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Jean Lafitte - A "Hero" Pirate

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By John R. Spears, 1903

  

 

Jean LafitteOn an unrecorded day between the  purchase of the Louisiana Territory, in 1803, and the year 1810, two brothers named Jean and Pierre Lafitte came to New Orleans and opened a blacksmith shop on the north side of St. Pierre Street, between Bourbon and Dauphine, wherein slaves were employed to do the pounding, while the proprietors looked for customers and made the collections.


Because of the changing circumstances of its previous existence New Orleans was a remarkable town. It had been founded by a man who had observed that the site was convenient for carrying on a trade with Spanish America contrary to Spanish law, and the smuggling trade received every encouragement until France ceded Louisiana to Spain, in 1702. Thereafter, many citizens turned to the French and British colonies for illicit commerce; and when the people of the Atlantic coast had settled in the Ohio Valley, traffic was opened with them. Every man in old New Orleans was cognizant of the smuggling business, and many, including the officials of the town, were actually engaged in it.


Naturally, smuggling was continued after New Orleans became an American city, but it was not until after the year 1808 that the trade reached its flood tide. For in that year the importation of slaves become unlawful. The price of a prime individual on the African coast, in those days, was not above 20 dollars; but if offered in the market at New Orleans, with a clear title, he was worth a $1000. The world never saw a more tempting opportunity for smugglers than the slave trade offered.


New Orleans was a frontier town as well as a seaport. Vast stretches of virgin land lay behind it, and settlers with money were flocking in to plant cotton, sugar cane, and tobacco. The demand for slaves far outran the supply.


Now. the smugglers carried on their trade by means of boats, which were driven through the many waterways around New Orleans, and every such boat needed blacksmith work at one time or another. It was a natural thing for the smugglers to patronize the Lafitte shop, once it was opened, for both brothers had been sailors and officers on privateers, and knew well the kind of work needed on boats of all kinds.


Very soon the Lafittes learned that the smugglers obtained their slaves from slavers trading between Africa and the Spanish West Indies. The slaves were usually landed on Grande Terre Island in Barataria Bay, and were then carried through the bayous to a market along the Mississippi River. It was a very profitable traffic, but to the mind of Jean Lafitte, who was the better business man of the two brothers, it was managed in ways that wasted far too much of the profits. The men engaged in the business were all men of small means; they worked independently, and they paid more than was necessary for the "goods" in which they dealt. Jean Lafitte saw that a general recognition of a "community of interests" would promote the general prosperity, and he organized what was practically a smugglers' trust.


The Trust and Its Methods


Barataria Preserve todaySome time in 1810 the Lafitte brothers abandoned their smithy. Jean Lafitte went to Barataria to become the leader of the smugglers who gathered the goods, while Pierre remained in New Orleans and took charge of the sales department.

 

Under Jean's directions the smugglers united their forces, and then, instead of buying from Cuban slave traders, they went afloat in well armed, well manned vessels that lay in wait off the Cuban coast and intercepted the slave ships coming from Africa. This kind of a  purchase," as the old buccaneers called such a transaction, was entirely suited to the men under Lafitte, for the buccaneer spirit of hatred for the Spaniards had come down to them.


The success of Jean Lafitte's work was at once so great that the Governor of Louisiana took note of it in September, 1810, by means of an official proclamation denouncing "the open and daring course which is now pursued by the brigands who infest our coast." Two whole cargoes of slaves had been brought through Barataria Bay in August and sold along the Mississippi River. More than a hundred of them were purchased and held in New Orleans.


The Governor's proclamation merely advertised the "extensive and well laid plan" which Jean Lafitte had laid for supplying the needy planters with slaves at very low prices for cash. Purchasers flocked to Barataria, and schooners of the long, low, rakish class, and feluccas that were lower and more rakish still, were sent in growing fleets to rob the Spanish slavers.

 

 

 

 

 

From robbing slavers to robbing lawful merchantmen was a short step quickly taken. "It was ascertained," said a Treasury Department document of the period, "that vessels clearing out from this port (New Orleans) with passengers, have been captured and every soul murdered. They took indiscriminately vessels of every nation, and the fact was perfectly known."

