In Episode 28, we delve into the story of Laura Secord, and the two stamps that Canada Post released to celebrate this Canadian Heroine.
Episode released October 31st 2020. Subscribe for free to the podcast here.
Laura Secord, who to most of the Canadian public, is the face of a chocolate company — even though it’s just in name only — is so much more. Before we delve into the two stamps Canada post created to honour her — let’s learn her real story!
On September 13th, 1775, a year before the Revolutionary war Thomas Ignersoll’s wife Elizabeth gave birth to a baby girl named Laura. The Ignersoll family lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and her father fought alongside American patriots during the Revolutionary War that began the following year.
Facing economic hardship , successfully petitioned Governor John Simcoe of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) for a land grant. By this time, Laura’s mother Elizabeth Ingersoll had died and her father had remarried. With his 10 children, Thomas Ignersoll moved his family north in 1795 to Queenston, a small new community near Niagara Falls that was settled by Loyalists refugees — and immigrants from the United States who had fled to Canada after the American revolution.
As you can imagine newcomers who had been loyal to America were not welcomed, and so eventually the Ingersolls moved to York, (which became the City of Toronto in 1834) .
Laura, however, stayed behind in Queenston and in 1797 married a shopkeeper and Loyalist James Secord.
The couple would have five children by 1810 and up to that point they had a relatively normal life. Eventually, conflict came to their area stemming from the Napoleonic wars of the early part of the 1800s. There was a naval blockade by the British of France, which the Americans opposed. There was also impressment of sailors — where British Navy would seek out Britian’s living in America and press them into service of the Royal Navy. The United States believed that British deserters had a right to become American citizens, but Britain did not recognize a right for a British subject to relinquish his citizenship and become a citizen of another country. The British needed sailors for the war with Napoleon
This would add fuel to the fire when the crew of Leopard (a British ship) pursued, attacked, and boarded the American frigate, the Chesapeake, looking for deserters from the Royal Navy.Four crew members were removed from the American vessel and were tried for desertion, one of whom was subsequently hanged.
There was another issue. This involved Native Americans who lived in the Northwest Territory which would later become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The British supported those fighting the American expansion into these areas, even though the area was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Of course, both sides ignored the fact that the land was inhabited by various Native American peoples — though.
There was obviously lots of tension, but the United States was only a secondary concern to Britain, so long as the war continued with France. However that would change. James Madison became the US President in 1809, and had tried a new strategy designed to pit the British and French against each other, offering to trade with whichever country would end their attacks against American shipping. Napoleon offered to end French attacks on American shipping so long as the United States punished any countries that did not similarly end restrictions on trade. Madison would accept Napoleon’s proposal in the hope that it would convince the British to finally end their policy of commercial warfare, but the British refused to change their policies, and the French reneged on their promise and continued to attack American shipping.
With sanctions and other policies having failed, Madison determined that war with Britain was the only remaining option. Lots of American sentiment turned to an idea of a second revolutionary war. This time with a different tactic. Many Americans, Madison included, believed that the United States could easily capture Canada, at which point the U.S. could use Canada as a bargaining chip for all other disputes or simply retain control of it. On June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war, stating that the United States could no longer tolerate Britain’s “state of war against the United States.”
War came to the Secord’s door on October 13th, 1812. Laura’s husband, James Secord served in the First Lincoln Militia and fought valiantly. His commanding officer Site Issac Brock was killed and the Americans had captured Queenston Heights. The win was not fully assured though, as reinforcements from the New York state militia refused to cross the river into Canada. Unlike U.S. Army “regulars,” some state militiamen refused to fight outside the boundary of their state. When British and Canadian reinforcements did arrive, the American troops were driven back across the river.
After the fighting was over, Laura Secord went in search of her husband, who had reportedly been injured. She found him badly wounded with bullets lodged in his shoulder and knee. With the help of a friendly officer, she brought James back home. When she arrived, Laura found that her home had been ransacked by the enemy and most everything valuable had been carted away. In fact, much of the entire village had been looted.
During the winter months that followed, Laura Secord devoted considerable energy to the care of her wounded husband. By the spring of 1813, neither side had a firm hold of the Niagara peninsula. However, the Americans controlled the strategically important Fort George which is at the entrance of the Niagara River. Also from time to time, U.S. soldiers demanded food and supplies from local residents, likely including the Secords too.
In May 1813, Queenston was again and the site of a battle and the invading Americans decisively won this time. All Canadian men over 18 were marched off as prisoners of war, but James was allowed to remain in his home due to his wounds.
Also after winning this second battle, they raided the town, turning the homes of British Loyalists into their own personal hotels. The Secords, among many others, were forced to house and feed the occupying American soldiers. In the Secord’s case, it was three American officers who lodged in their house.
