By Barry Kentner and Terry Pettee
Michigan shares more of its border with Canada than with any one contiguous American state. From the counties of St. Clair south to Monroe, the shores of America’s great friend and ally is always within sight.
Many Americans, and perhaps some Canadians as well, would be surprised to know our two nations remember and honor those who served their country in uniform on the same day, November 11. Since World War I through to the present, Americans and Canadians soldiers have fought side by side to assure the freedom of both nations.
Having been a lifelong resident of Michigan, the distinction of us as citizens of foreign soils has blurred. We work, worship, play and connect in ways that subject citizenry to the realm of an afterthought if given any thought at all. Kinship in a myriad of ways has me thinking of my neighbors across our dividing waterways more as brothers and sisters than as distant cousins.
As with any family, there is always history. Some history lies buried and bitter. Perhaps sometimes, it is a good thing to remember the buried and bitter to gain a better perspective on the present.
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Thomas Jefferson is remembered as an iconic figure of American history. You may be surprised to learn that Jefferson aspired to acquire Canada as an American territory. In a letter dated August 4, 1812, to a confidante, while Secretary of State to President James Madison, Jefferson wrote the following.
“The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and final expulsion of England from the American Continent.”
In September of 1812, the American and British navies fought the Battle of Lake Erie. The defeat of the British gained American control of the Great Lakes. The American naval blockade of the Great Lakes cut off strategic supplies to Fort Detroit forcing the British to retreat into Ontario. The next year American forces invaded Ontario meeting the British, Canadian and Indian forces near Chatham.
The American forces then secured and maintained control of a portion of southern Ontario throughout the remainder of the war. Jefferson’s dream and ambition to annex Canada to the United States and drive the British out of North American seemed within the realm of possibility.
Canada’s freedom from foreign occupation required the selfless sacrifice of many patriots. Two unlikely patriots symbolize selfless sacrifice. One patriot was an indigenous born man and the other a woman of English descent. Both were born in locations that would eventually become the United States. Both were forced to leave the land of their birth and to seek shelter in Canada.
Many Americans are familiar with Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. Few probably know Tecumseh was born in the Ohio Valley in 1768. At the Revolutionary War’s end, the newly independent Americans turned to the settlement of western lands beyond the Appalachians. The Shawnee and Cherokee of the western regions were slowly forced from the lands they held for more than a millennium. In the northwest Michigan Territory, the Miami, Potawatomi, Fox, Chippewa, Iroquois, Ojibwa and other Native American tribes lost control of their traditional homeland to the expanding population of Americans. Many people of different tribal nations sought refuge in Canada, as did Tecumseh along with many Shawnee.
Tecumseh was an unprecedented orator convincing the tribal nations to set aside their differences and unite together against the western migration of Americans. He envisioned a nation comprised of indigenous people spanning the mid-west along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River far north into Canada. For their aid to the British, the promise was made to fulfill Tecumseh’s vision once the war was won.
Tecumseh and the tribal nations that followed his leadership aided in the conquest of Fort Detroit, a crucial port to control of the Great Lakes. The American Navy eliminated that strategic British advantage forcing the evacuation of southeastern Michigan.
A numerically superior, well-supplied force of American soldiers extended the war to Canadian soil in 1813. In the Battle of the Thames, near Chatham, Ontario the American Army led by the future U.S. President William Henry Harrison defeated the smaller force of British, Canadian and tribal nations, gaining a foothold in southern Ontario that they would maintain throughout the war. In that battle, Tecumseh was killed ending the alliance among the tribal nations and any hope of a homeland for the indigenous people of North America.
It is unlikely that many outside Canada will recognize the name, Laura Ingersoll Secord. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1775 Laura Ingersoll was a sixth generation Colonial. Thomas Ingersoll, Laura’s father, remained loyal to the British Crown throughout the Revolutionary War. Continually persecuted for his views and activities during the war, Ingersoll was forced to move his family to Canada in 1796.
In Canada, Laura Ingersoll met and married James Secord. During the war of 1812, James Secord served in the Canadian Lincoln Militia near Niagara, Ontario. Gravely wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights, Secord was about to be bludgeoned to death by American soldiers when wife Laura came to his rescue. When an American Captain happened upon the scene, he reprimanded the soldiers for their intended brutality and spared James Secord’s life. Laura Secord spent the next several months nursing her husband back to health.
The facts regarding Laura Secord’s most famous exploits are shrouded in mystery. How she came to hear of American plans to attack British and Canadian soldiers at Beaver Dam is not known. Twenty miles of wilderness and isolated villages lie between Queenston and the encamped British and allied troops. Legend has it Laura used the pretext of herding a cow south as she set-out on foot to relay the warning of the American plan.
Not knowing exactly the location of British and Canadian troops she wandered through the wilderness to small villages and then again through the wilderness. By providence, she happened upon an encampment of Mohawk Warriors loyal to the British. The Mohawks led Laura Secord to her intended destination. Her advance warning enabled the British and allied troops to prepare and repulse the American surprise attack. No mention of Laura Secord’s valiant efforts ever made it into the official report of the Battle of Beaver Dam. Nevertheless, her brave action may have contributed considerably to the events of history.
The American occupation of Queenston financially devastated the James and Laura Secord family. The Secord’s struggled to survive on a small military service pension until James’ death and then Laura lived off the charity of her children and a meager income earned as a tutor.
The tribal nations of North America were established several millennia before the arrival of Europeans. In a period of little more than 200 years, by some estimates, the indigenous population was reduced by ninety percent.
Tecumseh stands alone as a leader who attempted to unite the tribal nations in the hope of preserving their heritage, tradition, and independence. His death marked the end of any hope of the co-existence of the indigenous people and the settlers come to establish a new nation comprised of global immigrants.
Laura Ingersoll Secord, like Tecumseh, who for reasons of politics and war was forced to leave the place of her birth. Both demonstrated courage and patriotism on behalf of their cause. Each has earned the right to be remembered in history as heroes.
At the end of the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent reverted all borders to those before the war began. It took decades of healing before the peace between the great nations of America and Canada was accomplished. As it is with many families, healing often serves to strengthen the bonds of affection and respect.
May God grant it always be so between we who share a common border. It is right and proper our mutual nations remember on November 11, those who fought and paid the price of the freedom we both enjoy.
Barry Kentner was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1935 and schooled to Grade 10, but continued educational pursuits until age 65 when he graduated from Open Word Bible College. He started working for Spitzer and Mills advertising in 1952, then moved to the Broadcast arena where for 62 years he was News Director and Talk Show Host at several Canadian Radio Stations. He was one of 5 consultants who managed to lobby for Christian Radio in Canada, and in the last five years before retirement, he was News Director of Canadian Altar.Net News, a network of 25 Christian Radio Stations across Canada from Charlottetown PEI to Campbell River BC.
Barry is a semi-retired pastor living in Dresden, Ontario.
Terry Pettee is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where his undergraduate study prepared him for a career in secondary education. Prior to attending EMU, he was Editor-In-Chief of the Erie Square Gazette while a student at the St. Clair County Community College. Between his community college and university years he was Marysville Editor of the St. Clair County Independent Press where he was a newspaper reporter and columnist. After a brief teaching stint his life’s journey led him into human resource and industrial relations management; a career spanning four decades. Now retired, Terry writes both Christian value based fiction and non-fiction for his own amusement, which is babble-speak for saying he has only a single published book to his credit.