpment.

The next morning, Secord set out on her walk, wearing an anklelength skirt and soft leather slippers. The popular story is that she took a

cow to fool the Americans into believing that she was merely on a domestic errand. However, historians say that Secord never mentioned a cow—that it seems to have been a fanciful addition to the Secord lore. She certainly had plenty to fear: American soldiers on patrol—even wolves or rattlesnakes. According to Severin, she likely followed a crude dirt road from Queenston to the nearby village of St. David’s, and then on to Shipman’s Comers, now the busy intersection of St. Paul and Ontario streets in downtown St. Catharines.

From there, says Severin, she followed Twelve Mile Creek up the escarpment to the DeCew residence. Much of the land along the final leg of her journey was cleared but for the most part unoccupied. It now contains a mix of housing—stately early-20thcentury homes, postwar bungalows and 1980s-style monster houses.

Secord is believed to have reached her destination late in the evening of I June 22. By then, she was exhausted: her skirt was tom, her slippers gone and her feet badly blistered. Severin says that the DeCew residence was a two-storey limestone structure with two rooms on each floor separated by a centre hallway and staircase. Ontario Hydro has owned the property since 1942, but only portions of the ground-floor walls are still standing.

The Americans followed through on their plans to attack FitzGibbon, but he was well prepared. He convinced his Indian allies, Caughnawaga and Mohawk warriors, to ambush the 500 American soldiers, saving his own troops as a second line of defence. The Indians attacked and the Americans retreated, a skirmish that has come to be known as the Battle of Beaver Dams. A pivotal battle in the War of 1812, it stemmed the American advance into the Niagara Peninsula.

During her own lifetime, Secord received little or no recognition for her bravery. Her reputation began to grow around the time of her death in 1868 at age 93. “Later historians looked at her deed and said this was important and deserves recognition,” says Severin. A century after her heroics, Toronto candymaker Frank O’Connor chose her name for his Yonge Street chocolate shop. Over the years, the Laura Secord company has grown, acquired other candymakers and undergone several ownership changes. Currently, the Swiss-based conglomerate Nestlé SA owns Laura Secord Inc. and its 200 outlets across Canada. And the firm keeps alive the name of the woman who, in the midst of a nasty and critical border war, took a treacherous walk in the woods.

D’ARCY JENISH in Queenston