The Pirates' Headquarters


Pirate FleetIn his prosperity, Lafitte built a fort on Grande Terre Island with a home inside its walls, and many houses for resorts that were attractive to the seamen who manned his piratical ships. His wealth increased and his influence spread. A fleet numbering at least 10 vessels was under his command within a year or two. The number of men who obeyed his orders was officially stated at from 800 to 1,000, according to the season. The lawless hordes of the West Indies gathered to do the bidding of this one man at the pirate resort..


"A well made, handsome man" was Jean Lafitte, as one who knew him well once said. He was "about six feet two inches in height, strongly built; he had large hazel eyes, black hair, and he generally wore a mustache. His favorite dress was a species of green uniform, with an otter skin cap which he wore a little over the right eye. He was gentlemanly in his deportment, of sober habits, and very thoughtful. Independently of his own language, he spoke Spanish and English fluently.


"When roused he could be desperate indeed, and was a good swordsman and unerring shot. There was no adventurous love tale to tell of him," but he "had a criolla mistress, a native of New Orleans. His table was well but not prodigally supplied. There was much order and regularity in his household affairs, and there was an abundance of plate, linen, etcetera."


Until 1814 Jean Lafitte ruled his pirate kingdom with but little interference from government officers. An occasional raid was attempted by United States marshals, but they were always defeated. After one fight, in which Lafitte commanded in person, he said to the revenue officers who survived:


"I desire you to know that I am averse to such strifes, but at the same time you must distinctly understand that I prefer losing my life rather than my goods."


Meantime, in spite of the raids, Jean Lafitte came and went between New Orleans and Barataria at pleasure. The government officials often learned when he was in town. Appeals made by honest merchants for the suppression of the gang that undermined their trade went unheeded until 1814, and then, when an indictment was drawn by the United States district attorney, it was so defective that conviction was found to be impossible—a fact from which suspicious people might draw inferences.


A Patriotic Pirate


Battle of New Orleans, War of 1812During the War of 1812, when the British came to attack New Orleans in the latter part of the year 1814, they sought Lafitte's help, offering him a captain's commission, with abundant lands and a free pardon for the capture of all ships that had been taken under the British flag. But Lafitte and his men hated the British and loved New Orleans. An American expedition was even then fitting out under Commodore Patterson to destroy the Barataria resort, and Lafitte knew all about it, but he refused to join the invaders. On September 16, 1814, Patterson's force destroyed Barataria. capturing ten cruisers belonging to the pirates and one prize that they had brought in, with property worth not far from $150,000. The Baratarians had to flee to the swamps; but from his hiding place Jean Lafitte appealed for permission to fight under Andrew Jackson, and he paid Edward Livingston and the United States district attorney, John K. Grimes, then the most influential men in New Orleans, no less than $35,000 apiece to advocate his cause. The two succeeded in obtaining Jackson's favor for him, and Lafitte was in the Battle of New Orleans, though what he actually did there has never been recorded. And under the date of February 6, 1815, President James Madison granted "a full and free pardon " to all the pirate horde. Nevertheless, Lafitte's career was not yet half ended. For two years after his pardon there is but scant record of his doings. It is known that he did a little business in the old way at Barataria, but he did not get fairly afloat again until 1817.


Galveston's Piratical Beginnings


In the autumn of 1816 a piratical leader named Louis D'Aury, from the insurgent hosts of Spanish America, went to the island where Galveston, Texas, now stands, and in a small way created there a resort similar to Lafitte's at Barataria. The cruisers which, under various Spanish American flags, were ravaging the seas, needed a port where they might refit and dispose of cargoes—particularly slaves— that could not be sold openly. D'Aury's name is worth recording because he was the originator of a most remarkable "bluff." With a few hundred men, and enough lumber and tents to build shelters for them on a barren beach, he lauded on Galveston Island and established what he called the capital of the independent nation of Texas. He had conquered Texas from the Spanish, he said, and he organized a new government there by issuing a proclamation. His government had two departments—an executive, at the head of which was D'Aury, and a judicial department,or court of admiralty. D'Aury supposed that vessels condemned by this court would be admitted, with their cargoes, to the ports of the United States, as were lawfully condemned prizes from actual nations; but he was of fickle mind, and in April of the following year (1817) he abandoned his island capital to find another location.

