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Jean Baptista Lafitte
Circa 1776 – circa 1823
LafitteKing.jpeg
Late 19th century artist's conception of Jean Laffite
Type: Pirate
Place of birth: Possibly France or Saint-Domingue
Place of death: Possibly Yucatán, the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Illinois, or Leon, Nicaragua, or São Miguel Island, Azores
Rank: Captain
Base of operations: Barataria Bay, Galveston
Commands: The Republican
Battles/wars: Battle of New Orleans

Jean Lafitte (ca. 1776 – ca. 1823) was a pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century. He and his elder brother, Pierre, spelled their last name Laffite, but English-language documents of the time used "Lafitte," and this is the commonly seen spelling in the United States, including for places named for him.

Lafitte is believed to have been born either in France or the French colony of Saint-Domingue. By 1805, he operated a warehouse in New Orleans to help disperse the goods smuggled by his brother Pierre Lafitte. After the United States government passed the Embargo Act of 1807, the Lafittes moved their operations to an island in Barataria Bay. By 1810, their new port was very successful; the Lafittes pursued a successful smuggling operation and also started to engage in piracy.

Though Lafitte tried to warn of a British attack, the American authorities invaded Barataria in 1814 and captured most of Lafitte's fleet. In return for a pardon, Lafitte helped General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in 1815. The Lafittes then became spies for the Spanish and moved to Galveston Island where they developed the colony there.

Lafitte continued pirating around Central American ports until he died trying to capture Spanish vessels in 1823. Speculation around his death and life continue amongst historians.

Contents

Origins

Painting of stern-faced man with Guy Fawkes' style black hat. His right hand holds the handle of a dagger tucked into a cloak hanging from his left shoulder.
Anonymous portrait claimed to be of Jean Lafitte in the early 19th century, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas

A number of details about Jean Lafitte's early life are obscure and often contradictory. In one document, Lafitte claimed to have been born in Bordeaux, France, in 1780. He and his brother Pierre alternately claimed to have been born in Bayonne, while other documents of the time place his birthplace as St. Malo or Brest. However, as Lafitte's biographer Jack C. Ramsay states, "this was a convenient time to be a native of France, a claim that provided protection from the enforcement of American law."[1] Further contemporary accounts claim that Lafitte was born in Orduna, Spain or even Westchester, New York.[1]

Saint-Domingue

Ramsay speculates that Lafitte was actually born in the French territory Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).[1] It was not uncommon in the late 18th century for the adult children of the French landowners in Saint-Domingue to resettle in the Mississippi River delta, also owned by France. Families with the surname Lafitte are mentioned in Louisiana documents dating as early as 1765.[2] According to Ramsay, Lafitte, his elder brother Pierre, and his widowed mother journeyed from Saint-Dominique to New Orleans, Louisiana, in the 1780s. In approximately 1784, his mother married Pedro Aubry, a New Orleans merchant; Jean stayed with his mother, while Pierre was raised by extended family elsewhere in Louisiana.[3]

According to Ramsay's theory, as a young man, Lafitte likely spent a great deal of time exploring the wetland and bayou country south of New Orleans. In later years, he was described as having "a more accurate knowledge of every inlet from the Gulf than any other man".[3] His elder brother became a privateer, probably operating from Saint-Domingue, which frequently issued letters of marque.[3] Lafitte likely helped his brother to disperse the merchandise. By 1805, he was thought to be running a warehouse in New Orleans and possibly a store on Royal Street.[4]

France

Biographer William C. Davis reports a different childhood for Lafitte. According to his book, Lafitte was born in or near Pauillac, France, the son of Pierre Lafitte and his second wife, Marguerite Desteil. The couple had six children, with at least three being daughters. Jean Lafitte was likely born in 1782, although he was not baptized until 1786. Pierre Lafitte also had one child, also named Pierre, from his first marriage to Marie LaGrange, who likely died in childbirth. The boys were likely given a basic education.[5]

Although acknowledging that details of Lafitte's first twenty years are sparse, Davis speculates that Lafitte spent much time at sea as a child, probably aboard ships owned by his father, a known trader.[6] Davis places Lafitte's brother Pierre in Saint-Domingue in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Due to escalating violence from the Haitian Revolution, in early 1803, Pierre boarded a refugee ship for New Orleans.[7] By 1806, several "Captain Lafitte"s operated in New Orleans; Jean Lafitte was likely one of them.[6]

Barataria

This recent map shows Barataria Bay [lower right], near Grande Isle

Louisiana had become a United States territory in 1804. In January 1808 the government began to enforce the Embargo Act of 1807, which barred American ships from docking at any foreign port. This was problematic for New Orleans merchants.[8] In response, the Lafitte brothers began to look for another port from which they could smuggle goods to local merchants. They established themselves on the small and sparsely populated island of Barataria, in Barataria Bay. The bay was located beyond a narrow passage between the barrier islands of Grande Terre and Grande Isle.[9] Barataria was far from the U.S. naval base and ships could easily smuggle in goods without being noticed by customs officials. After being unloaded, the merchandise would be reloaded onto pirogues or barges for transport through the bayous to New Orleans.[10]

Pierre established himself in New Orleans and served as a silent partner, looking after their interests in the city. Jean Lafitte spent the majority of his time in Barataria managing the daily hands-on business of outfitting privateers and arranging the smuggling of stolen goods. By 1810, the island had become a booming port.[11] Seamen flocked to the island, working on the docks or at the warehouses until they were chosen as crew for one of the privateers.[12]

