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V. Wor. Bro Daniel J Glenney
“LAURA SECORD: SURROUNDED BY FREEMASONS”
Presented November 21, 2012 to Luxor Daylight Lodge No. 741
Every year in November, our thoughts turn to Remembrance Day. Traditionally, we reflect upon the sacrifices made by Canadians in the First and Second World War, Korea, and more recently, Afghanistan. This year, in 2012, we are reminded by the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 that Canadian military history from the 19th century also merits our attention.
Canadians are generally aware of Laura Ingersoll Secord as one of the more important stories from the War of 1812. We remember from our school days how she learned of an impending American attack on a British outpost, drove her cow ahead of her as a diversion to fool American sentries, and brought word of the planned attack to the British. Thanks in part to her valiant efforts, the Americans themselves were ambushed and defeated at the Battle of Beaver Dams, on June 23, 1813. Today, we will present the details of this story. Most Canadians would be surprised to learn of the Masonic background to this piece of Canadian history.
Upper Canada in 1812:
In order to understand the rest of the story of Laura Ingersoll Secord, we need to travel back to Upper Canada, as Ontario was then known, to the Niagara Peninsula of 2 centuries ago. In the spring of 1812, the new colony of Upper Canada, was gradually developing in the midst of a vast wilderness of forests, lakes and rivers. Water transportation was both the key to the survival of Upper Canada, and the weak point in the defense of the colony. Several British frontier garrisons had been established along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes corridor, to protect this strategic supply link with Britain. The Niagara Peninsula was a choke point in this transportation route. Any military or civilian supplies from Great Britain could be taken by ship as far as Newark, now known as Niagara on the Lake, at the mouth of the Niagara River. Ships could proceed as far upstream on the Niagara River as Queenston, a village on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. At this point, the rapids of the Niagara River forced all goods to be taken out of the ships and loaded into wagons. The cargo was then hauled laboriously up over the Escarpment on the Portage Road, then re-loaded into ships above Niagara Falls for delivery by ship to military posts on the Upper Lakes. Whoever held the Niagara Peninsula, held all territory to the west.
Freemasonry was one of the foundations of Loyalist culture in this new colony of Upper Canada, particularly in the Niagara area. Loyalist units that had settled in Niagara after the Revolution, such as Butler’s Rangers, included numerous Masonic Brethren. Many soldiers of the British Regiments that garrisoned frontier posts such a Fort George in Newark, were members of military Masonic Lodges with traveling charters that allowed them to meet wherever the Regiment was posted. They also welcomed local civilian members into their Lodges.
The British Indian Department was headquartered at Fort George. This military organization was charged with maintaining the alliance between the Crown and the native warriors in British North America. A majority of the officers of the Indian Department were Freemasons; notable chiefs such as Joseph Brant of the Mohawk Nation of the Six Nations Confederacy, along with their principal warriors, were all Freemasons. When Joseph Brant died in 1807, his son John Brant and his adopted son John Norton both became war chiefs of the Mohawks and continued Joseph’s tradition of Freemasonry among the Iroquois. The Iroquois settlements were located along the Grand River, near modern day Brantford.
Freemasonry provided a unifying force among all these men of very diverse cultural backgrounds, and gave the pioneers a welcome sense of community. Given such a strong Masonic presence in Niagara, it is therefore not surprising that the first Masonic Lodge building in Upper Canada was constructed in Newark in 1791. John Ross Robertson, a noted Masonic historian wrote the following words.
“One might almost call the Niagara District the cradle of Masonry in Upper Canada, for its soil is indeed sacred to the cause of the Craft.”
One of the British Regular soldiers charged with protecting the Niagara frontier in 1812 was named James Fitz Gibbon. Born in Ireland, he spoke both Irish Gaelic and English. He enlisted in the 49th Regiment of Foot in 1797 at the age of 17, and served in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe as a Sergeant.
In 1802, the Regiment was posted to duty in Quebec, which gave Fitz Gibbon the opportunity to be made a Mason in Merchant’s Lodge # 40. Under the able military direction of his superior officer, Colonel Isaac Brock, Fitz Gibbon was promoted to Sergeant Major and eventually Lieutenant. The Regiment, along with Brock and Fitz Gibbon, was later posted to Upper Canada, and both men became familiar faces in the Niagara area.
