Or Who You Would Come Accross if You Sailed the Texas 200 in the 1800s
Jean Lafitte led the perfect pirate's life. He was probably born in Haiti around 1765, after the birth of his brother, Pierre. His mother may have taken herself and the boys to New Orleans around 1780, as we know she married Pedro Aubrey, a merchant of the port. Pierre was old enough to be given to other relatives, but Jean stayed with his mother and step-father.
The young Jean spent his days and nights poling the bays and bayous of the port and coastline, till everyone knew he had the greatest knowledge of the bayou country south of New Orleans. He knew every inlet like he knew the lines on his hand. In the shadowy night, his eyes memorized the brush pathways, the tide's water rippling among shoals, the shifting depths and sand bars just beneath a calm water's surface.
While young Jean watched ships of all countries come and go, Pierre was back in Saint-Domingo, as a privateer. Saint-Domingo issued letters of marque almost flippantly. The islanders relied on stealing other country's goods, then selling them to merchandisers. It was piracy twisted by sarcasm. Jean probably helped his brother distribute the merchandise. The picture is of a lonely shack on an old wood dock where long skiffs and flat-bottomed boats eased their way through the night for a rendezvous. With candlelight, stolen crates were lowered onto these boats while the Lafittes counted their profits. By 1805 Jean had come to New Orleans to run a warehouse where stolen property was locked until sale. It is thought the warehouse was on Royal Street.
Jean Lafitte was handsome, slick, he handled the dockside ladies, he knew what a knife could do, he got away with everything he did. Jean probably spend his young manhood at sea on his step-father's ships, as Aubrey was a known trader. Jean must have been a superior sailor and navigator.
By 1805 Louisiana was a US territory. But the government off in Washington had imposed an embargo prohibiting any American ship from docking at a foreign port. This would have destroyed trade in New Orleans. So the Lafittes went south to the island of Barataria. The Gulf of Barataria extended out into the Gulf of Mexico, far south of New Orleans.
Here, merchant ships could sail into the Gulf of Barataria without being seen. From the island, after money changed hands, the merchandise was crated up into bateaus, pirogues and shallow bottomed barges to weave their way through the bayous and tiny islands to the city. And Jean could sail his own ships to any port and back to Barataria.
Pierre stayed in New Orleans, cultivating smuggling contacts and exchange-men with a twirl of his moustache. Jean stayed on the island of Barataria outfitting the privateering ships and arranging the smuggling of stolen goods. By 1810 the Lafittes were so rich, they didn't need America. Seamen of all countries flocked to the island, looking for any kind of work like desperate crows on a carcass. Men like Renato Beluch, Chigazola Nez Coupe, Domonique Youx, Gaston Leinweber, and Vincente Giambolo lurked along the shore, watching for unarmed ships. By 1812 the Lafittes and the island of pirates, privateers and smugglers were known too well. Pierre suffered a stroke. The War of 1812 came, so the US issued letters of marque against the British. New Orleans issued 6 letters to Lafitte's men on Barataria. Jean bought a schooner, hired a captain, to sail it as a privateer. Goods from the British ships taken went to New Orleans; goods from any other ships went to Lafitte.
This the US government in New Orleans didn't like. Lafitte was costing the American authorities too much in the way of goods and tariffs. Lafitte was charged by the US with 'violation of the revenue law.' The US went after Lafitte on the island of Barataria, capturing Jean and Pierre along with several thousand dollars of contraband. But the rich privateers posted bond and escaped. They probably laughed at the District Attorney John Grymes at such an easy flight from prison.
So while Jean and Pierre had letters of marque by the federal government, they were chased by the Louisiana government. This underhanded round of secrecy was the style of the age. It created rich low-class men admired for their plots and inept governments unable to keep the law. Pirates were rich, governors languished.
Privateer etched in wood by a seaman.
Jean bought La Brig Golette de Diligente to establish himself as a privateer, simply a ruse to keep any goods taken from foreign ships. This continued flouting of American law incensed Governor Claiborne who issued a $500 reward for the capture of Lafitte. So Jean offered a $5000 prize for the capture of the Governor. Neither reward was ever paid.
With Pierre in jail, Jean pulled off a series of maneuvers whose slippery success was admired. In 1814 the HMS Sophie fired on one of the smuggling ships returning to Barataria, with Jean on board. He ordered the ship grounded in shallow water where the Sophie could not go. The British captain with men rowed their dingy out to meet Jean and his men, also in a boat. The British army captain McWilliams gave Jean a package of several letters. Both dingys rowed to the Barataria island. In one letter King George III offered Lafitte and his men British citizenship and land if he would help the British win the War of 1812. If Lafitte refused the British would destroy Barataria. The second letter was from McWilliams' superior urging Lafitte to take the offer.
Lafitte knew through his spies that the US Commodore Daniel Patterson was planning to attack Barataria. So Lafitte needed to convince Patterson and the Americans they had nothing to fear from him. Jean wrote to the Americans saying he would not side with the British and his brother was still in jail, awaiting 'early release.' Within a few days of receiving Jean's letter, Pierre 'escaped' from the American jail.
