Jean Lafitte – A “Hero” Pirate

 

By John R. Spears, 1903

 

Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte

On 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 businessman 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

Sometime 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.

Barataria Preserve today

Barataria Preserve today

Sometime 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 Fleet

Pirate Fleet

In 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 were 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.”

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