Now I must pause, because here is where the myth of Laura Secord is born. The facts and truth of what exactly happened is disputed in the record. However, it is pretty certain these two things happened. The first was that on June 21st 1813, it was learned that the Americans intended to surprise the British outpost at Beaver Dams and capture Lieutenant James FitzGibbon, the officer in charge. How this information was learned is not certain in the record, but most insist that either Laura or her husband overheard the news in the house.
To me the real important fact, and where her reputation comes from is this second fact. Laura Secord decided to risk her life to get the message to Lieutenant James FitzGibbon early the next morning. On June 22nd, Laura Secord, mother of 5 traveled 32 kilometres through fields, wooded areas and swamps to warn British troops of an impending ambush.
Finally she got to the British, and met Captain Dominique Ducharme and his small band of Aboriginal warriors. She would be taken immediately to a house in the present-day City of Thorold, which was being used as the local headquarters for British forces. Her information resulted in FitzGibbon and his much-feared aboriginal warrior allies ambushing and capturing 500 American soldiers at the Battle of Beaver Dams on June 24.
Public acclaim for the stunning victory went to FitzGibbon. Through local newspapers and word of mouth, FitzGibbon became even more legendary. Not much credit was given to Laura Secord at the time, probably to protect her and her family. However, the First Nations warriors were not given their due in public for their effort. Sure they were given considerable recognition in the official military report, but that was seen only by a few officers. Displeased with their treatment, they resigned and returned home to Lower Canada (now Quebec).
As for the Americans, with the loss at Beaver Dams and other setbacks, the U.S. lost its initiative on the Niagara frontier. By December demoralized, they abandoned their positions.
After the war, in 1815, James Secord’s health gradually improved, but he never fully recovered. James also received a small pension because of his war wounds, but with the family’s store destroyed during the war, they still struggled financially.
Laura’s heroism was not forgotten by FitzGibbon who did write letters on Laura’s behalf in 1820, 1827 and 1837, attesting to her bravery.
The Secord luck took a turn for the better when in 1828 James Secord was appointed registrar, then judge (in 1833), of the Niagara Surrogate Court. In 1835 he became collector of customs at Chippawa. His income never reached their pre-war standards however and when James died in 1841, Laura was left without any major financial windfall. She would go on to run a school for children in her small home in Chippawa, which is now part of the City of Niagara Falls, Ont.
After James’s death — and in need of money — she began to speak more often of her wartime efforts, with the hope of securing a small government pension. But even with the help of FitzGibbon, Laura was ignored by the government. Gradually, however, the story of her adventures appeared in a few newspapers and books, albeit with some inaccuracies.
Finally in 1860, as the Prince of Wales (the eldest son of Queen Victoria and who would be later crowned King Edward VII) would be in the Niagara District. During this trip he would learn of Laura’s bravery and needs. After returning to England, he authorized a reward of £100 pounds. This provided her with much needed support and recognition of her heroism until her death in 1868, at age 93.
Since her death, only a year after confederation, her legend grew. It attracted particular attention in the late 1800s during the suffrage movement. The story of her bravery would be expanded by numerous retellings, legends, songs, stories and televised documentary.
Was she accompanied by a cow to distract U.S. soldiers? Was her entire trip made at night? Did she walk barefoot? Did she give an American sentry a small bouquet of violets? Was she granted passage after asking to visit her ill brother? Regardless of these unproven tales, her status as a Canadian hero was not disputed.
And thus we now fast forward 100 years and enter a chocolatier.
In 1913, a 28 year old entrepreneur Frank P. O’Connor founded a candy store. It was the centenary of her exploits — and surely something well known by then. Frank named his store after Laura Secord — but there was no involvement with the Secord family. As he would say, he chose to name his business after Laura because she was “a symbol of courage, devotion, and loyalty.”
This small store was located at 354 Yonge Street in Toronto, Ontario where he sold hand-made chocolates and it would quickly become very popular — with a couple more stores opening in the Toronto area shortly thereafter.
Frank had big ambitions across the border too. In 1919, he launched the Fanny Farmer Candy company in Rochester, New York. Like Laura Secord, Fanny Farmer was named in honour of someone without any connection to the candy company. The real Fannie Farmer, was a culinary expert who had died four years earlier. Her recipes were not being used — just her name, well — kind of. Her first name in the company name would have the spelling slightly changed by ending it with a “Y” instead of an “ie”. However, as a marketing tactic, the name suggested the high standards of quality and would also prove to be a big success.
Candy would make O’Connor a millionaire. Beginning in March 1928, he purchased 600 acres of land along Victoria Park Avenue (then known as the northern extension of Dawes Road) north of present-day Lawrence Avenue to build Maryvale. O’Connor also used his money to become one of Toronto’s most generous philanthropists. A devout Catholic, O’Connor funded many educational institutions tied to his faith.
Politically, O’Connor was also involved in the provincial Liberal Party and he helped get Mitch Hepburn elected as Premier in 1934. The reward for his work was an appointment in 1935 to the Senate of Canada by Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.