It is an irony of history that Laura Ingersoll Secord, one of the most famous women in Canadian history, was not born in Canada. She was in fact born in 1775 in Great Barrington, in what was then the Crown Colony of Massachusetts. During the American Revolution, her father served in the American Army. However, after the Revolution, in 1795, he joined several thousand other Americans, popularly called “Late Loyalists” who were searching for new opportunities in Upper Canada.
Once settled in Upper Canada, Laura’s father, Brother Thomas Ingersoll, became an active Mason. He kept a tavern at Queenston, where Laura also worked. As was the custom in frontier communities, local Masons regularly held their meetings in one of the tavern’s private rooms. One night, after a Lodge meeting, Laura’s father brought home a young, newly made Mason named James Secord, and introduced him to his daughter. This young man was the son of a veteran officer from the Loyalist Regiment, Butler’s Rangers. They were immediately attracted to each other, married, and eventually set up their own home in Queenston. As a Mason in Niagara, James Secord was able to visit civilian and military Lodges in the area, and would have come to know Brother Fitz Gibbon of the 49th Regiment.
War of 1812 Declared:
On June 18, 1812, the world changed forever. On that day, President Madison, on behalf of the United States of America, declared war on his Britannic Majesty, George III. The United States in 1812 was a young aggressive nation of some 7,000,000 citizens. One of the key American military objectives in this war was the annexation by force of Upper Canada, a British colony of only 100,000 people. As many Americans believed, given these odds, victory would be:
“a mere matter of marching.”
Surprisingly for the Americans, the opening moves went in favour of the British. General Isaac Brock succeeded in capturing the American forts of Michilimacinac and Detroit. Brock became known as the hero of Upper Canada for these victories. Back on the Niagara Frontier, the Americans planned their next campaign.
On the morning of October 13, 1812, an American army of over 4,000 soldiers from New York State began the invasion of the Niagara Peninsula, crossing the Niagara River at the village of Queenston. They landed on the Canadian side of the River, and occupied the village. Later that day the Americans were defeated in a counter attack by a combined force of British regulars, Canadian militia and Iroquois warriors. Almost half of the American force was killed or captured, but at a tragic loss to the British. General Isaac Brock, the hero of Upper Canada, was killed in action. At this point we will turn to Laura’s perspective on the battle, in her own words.
“The cannon balls were flying around me in every direction. I left the place (village) during the engagement. After the battle, I returned to Queenston, and there found that my husband had been wounded, my house plundered, and property destroyed.”
Laura’s husband James served as a sergeant in the Lincoln militia. She found him near death, out on the battlefield of Queenston Heights. He was severely wounded, having been shot by an American musket ball lodged in his hip.
Next spring, the 1813 campaign began with powerful, well organized attacks by an American force that was determined to capture and subdue Upper Canada, once and for all. On April 27, the Americans captured the provincial capital of York, now known as Toronto. They destroyed Fort York, burned the provincial legislative buildings, and also the naval dockyard. On May 25, the American navy anchored at the mouth of the Niagara River. Their warships bombarded Fort George in a prelude to an all out invasion. May 27 witnessed a numerically superior force of Americans that landed on the beach, and after a savage battle succeeded in capturing Fort George, the town of Newark, the village of Queenston, and most of the Canadian side of the Niagara River.
Many of the Canadian residents fled from the American invaders towards Burlington Heights as refugees. However, given the seriousness of James Secord’s wound from Queenston Heights, he could not be moved. The Secord family were forced to endure American occupation, with American officers billeted in their home.
At this point, Lieutenant James Fitz Gibbon comes into our story. He had been given the command of a Ranger Corp called the Green Tigers, with orders to harass and attack the Americans occupying the Niagara Peninsula. In this important work, he turned for support to his familiar Masonic Brethren in the Iroquois settlements, specifically Chiefs John Brant and John Norton. The Green Tigers learned much about bush warfare techniques from Brother Norton’s and Brant’s Iroquois, with whom they actively campaigned. Fitz Gibbon’s military headquarters was a stone house at the Beaver Dams, 12 miles west of Queenston, near present day Thorold.
One of the Americans in the occupying force was Colonel Cyrenius Chapin of Buffalo, New York. He commanded an irregular group of American volunteers who roamed throughout the Niagara area, supposedly looking for British forces, but also plundering Canadian farms. He became known to the local settlers as “Charlie Chapin and his band of 40 thieves.” Fitz Gibbon took a particular dislike to Chapin’s tactics and attacked him at every opportunity. At one point Fitz Gibbon personally captured Chapin’s sentries right in front of the American camp. The Green Tigers and their Iroquois allies were so effective in disrupting the American occupation that the Americans, especially Chapin, were determined to destroy Fitz Gibbon, once and for all.
