Laura Secord's Journey to FitzGibbon

Lives of the women at home and following the army during the war years.
Post Reply
User avatar
Official historian
Posts: 370
Joined: Fri Sep 01, 2006 11:48 pm
Location: Upper Canada

Laura Secord's Journey to FitzGibbon

Post by pud » Thu Jan 11, 2007 10:22 pm

Source: Laura Secord the Legend and the Lady. Ruth McKenzie. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Toronto/Montreal. Maracle Press, 1972. pp.52 – 59


There was no time to waste. James and Laura hastily made their plans. They decided that Laura would leave early the next morning. First she would go to St. David's to see her half-brother Charles Ingersoll who was sick in bed with a fever at Hannah Secord's (Stephen Secord's widow). Charles was engaged to be married to Hannah's eldest daughter, 20-year-old Elizabeth. The call at St. David's would serve a double purpose. A visit to her sick brother would serve as a good excuse to offer if American Sentries questioned Laura about where she was going. And then there was the chance that Charles would be sufficiently recovered to take the message to Fitzgibbon, or perhaps one of the Hannah's boys could go.

Dawn came around 4:30 a.m. (it was long before daylight saving had ever been thought of) and Laura Rose with the sun. Slipping into the girls' room, she told them she was going to see Uncle Charles; she didn't know when she would be back, but they were to look after the little children until she came. Harriet, who was about seven at the time, recalled years later, "I remember seeing my mother leave the house on that fateful morning, but neither I nor my sisters knew on what errand she was bent."

At that early hour there was a cool breeze but the air was damp after an all-night rain, and the day had promised to be sultry. Emerging from the back door of the house, Laura walked briskly along the familiar road to St. David's. Clad in a house-dress she had made herself, of brown cotton print with an all-over design of little orange flowers, Laura felt comfortably cool. The long, straight skirt, gathered at the back, hung down almost to the ground from the high waist-line of her dress. The sleeves came just below the elbows. Around her neck, Laura wore a white muslin kerchief, and on her head, a white cotton bonnet as was the fashion of the day. Surprising as it may seem, Laura did not have on comfortable walking shoes. Except for moccasins which many country women wore outdoors, there were then no walking shoes such as women have today. Laura wore house slippers, probably made of light kid with low heels and with ties at the instep. They offered very poor protection on country roads, still less in crossing fields or going through the woods. But Laura was used to walking in her slippers and she made her way quickly all along the road. In less than an hour she was in St. David's, going down the lane past the Secord mill to Hannah's stone house.

Just a minute, you say, what about the cow? And the American sentry? The truth is, there was no cow and probably no American sentry either, though Laura certainly expected to encounter a sentry. "I found I should have great difficulty in getting through the American guards which were 10 miles out in the country," she wrote 40 years later. Did she think the guards were 10 miles from Queenston or from Fort George? We do not know, but according to an American "statement of facts" made public after the war, the American pickets were no farther than 2 miles from Fort George. So Laura was in no danger from them. She had no way of knowing this, however, and the fact does not detract in this slightest from the courage she showed in exposing yourself, as she thought, to the risk of being stopped by enemy guards.

As to the cow, neither Laura herself, nor any member of her family, ever mentioned one. Her great-niece, Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Gregory (a grand-daughter of Mrs. Stephen Secord) stated flatly that "the cow and the milk-pale are a fable." It appears that the “fable" was the invention of William F. Coffin who, in 1864, wrote a book called 1812; the War and Its Moral [Montreal, Lovell, 1864.] He pictured Laura having difficulty with "the American advanced sentry," and milking a cow in his presence, which she then drove before her into the woods. Although the Secord's may very well have had a cow (many villagers kept cows), there is no evidence that Laura was accompanied by one on any part of her walk to Beaver Dams.

Let us return to Laura as she knocked on the door of Hannah Secord's house in St. David's. A surprised Hannah opened the door.

Laura's first words were to ask about Charles. Her heart sank when she heard he was still sick in bed. She sat down to rest as she told Hannah and the pale, delicate Elizabeth, about the secret plan to capture Fitzgibbon and her anxiety to get word to him. If she had hoped that her journey might end at St. David's, she realized now that this would be impossible. Charles could not get out of bed, and Hannah's two older sons, James and David, were with the militia. 12-year-old Alex was home at the time and, when an old man, he recorded his recollection of his aunt’s visit that morning. Laura stuck to her determination to take the message herself, and her niece, Elizabeth Secord, offered to accompany her.

In order to avoid encounters with the American soldiers on the direct road to Beaver Dams (a distance of about 10 miles), the women decided to take the longer way by Shipman's Corners (now a busy five-corners shopping area at the intersection of Highway Number eight and the old Welland Canal in St. Catharines). This would bring them into British-held territory and they may also have thought there would be a chance of meeting Captain Merritt whose home was at 12 Mile Creek (St. Catharines). They knew he would ride galloping to Beaver Dams with the message once he heard of the plot.