But Patterson was coming to destroy Barataria. Lafitte's pirates put up a slight struggle, then fled. Patterson's men took the island, several ships and $500,000 in goods. In a court hearing over who gets the goods and the ships, the judge gave the profits from the goods to Patterson but gave the ships to the US marshall.
Battle of New Orleans.
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Lafitte might have been trapped between the British and the Americans, but for the War of 1812. General Andrew Jackson came to New Orleans to organize its' defense against the British. No one in the city knew the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed, creating peace between the US and England. The British Navy was far more concerned with Napolen than America, although that would change in the future. Jackson met with Jean Lafitte, who offered to serve if Jackson would pardon his sailors. Jackson agreed, as well he should have. Lafittes' men were instrumental in repulsing the British with their accurate cannon and rifle fire. On February 6, 1814 Jean and Pierre Lafitte and his men received their full pardon for fighting the British as they had been doing on the sea as privateers and pirates.
But the war was over. Now Jean could ignore any British threat to Barataria but he was no longer needed by the US government. New Orleans would never again be the haven it had been without any war to manipulate. So the Lafittes fled to Galveston.
Spain was engaged in the Mexican War of Independence. Galveston, named after a Spanish nobleman, Galvez, was close to Mexico but owned by Texas. So Jean and Pierre acted as spies for Spain - just change flags and accents. While Pierre kept the Spanish informed in New Orleans, Jean sailed for Galveston Island. The island was the port for the pirate Louis-Michel d'Aury, who would tell any fool he was a Mexican revolutionary. The Mexican government had appointed him ruler of Texas and Galveston, if they won the war.
By 1817 Mexican revolutionaries congregated on the island, hoping the island would become part of Mexico if Spain lost the war. Like political leeches, they waited to see who would win the war. These men lounged with liquor and women, they languished shooting at any tree branch, they brawled for fun. d'Aury had 12 ships and 500 men to raid on Spanish ships under the Mexican flag. He knew he had to make a name for himself somehow, so he chose the Mexican cause. He left with 11 ships and all his men to aid the Mexican general Mina. When he returned, Lafitte had taken over Galveston. The revolutionary who used others had been used by a pirate.
By April, 1817 Lafitte sailed to New Orleans to tell the Spanish he had routed the revolutionaries out of Galveston. Then he returned to the island. With the end of the War of Mexican Independence, two wars had ceased. Lafitte's men saw no warships on the horizon. So Jean built up Galveston as his own little country. He had 200 men and a few women there. They were required to swear an oath of allegiance to Lafitte himself, since he still feared a Spanish invasion. He created letters of marque from a fictitious nation. But no war came, no warships appeared on the horizon, there was no booty to capture.
The world was changing. In 1818 the US passed a law prohibiting slavery, but the law had several intentional loopholes. Lafitte's ships could attack any slave ship, take the slaves and sell them in the US. The profit would go to Lafitte. However, after a few years the immorality of slavery was balanced by tragedy on Galveston. A battle between the Galveston men and the Karankawa Indians ensued. A hurricane covered the island with seawater, killing several and destroying ships and most buildings. In 1821 the US sent the schooner Enterprise after Lafitte.
Enterprise battle image Enterprise is on the left.
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Lafitte volunteered to leave Galveston after burning it down. He left on his flagships, the Pride, with two ships alongside. His last great escapade was to capture a Spanish ship and its' cargo. Lafitte's men sailed the ship to Galveston, buried treasure on the island, hoping the ship's goods would be smuggled to Pierre in New Orleans. But fate intervened. An American patrol ships spotted the Spanish ship, captured half of Lafitte's men and the buried treasure. Jean had to take to the seas as a pirate. He continued to take Spanish ships, returning to Galveston or Barataria to drop off the stolen goods to Pierre and pick up supplies.
By 1821 Jean Lafitte had no country. He set himself up in Cuba until 1822 when Cuba banned attacking ships carrying goods to Cuba. So Jean sailed to Columbia. Lafitte was given permission to attack Spanish ships, he was even given a Columbian ship, the 42 ton armed General Santander. But sailing so far from the US, he put himself in the Spanish shipping lanes where their warships protected their merchant ships.
The General Santander was captured in 1823. During the battle, Lafitte was wounded for the first time in his lucky life. His invincibility was now just a shadow. He died the next morning. He was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras. No American newspaper carried an obituary for Jean Lafitte.
Pride painted after Lafitte's death property of Pennsylvania Historical Society.
This article could not have been written without Wikipedia and two historians. William Davis and Jack Ramsey both wrote books on Lafitte. Davis says Lafitte's death was a blessing. The world was changing, Americans were moving west, the seas were not free for piracy as they had been. The rise of the American Navy played a great role in breaking up slavery and piracy. With Napolean gone, the British and French ships did not venture to American shores, and our Navy was the equal or superior to any in the world.
Since 1957 Lake Charles, Louisiana has had a festival called Contraband Days in honor of Lafitte. There is a Jean Lafitte Society on the internet. The character Basil Rathbone played in the movie Captain Blood, Levoisier, may have been inspired by Jean Lafitte. A movie about Lafitte came out in the 1950s, starring Yul Brynner as Lafitte and Charleton Heston as Andrew Jackson.