June 24, 2021
As the War of 1812 entered its second year the Americans had opened the campaign with two quick victories. On April 27th 1813 they had won The Battle of York, capturing the town as well, but had retreated on May 8th to focus their resources on capturing the Niagara Peninsula. On May 27th they landed near Fort George and succeeded in capturing it. Rather than chase the retreating British, the Americans took their time and only reached Stoney Creek on the 5th of June. A daring attack under cover of night led to the British winning The Battle of Stoney Creek and the Americans retreating back to Fort George. We pick up the story a couple weeks later with the key players located as indicated on the Google Earth capture below. The Americans under Brigadier General John Parker Boyd were in Fort George and the British advance guard were at Decew (DeCou) House. Laura Secord was at her family homestead in Queenston.
The Americans were anxious to break out of Fort George and engage the British forces in an attempt to regain momentum. They decided to send 600 soldiers under the command of Colonel Charles Boestler to capture the 50 British troops that were positioned at Beaver Dams.
Meanwhile, Laura Secord was living at this little one story Georgian Cottage since 1803 and would continue to do so until 1835. Her home had already been invaded and ransacked by the American army during the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812. Following the victory at Fort George, several officers had been billeted at the Secord home. When Laura overheard plans to make an attack on the British advanced post at Decew House she decided she needed to alert them to the danger. She set out on a 32 kilometer journey on June 22, 1813. One story has her bringing a cow along in case she was questioned and needed an alibi about doing farm work. On a side note, her house was in poor shape by 1971 when the Laura Secord Chocolate Company renovated it in her honour and later donated it to the Niagara Parks Commission.
James FitzGibbon was stationed at John Decew’s stone house near Beaver Dams with one company of the 49th Foot soldiers. After passing through woods and swamps Secord was able to reach him with the aid of some Natives that she encountered. She was able to warn him of the impending attack. The Decew house would have looked much as it did in 1925 in this photo from Wikipedia.
The Decew house was damaged by a fire in 1938 and sat boarded up until 1950 when it was destroyed by another fire. It then was declared as a National Historic Site, somewhat belatedly. The walls were reduced to the height of the window sills and given a concrete topping to hold them together. The basement was filled in with rubble and flag stones laid down for a floor. There’s a plaque installed to describe the history of the house.
Early in the morning of June 24th the Americans set out from Fort George and after passing St. David’s they found a trail to the top of the escarpment. About 300 Khanawakhe (Christianized Mohawks) and another other 100 Mohawks began to close in on the American troops and began to set an ambush. When the Natives opened fire and wounded the American Colonel they sent the troops into a panic for fear of being scalped. This is when FitzGibbons rode onto the battlefield under a white flag of truce. He convinced the wounded Boestler that if he didn’t surrender the Natives would run wild and slaughter the entire American contingent. Based on this claim a surrender was negotiated even though the American troops could have probably carried the day if they had called the bluff. The cairn pictured below was erected in Battle of Beaverdams Park to commemorate the events.
After the battle the Mowhawks claimed 5 dead and 20 wounded while there were 25 Americans killed and 50 of the 489 prisoners taken were wounded. An obelisk was erected in 1874 to mark the graves of 16 unidentified American soldiers that were buried on the battlefield. It was moved to the new Battle of Beaverdams Park in 1976.
Following this battle the Americans would be demoralized and confined to Fort George. For the Americans, the Niagara Peninsula campaign was over for the year. They continued to send out small scouting parties to keep an eye on the British but when they encountered a large reconnaissance force on December 10th they feared an attack was being planned. Brigadier-General George McClure decided to abandon the fort and ordered a retreat across the Niagara River.
First Nations People don’t celebrate wars or victories the way that white people do. They don’t want to relive the battle and usually won’t participate in re-enactments. Their idea is to celebrate the peace that follows the struggle. The Peace Monument at Decew House Heritage Park is intended to help generate an deeper understanding of First Nations People and their culture as well as their contributions to the founding of Canada. The memorial has a couple of children’s stuffed toys in memorial to the recent finding of 215 children buried in a Residential School in B.C.
The Bruce Trail leads directly to Decew House and then to Decew Falls. Decew House is one end of the Laura Secord Legacy Trail with the other end being at her home in Queenston. The trail is 32 kilometers long (20 miles) and is a close approximation of the very route she took as she walked into history. It can be walked in its entirety but has been broken up into five convenient sections for trail users.
The Laura Secord Legacy Trail is described in detail on the Friends Of Laura Secord website.
The Battle of Beaverdams Park is not the actual location of the battle field which was on the other side of the Thorold Tunnel. This new park was created in 1976 on land reclaimed when the Second Welland Canal was drained and filled in. The name “Beaver Dams” was contracted into a single word for the park name. The sides of Lock 25 can be seen in the picture below and it was the highest elevation Escarpment lock on the canal, which had opened in 1845. The monuments were moved from the actual battlefield to this site but the American soldiers remain interred where they’ve lain for over two centuries.
The anchor on display in the park is also a reminder of the days when ships used to pass through here on their way between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Details of the War of 1812 many be unknown to many Canadians but few people haven’t heard of Laura Secord because she has become a celebrated heroine of the conflict. Or is it just because of the candy store? We hope not.
Other War of 1812 Stories: Battle Of Queenston Heights, Battle of York, Battle of Stoney Creek
Google Maps Link: Battle of Beaverdams Park, Fort George, Laura Secord House, Decew House
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According to a book I have originally published in 1887 entitled “History of Welland County” Laura Secord did not have a cow with her on her journey. “The inhabitants of Queenston were strictly prohibited from passing beyond the line of sentries, which were established around the place. Yet all their precautions were destined to be foiled by the shrewdness and patriotism of a Canadian woman……….A pasture field containing a number of cows lay just beyond the line of sentinals and she easily succeeded in passing them with a milk pail on her arm. The cows proved restless and she cleverly guided them behind a clump of elder bushes, which concealed her from view. The resolute woman then dropped her pail and began her lonely twenty-mile walk…..(page 95 ).