It was still early in the morning, perhaps around eight o'clock, when Laura and Elizabeth set out. They took the black swamp road to Shipman's Corners. It led them through soggy swamps and woods and along a dirt road made muddy from the previous night's rain. One can imagine how the mosquitoes must have pestered them. The day grew increasingly hot and humid as the June sun rose higher in the sky. The two women had to pause often to rest and get their breath. Their light slippers kept coming off in the mud. Elizabeth's feet became blistered and she felt exhausted. By the time they came to the bridge over the Creek near Shipman's Corners, Elizabeth could see the she was holding her aunt back. She was far from strong and, indeed, had only one more year to live. She never became Charles Ingersoll's wife.

Although Laura had walked farther than Elizabeth that morning, and, like her, was hot and tired, she had no intention of turning back. In spite of her delicate build she was wiry and very determined. Bidding her niece good-bye, she continued on her journey alone. It is believed that Elizabeth remained with friends at Shipman's Corners.

From here on, Laura was uncertain of the way, and afraid of encountering unfriendly Indians. Mrs. Gregory, who was born after the war and lived with her grandmother until her marriage, said, "I remember well of sitting in childish astonishment and terror, listening to Aunt [Laura Secord] and Grandma [Hannah Secord] talking over the affair, and of hearing her relate the fears she entertained of meeting and being taken prisoner by the American Indians before she had reached the British lines."

Laura could not be sure the British had a firm hold on the territory she was in, and she avoided the main roads in making her way to DeCew's place from Shipman's. Following the general direction of 12 Mile Creek, she crossed over fields and went through woods. In addition to her fear of Indians, Laura must have had qualms about the wild animals that dwelt in the forest - of wildcats that pounced on their prey from trees, of wolves that were still common. Even in the fields, there was the danger of rattle-snakes. They were plentiful in the Niagara Peninsula. (John DeCew told how the rattle-snakes came into his original log house in such numbers before he had the floor laid and door put in, that he had to sleep in a hammock slung from the rafters.) These

Tradition has it that Laura lost her slippers in the course of the day, and it would indeed have been surprising if she had not, considering the soft ground in the woods and the inadequacy of her slippers. It was evening before she came to DeCew Falls, and she knew she was now approaching DeCew's house. "When I came to a field belonging to a Mr. De Cou, in the neighbourhood of the Beaver Dams, as I then had walked 19 miles," Mrs. Secord recalled in a letter to the American historian, Benson Lossing, many years later. "By that time daylight had left me. I yet had a swift stream of water [12 Mile Creek] to cross over an old fallen tree, and to climb a high hill, which fatigued me very much.

Those who questioned why it took Laura a whole day to walked 19 or 20 miles, need only compare her achievement with that of some of today's youth who walk a similar distance in the annual "Miles for Millions" walks. These young people have the advantage of rest-stops for food and first-aid, and their way leads over paved roads or well-trodden paths, with a minimum of hills. Laura Secord, by contrast, walked over muddy roads and through tangled thickets that caught on her skirts; and she had steep hills to climb when she was most fatigued on the last part of her journey. She had little food with her and there was no place to get coffee or tea. She may have eaten something at St. David's and perhaps she had taken a sandwich with her. Berries would be available as she went along, and there would be fresh water in springs. But when her feet became blistered there was no basin of hot water in which to bathe them, and no band-aids to protect them. The hot, sticky day was the worst kind for walking. Only a woman used to rugged life and of resolute will could have endured the pain and fatigue of such a journey.

As twilight deepened, Laura was near exhaustion but she was cheered by the thought of soon seeing DeCew's house high on the ridge. Then, suddenly she found herself surrounded by the dreaded Indians. She had stumbled on the encampment of Indian reinforcements who had arrived only a day or so previously. Let Laura tell the story: Upon advancing to the Indians they all rose and with some yells said "Woman," which made me tremble. I cannot express the awful feeling it gave me, but I did not lose my presence of mind. I was determined to persevere. I went up to one of the Chiefs, made him understand that I had great news for Captain Fitzgibbon, and that he must let me pass to his camp, or that he and his party would be all taken. The chief at first objected to let me pass, but finally consented, after some hesitation, to go with me and accompany me to Fitzgibbon's station, which was at the Beaver Dam, where I had an interview with him. I then told him what I had come for, and what I had heard - that the Americans intended to make an attack upon the troops under his command, and would, from their superior numbers capture them all.

Fitzgibbon looked at her in amazement. He had never seen this woman before and knew nothing about her, but he was impressed by her earnestness. Her face was drawn with fatigue and flushed from the heat. Her deep-set eyes had dark circles under them and were full of anxiety. Her long dress was torn and bedraggled from her walk through the Bush, and she was without her slippers. Convinced that she was telling the truth, Fitzgibbon directed some of his men to escort her to safety at the neighbouring Turney farm.

Writing of the incident in later years, Fitzgibbon said, "Mrs. Secord was a person of slight and delicate frame and made this effort in weather excessively warm, and I dreaded at the time that she must suffer in health in consequence of fatigue and anxiety, she having been exposed to danger from the enemy, through whose line of communication she had to pass."

When Laura returned home to her anxious family, the day after the battle, she was "exhausted and fatigued." Looking back years afterwards she wondered "how I could have gone through so much fatigue with the fortitude to accomplish it."

To what avail had she made this great effort? The Battle of Beaver Dams would show."

Post Reply