However due to illness a couple of years later, O’Connor withdrew from the operations of Laura Secord, and turned its presidency over to his brother-in-law. Frank O’Connor would die of illness at Maryvale on August 21, 1939 — but this only was not the end for the company. It would continue on and grow. There would also be subsequent revamps of the corporate logo and over time the depictions of Secord moved further away from historical reality, matching instead the design trends of the time.
By 1950, there were as many as 96 Laura Secord shops in Ontario and Quebec and Laura Secord chocolate was a well-established brand across both provinces. And so with that popularity, the company became a valuable asset.
In the late 1960s, ownership of Laura Secord changed owners on several occasions. However, as of February 2010, Laura Secord is owned by two Quebec businessmen — Jean and Jacques Leclerc.
The Leclerc brothers belong to a family with over a century of experience in the food-processing industry and the Laura Secord company now has over 100 stores across the country. Today as ever, Laura Secord is Canada’s largest and best-known chocolatier with over 400 products!
Now that we got my sweet tooth going, and before I need to run out and get some chocolates, let’s move onto the stamps!
The first stamp to depict Laura Secord, was issued September 8, 1992. It was a 42-cent and the third issue in the Canadian folklore series. The series focuses on Canadian heroes whose feats have taken on legendary proportions. 4 million stamps were printed.
The stamp was designed by Ralph Tibbles based on illustrations by Deborah Drew-Brook who based them on illustrations by Allan Cormack. The truth is the only existing known photo of Laura Secord is from 1865 — so anything else was from imagination.
The assigned Scott Catalogue number is #1434. The stamp depicts Laura as a redhead, wearing a heavy dress plus a shawl and bonnet. She’s lifting her dress, in what seems urgent movement, while looking over her shoulder. The background depicts a dark and uncertain wooded area. In the lower corner of the stamp are some aboriginals silhouetted against a nearby campfire, who would guide Laura the rest of the way to tell FitzGibbon of the impending ambush.
On June 20th 2013, around the 200th anniversary, Laura’s exploits were celebrated again by Canada Post. Actually it was a pair of stamps honouring the daring exploits of two legendary Canadian heroes from the war of 1812– Laura Secord and Charles de Salaberry. The stamp pair was the second in a series commemorating the War of 1812.
The year prior, in 2012, they released a stamp honouring Major General Sir Issac Brock and War Chief Tecumseh. We touched on The Major General and his bravery at Queenston Heights — the same battle in which James Secord, Laura’s husband got injured severely.
Heading now back to this pair of stamps from 2013, we’ve already learned the story of Laura who braved a 30-kilometre walk through the Canadian wilderness to warn a British outpost of an impending American attack. As for DeSalaberry, the other stamp of this release, he is honoured for his strategy and resourcefulness in repelling an American invasion which aimed at capturing Montreal — certainly this’ll be subject for a future episode.
The two permanent-rate War of 1812 stamps as mentioned were issued se-tenant with 800,00 stamps printed. They were printed by the Canadian Bank Note company on Tullis Russell paper using lithography in five colours with general three-side tagging. The official first-day cover was cancelled with a June 20 date in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. The stamps were also available in panes of 16.
Now let’s look a little closer at the stamp design. Considering it was released as a pair, let’s look at the designs. The backgrounds of the two stamps merge at the perforations, the differences in each stamp’s background point to details of each story. The forest in the Secord stamp is the green of summer, while the landscape behind de Salaberry is the gold of autumn. The fallen trees seen beside de Salaberry hint at the useful barricades he had constructed. Over Secord’s shoulder, a beaver dam references the destination of her pivotal journey.
I want to now look closer at the Laura Secord stamp. The assigned Scott Catalogue number is #2651. The stamp design was led by Montréal artist and stamp designer Susan Scott, who wanted to capture as much historical accuracy as possible. Despite stamps, a coin, book covers, historic paintings and portraits on boxes of Laura Secord chocolates, which have featured her at various ages, as I mentioned the only known photograph was taken in the 1860s, shortly before she turned 90.
So what did Susan do? She did a lot of research, including viewing the Queenston Heights statue which had a depiction of Laura on the plaque. She also had discussions with 19th-century historians about the type of clothing worn at the time.
However as Susan Scott told Ottawa Citizen reporter, Randy Boswell at the time, what made it all come together was a chance meeting with a Montreal museum worker who became the adopted inspiration for the stamp. We will never know the model’s name due to Canada Post privacy rules, but the mystery Montreal woman’s face bore similar features Susan found in photographs of Secord’s daughters at an age similar to their mothers’ in the early 1800s. As Scott was quoted about the design Quote. “I consciously tried to avoid the ‘sentimental’ look of the earlier stamp in devising the latest postal tribute to Secord,” end quote.
In my view, Susan Scott has succeeded and of the two Laura Secord stamps, this one is my favourite. Whichever you choose, though, you are adding a great stamp to your collection.
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