A plan was therefore developed by the Americans to launch a surprise attack with an overwhelming military force on the Green Tigers’ camp at the Beaver Dams. Colonel Boerstler, a regular officer of the 14th US Infantry, was put in command of the operation.
While preparations for the attack were under way, several American officers were billeted in part of the Secord homestead. The Secord family employed 2 free black servants, Pete and Floss, who were forced to serve dinner to these American officers, including Colonel Chapin. The Americans became so rude and abusive to the black servants during dinner that Laura took over serving herself. At dinner, Chapin loudly boasted to his comrades how the Americans were going to attack and destroy Fitz Gibbon’s Ranger Corp along with his Iroquois allies.
Laura, having overheard the plans, informed James. He immediately recognized the grave danger to the British in general, and to his Masonic Brother Fitz Gibbon in particular. The couple both agreed that Fitz Gibbon had to be warned. However, James was still recovering from his serious wounds from Queenston Heights, and was unable to make the trek to the Beaver Dams. It was determined that the only choice was for Laura to carry the news to warn Fitz Gibbon.
Such a trip, alone and on foot, was a most dangerous undertaking. The country a few miles inland from the Niagara River was still a virgin wilderness, with a huge swamp occupying much of the interior. This swamp was infested with rattlesnakes and packs of wolves. The possibility of encountering an American patrol only added to the risk. The road to the Beaver Dams was not much more than a trail in places. As the crow flies. the distance was about 12 miles, but Laura wisely decided to travel overland through the bush and swamp to avoid American patrols. Thus her journey would cover almost 20 miles.
Consequently, early the next morning, June 22, Laura drove her cow to pasture through the American lines to deceive the sentries. She then abandoned the cow and started out through the bush towards the Beaver Dams. At roughly the same time, Boerstler’s enemy force began their expedition. Laura later recalled the trek in her own words.
“ I left early in the morning and walked 19 miles over a rough and difficult part of the country, when I came upon a field in the neighbourhood of Beaver Dam. By this time, daylight had left me. Here I found all the Indians encamped. By moonlight the scene was terrifying. Upon advancing to the Indians they all arose and with some yells said woman, which made me tremble. I cannot express the awful feelings 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 and made him understand that I had great news for (Lieutenant) Fitz Gibbon and that he must let me pass to his camp, or that he and his party would all be taken. The chief consented to accompany me to Fitz Gibbon’s station, 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 on the troops under his command, and would from their superior numbers capture them all.”
Fitz Gibbon was amazed by the efforts that Laura had made to reach him. She had lost both shoes crossing the swamp and bush, her clothing was in tatters, and she was obviously exhausted. He later recalled.
“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 might suffer in health in consequence of fatigue and anxiety, she having been exposed to danger from the enemy through whose lines of communication she had to pass.”
Fitz Gibbon immediately placed the Green Tigers and their Iroquois allies on high alert. He ordered his small force to split up into scouting parties, to spot the advance of the enemy, and lay a trap for the attackers.
American forces en route to capture Fitz Gibbon were indeed an impressive, superior force, with 700 soldiers of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. They vastly outnumbered the British and Iroquois.
A scouting party of Iroquois initially discovered the enemy on the morning of June 24 on the dirt road running through the beechwood forest. They quickly surrounded the Americans in a surprise attack by cutting off the road in front of and behind the American column. Trapped on the open road, the Americans were easy targets for the Iroquois who fired at them and launched sorties against them from the cover of the beechwood forest. Unable to retreat or advance, Colonel Boerstler ordered his soldiers to fire musket volleys and cannon shot into the beech woods in an effort to keep the Iroquois from overwhelming his force. Perhaps as many as 80 to 150 Iroquois warriors were engaged in the skirmishing at the height of the action.
Still, the Iroquois pressed home their attacks, reinforced by other Iroquois on patrols in the area, who had heard the noise of the battle and rushed to assist. The American Army, far from their home base, surrounded by hostile Iroquois warriors, began to run low on ammunition. However, the Americans were not inclined to surrender to the Iroquois as they feared a massacre as prisoners. Perhaps they recalled that their own American government in 1812 had offered a bounty of $5.00 for the scalp of any Indian man, woman, or child. What they did not know was
that many of the warriors were themselves running low on ammunition.