 

To D'Aury's abandoned capital, a tumble down collection of shanties, came Jean Lafitte; and on this Texas sand bar he founded a greater pirate colony than Barataria Bay. The Spanish American insurgent leaders had given cover to the pirates of the West Indies by issuing a commission to cruise against Spanish commerce to every ship captain that applied for one. These commissions proved to be efficient neck protectors; even the Spanish did not often hang the crew of a captured privateer that had such a document. But, when the cruisers wished to dispose of their prizes, the only market worth while was a port of the United States, and that was a market where their commissions and their traffic were scrutinized with steadily increasing severity. To reach the American market without undergoing this scrutiny, many piratical cruisers headed for Galveston harbor, where they were received as of old at Barataria. The distance to the plantations where slaves could be sold was longer, but the journey was made by boats through bayous where the revenue officers never came to molest the smugglers. Moreover, Lafitte bought cheap and charged exceedingly attractive prices. To Colonel James Bowie, the inventor of the famous knife, slaves were sold at one dollar a pound, or an average of a hundred and forty dollars each; and Bowie, to get them on the market, took them openly to New Orleans, where he had them seized by the officials and sold as a lot at auction. At these auctions no competitors appeared, and Bowie bought them at prices that enabled him to clear fifty thousand dollars in a, year or two.

 

There is but scant record of fighting in the story of Lafitte. On one occasion he learned that the crew of one of his ships had planned a mutiny. He allowed them to go ahead unmolested until at midnight they charged on the cabin. Then he gave them a reception that stretched six of them dead on the deck and wounded several more. One of his captains challenged him to fight a duel, after a dispute over the ownership of a box of gold watches. Jean accepted, and they went to Bolivar Island to fight; but when they had landed on the beach, the look on the face of Lafitte so cowed the captain that he fell on his knees and begged for mercy; whereat Jean cuffed and kicked him and let him go.

 

 

At Galveston Lafitte proclaimed from time to time the forms of a national government, and he hoped that his courts might obtain recognition, but with such citizens as were available the task was beyond him. Nevertheless, he made an entire success of the port as a pirate "fence." An American filibuster general, James Long, visited the place and found a thriving settlement, with "gold pieces as plentiful as biscuits."


Lafitte's Decline and Fall


But, beginning in 1819 one after another of Lafitte's cruisers was captured while engaged in open piracy; some of the crews were hanged under sentence of the United States courts; and in the spring of 1821 the famous little Yankee war ship Enterprise went to Galveston and compelled him to leave. It is a notable fact that while men from his cruisers were hanged he was not even arrested. He gathered his plunder into a beautiful brig called the Pride, a vessel of 14 good guns, well manned, and on an unnamed day he sailed away, headed to the southeast. And there authentic accounts of Jean Lafitte come to an end. Some say he perished in Yucatan, some that he died in France, and one writer says that he met his end fighting an American war ship off the south coast of Cuba.


But whatever his fate, his career was the most remarkable known to the annals of piracy. Henry Morgan once gathered a larger force, but that was in the 17th century, while Lafitte did his work in the 19th. Morgan was able to hold his horde together for one assault only, while Lafitte held from 500 to a 1000 men from 1810 to 1821. It was a band of desperadoes gathered from the slums and prisons of all civilized nations and from the coasts of heathendom. They were men without a country, without a conscience or a hope beyond the gratification of appetite. They knew well the exhilaration that comes to wild souls in deadly conflicts. Mutiny—the defiance of law and authority—was the chief feature of their chosen occupation; but Jean Lafitte ruled them. They called' him "the old man" when they talked of him, and when they addressed him they called him "bosse" (meaning literally prominence), and so added a word to the American language. He rarely associated with his followers, and seldom smiled. "When roused he could be desperate indeed," says a historian, but his men were his friends as well as his followers. Moreover, during a period of 11 years he was able not only to influence the authorities of Louisiana in his favor, but to shield himself from the attacks of the Federal government.


Lafitte was a pirate, and was guilty of the blood that his men shed, as well as of the blood that he shed with his own hands; but he was by no means wholly devoid of the qualities which go to the making of a hero.


By John R. Spears, Munsey's Magazine, Volume 28, Frank A. Munsey Company, 1903.

 

 

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April, 2017.

 

Also See:

 

Pirates - Renegades of the Sea

Louisiana (main page)

 

 

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