Women have often played an important role in war. They have worked in munitions factories, made clothing and supplies, encouraged and entertained soldiers, nursed the wounded, and acted as spies. It is rare, however, for a woman to have played a key role in determining the course of a war. Many people believe that Laura Secord played such a role in the War of 1812. Laura Secord was born in the United States at the time of the American Revolution. Her father had fought in the U.S. army against the British. But when land in the American States became scarce, the family moved to Ontario, Canada, and so back under British rule. Laura married into a pro-British family, and adopted their political views. So when the War of 1812 broke out between Britain and America, her husband, James Secord, joined the Canadian militia to defend Ontario against the Americans. The American invasion of 1812 was defeated at Queenston Heights, and some of the wounded were brought to Laura’s house in nearby Queenston. Laura went out to the battlefield where she found her husband, James, who was severely wounded, and brought him home.
In 1813, the U.S. invasion was more successful. Parts of Ontario close to the U.S. border were occupied by American troops. Local families were expected to provide room and board for U.S. officers. It was sometimes possible, therefore, for Canadians to overhear American officers discussing military strategy, either in their homes, or in the local tavern. The situation in Ontario looked desperate in the Spring of 1813. The whole province seemed likely to fall into American hands. In June, Laura overheard talk of an American attack on the British outpost at Beaver Dams. Her husband was still suffering from war injuries, and she had to look after him and their children. Nevertheless, she resolved to go to warn the British commander. Possibly, Laura did not intend to walk the whole way herself. She hoped to be able to pass on the news to someone else along the way. First, she would have to make up a story to get past the American sentries. She left Queenston in early morning and walked nineteen miles to the neighbourhood of Beaver Dams by nightfall. She still had to cross a wide stream and climb up the Niagara Escarpment. There she came upon an encampment of Indians who were assisting the British. Their war cries in the moonlight terrified her, but she insisted on being taken to the British commander. Finally, one of the chiefs escorted her to British headquarters, and she was able to tell Fitzgibbon the American plan of attack.
When the Americans arrived in the neighbourhood of Beaver Dams, the Indians had prepared an ambush for them. A running fight ensued between the American force of 570 soldiers and 450 Indians supporting the British. At this point, Fitzgibbon arrived with 50 British regulars. Seeing the Americans disorganized and surrounded by the Indians, Fitzgibbon boldly demanded their surrender. By telling the American Commander Boerstler that he was facing huge British and Indian forces, Fitzgibbon induced the American leader to turn over his whole army to the British. Although only small armies were involved at Beaver Dams, the battle had great significance. Afterwards, the Americans stayed behind their walls for the rest of the year.
The U.S. government recalled their commander-in-chief. British and Canadian morale increased, and Laura’s home in Queenston was restored to British control. Laura Secord’s story was little known until 1860. She was an old woman in her eighties when she was presented to the visiting Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. He awarded a gift of money for her services. Her story then became famous; today her home in Queenston, Ontario, is an historical museum and a popular tourist attraction.