Fitz Gibbon was leading a patrol in the bush when he heard the noise of musket and cannon fire. Arriving on the scene, with about 40 of his Rangers, he saw that the battle was at stalemate. While the Iroquois could not overwhelm the Americans, neither could the Americans fight their way out of the jaws of the trap.
Advancing under a flag of truce, Fitz Gibbon advanced to the American position and boldly demanded the surrender of Colonel Boerstler and his entire force. Boerstler demanded to see Fitz Gibbon’s superior officer, to which Fitz Gibbon refused, saying he had full authority to broker any surrender arrangements. Using almost the exact logic that Brock had used to demand the surrender of the American Fort Detroit, he said that not only were more British soldiers on the way, but that a new war party of Native warriors from the west would soon arrive on the scene. Once these warriors joined the fight, he would be unable to control them, and a massacre of the Americans could result.
At some point during the surrender negotiations Fitz Gibbon became aware that Colonel Boerstler and his second in command were also Masons, and assured them of his Masonic protection as prisoners of war. He would also have been able to inform the Americans that the Iroquois warriors present included many Masons, who would respect the concept of protecting a Brother in Distress. This promise of Masonic protection helps explain why the Americans would eventually surrender their entire force of 700 soldiers, in the middle of the wilderness, accompanied as they were by so many potentially hostile Iroquois allies.
The Action at the Beaver Dam was a major setback for the Americans. Although they were still in possession of the Canadian side of the Niagara River, they never ventured very far from Fort George again. Sensing the feeling of demoralization within the American forces occupying the Niagara area, the British kept up a continual pressure of guerilla warfare style attacks on the American positions. The American commander, seeing his forces being harassed and pushed back day by day, wrote in despair to his superiors from the safety of Fort George.
“ this (American) army lies panic struck, shut up, and whipped in, all by a few hundred miserable savages”
After the Battle:
When the news of the victory at Beaver Dam reached Merchant’s Masonic Lodge in Quebec, the brethren drafted and sent Fitz Gibbon a formal resolution of congratulation dated August 12, 1813.
“The members of Lodge no 40 feel that they are called upon to express their admiration of the judgment and bravery of Lieut. Fitz Gibbon, who they have the satisfaction of taking by the hand as a member of their society.”
As a reward for his services at the Beaver Dam, Fitz Gibbon was promoted to Captain. He survived the War, and became a leading figure in Upper Canadian politics, serving as a Colonel in the Rebellion of 1837. He also continued his Masonic career after the War, and was appointed Deputy Provincial Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Upper Canada in 1822-1823.
The Iroquois from Grand River continued until the end of the War as valuable allies of the British. By the end of the War, their support had cost the lives of at least 50% of all their men of military age. Few of them, except for some senior chiefs, ever received much credit for their contributions. Mohawk Chief Norton, although a Masonic Brother, and loyal comrade in arms of Fitz Gibbon, made this ironic comment.
“The Mohawks did the fighting but Fitz Gibbon got the credit.”
And what happened to Laura and James Secord? Laura’s trek was not recorded in the official dispatch from the battlefield that day, and she was always shy about boasting of her exploits, but she still became an Upper Canadian folk heroine. Fitz Gibbon wrote an official account of the Battle in 1857, clearly outlining Laura’s contribution, to set the story straight and to urge the government to award her a pension as a veteran of the Beaver Dam. Finally, she was presented to the Prince of Wales during his 1860 visit to Canada, as a true heroine of the War. James eventually recovered from his war wound. The Provincial Legislature awarded him the position of Collector of Customs at Chippewa.
The War of 1812 was truly a defining moment in Canadian history. A determined, but badly outnumbered force of British regulars, Canadian Militia, Indian Department warriors, plus local citizens both men and women, successfully united against the foreign invaders. Many of the Canadians involved were Masons, or spouses of Masons. They thereby laid the foundation for Canada to evolve in North America as a distinct, separate national entity from the United States. As we have seen, the contributions of Freemasons to our development as a nation is a continuous thread that runs deep within our history.
Today, 200 years later, it is hard for many Canadians or Americans to grasp the fact that such a destructive and tragic event as the War of 1812 ever took place on Canadian territory. Nevertheless, this War did take place. Once bitter enemies, Canada and the United States are now each other’s strongest allies and trading partners. Our 2 countries serve as an example to the world. We learned the lesson, the hard way, that international differences can be settled without resort to force of arms.