Saturday, September 8, 2012

Laura Secord - Canada's Marathon Hero

The scene takes place in 490 BC. Pehidippides, Athenian runner and soldier, has just entered Athens with news of victory at Marathon. He is exhausted from the 40-kilometer run, but his heart thrills within him. He bursts into the hall of government where the magistrates are waiting in suspense. Above the murmur of the hall, he is heard to cry out "Joy to you, we've won," and breathes his last.

More than two millenia later, a young loyalist housewife sets out on her own journey in Upper Canada. Like her Athenian counterpart, her distance is long, and her purpose urgent. There are 500 hundred American soldiers preparing to ambush the headquarters of Colonel James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams, and she must warn them.

As their stories pass into legend, Pehidippides will inspire countless millions to recreate his journey for personal fitness; the name of Laura Secord, courtesy of the fancy chocolate company, will inspire millions to add to their waist line. Nevertheless! It has been a pleasure to read up on her life and her journey. According to one author, "No brighter name shines forth in Canadian annals than that of the heroine of Queenston Heights and Beaver Dams--this young Canadian woman" (1).

As the story goes, on June 21,1813, a group of American officers had come to the Secord house for dinner. Their home in Queenston was occupied territory, and billeting arrangements like this were common. During their meal, they spoke openly of the planned assault on Beaver Dams. George Bryce gives a dramatic recreation of Laura's thought process in that tense moment:

The danger was imminent. Her country would be under the foot of the invader. Her blood boiled at the thought. But what could she do? Her husband was severely maimed. He could never entirely recover. He four children needed her care. 

But her patriotism urged her to action (2).

She set off early the next morning. The main roads offered a direct route, but Laura feared the American sentries. So she took an indirect path through the fields and woods. Early summer rains had made her way difficult; she likely had to stumble over rotted trees and through tangled undergrowth, her path made more challenging by streams, swamps, and ferocious tigers. No, I made that up. But creativity is not out of character with many of the accounts. One story has her take a cow-decoy with her. In another, she does the journey mostly barefoot. Close to the end of her journey, she stumbled upon an aboriginal encampment. In her own words, "they all arose with one of their war yells, which, indeed, awed me. You may imagine what my feelings were to behold so many savages" (3). She controlled her fear, explained her purpose, and asked one of the war chiefs to accompany her to James FitzGibbon.

With the intelligence, FitzGibbon posted 400 aboriginals to ambush the Americans en route to their target. On June 24, 1813, the Americans under Colonel Charles Boerstler found themselves under sudden attack. FitzGibbon showed up on the scene with a white flag in hand. In the following parley, he tricked them to believe that his own force of 50 men was, in fact, the vanguard of a much larger surrounding army. FitzGibbon's 50 men found themselves newly in charge of 462 American prisoners.

In the following generations, Laura's story was taken up by widely different groups for different purposes. First wave feminists held her as an example of what an "ordinary housewife" can do. To some, she was a symbol of Canadian nationalism; to others, she supported arguments for preserving ties with Britain. No matter how we interpret the evidence, one must conclude that Laura was a woman of strong conviction with admirable courage, perseverance, and humility. According to her grandson, she saw her journey as fulfillment of duty and would not speak of it unless asked. In the words of George Bryce,  "However much we may deprecate war -- a hateful thing and a blot on our civilization -- yet we cannot fail to see that it is a great school for [...] bringing out many of the brightest virtues of humanity" (3).

For a foot-stompin' account of Laura's journey, see "Secord's Warning" by Tanglefoot:

1 George Bryce. Laura Secord: A Study in Canadian Patriotism (1907)
2 ibid.
3 From the preface to Laura Secord, the heroine of 1812. - A Drama. And Other Poems.
4 George Bryce

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