Lafitte was unhappy with the length of time it took to get goods from the port to the merchants; navigating the swamps could take a full week. In 1812, Lafitte and his men began holding auctions at the Temple, a memorial mound halfway between Grande Terre and New Orleans.[13]

Dissatisfied with their role as primarily a broker, in October 1812 the Lafitte brothers purchased a schooner and hired a captain to sail it as a privateer.[14] The schooner did not have an official commission.[15] In January 1813 they received their first prize, a Spanish hermaphrodite brig loaded with 77 slaves. Sale of the slaves and additional cargo generated $18,000 in profits and the brothers turned the captured ship into another privateer, named Dorada. Within weeks, Dorada captured a schooner loaded with over $9,000 in goods. The captured schooner was not considered a good fit for privateering, so after unloading its cargo the Lafittes gave the ship back to its former captain and crew.[16] The Lafittes gained a reputation for treating captive crew members well, and often gave the ships back to their original crew.[17]

The brothers soon acquired a third ship, La Diligent.[18] The ship was outfitted with 12 fourteen-pounder cannons.[19] Dorada captured their fourth ship, a schooner they renamed Petit Milan. The brothers stripped down their original schooner, usings its guns to outfit the new ship. They now sailed three ships, which Davis described as likely "one of the largest privately owned corsair fleets operatig on the coast, and the most versatile".[20] For several months, the Lafittes would send the ships directly to New Orleans with a legal cargo and would take on outgoing provisions in the city. The crew would then create a manifest that listed not the provisions that had actually been purchased, but instead smuggled items that awaited at Barataria. Customs agents were uninterested in which goods were leaving New Orleans and rarely checked the accuracy of the manifest. The ship would then sail to the mouth of Bayou Lafourche and load the contraband goods, which they could then legally sail back to New Orleans, as those goods were listed on their manifest.[21]

Shifting attitudes

Governor William C.C. Claiborne took a leave of absence in September 1810, leaving Thomas B. Robertson as acting governor. Robertson was incensed by Lafitte's operation, labeling the men on the island "brigands who infest our coast and overrun our country".[22] The citizens of New Orleans did not share Robertson's hostility, but were grateful to the Lafittes for providing them with luxuries the embargo would have otherwise prevented.[12] When Claiborne returned to office he remained relatively quiet on the subject.[13]

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain. Britain maintained a powerful navy, but the United States had little naval power.[23] To supplement their navy, the United States offered letters of marque to private armed vessels. New Orleans issued six of these letters, primarily to smugglers who worked with Lafitte at Barataria. The smugglers often held letters of marque from multiple countries, authorizing them to capture booty from differing nations. Booty from captured British ships would be properly submitted to the American authorities at New Orleans, while booty from all other ships was often channelled through Lafitte's operation.[24] The smuggling operations reduced the amount of revenue that the customs offices could collect, and American authorities were determined to halt the Barataria operations.[25] Because the United States Navy did not have enough ships to act against the Baratarian smugglers, the government turned to legal action. On November 10, 1812, United States District Attorney John R. Grymes charged Lafitte with "violation of the revenue law".[26] Three days later, 40 soldiers were sent to ambush the Baratarians; they captured Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and 25 unarmed smugglers on November 16 and confiscated several thousand dollars of contraband. The smugglers were released after posting bond and disappeared, refusing to return for a trial.[26]

Despite being under indictment, in March 1813 Lafitte registered himself as captain of Le Brig Goelette la Diligente for a supposed journey to New York.[27] Biographer Jack Ramsay speculates that the voyage was intended to "establish...[Lafitte] as a privateering captain".[28] Lafitte soon gained a letter of marque from Cartagena, but never sent any booty there; instead, all prizes in which he was involved were landed at Barataria.[29]

Lafitte's continued flouting of the laws angered Governor Claiborne, who on March 15 issued a proclamation against the Baratarian "banditti ... who act in contravention of the laws of the United States ... to the evident prejudice of the revenue of the federal government".[29] The proclamation was printed in the nationally read Niles' Weekly Register.[29]

In October, a revenue officer prepared an ambush of a band of Lafitte's smugglers. The smugglers wounded one of the authorities and fled in safety, with their contraband.[30] The following month, the governor offered a $500 reward for Lafitte's capture. Within two days of his offer, handbills were posted all over New Orleans offering a similar award for the arrest of the governor. Although the handbills were made in Lafitte's name, Ramsay believes "it is unlikely [the handbills] originated with him".[31] Following the reward offer, Lafitte wrote Claiborne a personal note refuting the charges of piracy.[31]

The success of the auctions at the Temple encouraged Lafitte to launch a similar auction just outside New Orleans in January 1814. Officials attempted to break up this auction, and in the ensuing gunfight one of the revenue officers was killed and two others were wounded.[32] Many of the city's merchants were also unhappy with this auction, which allowed their customers to buy goods directly from Lafitte at a lower price than the merchants could charge.[33]

Angry at this blatant violation of the revenue laws, Claiborne appealed to the new state legislature. He requested approval to raise a militia company to "disperse those desperate men on Lake Barataria whose piracies have rendered our shores a terror to neutral flags."[33] The legislature appointed a committee to study the matter, but as most of their constituents benefitted by the smuggling, no militia was ever raised. Authorities did convince a grand jury to indict Pierre after one of the leading merchants in the city testified against him.[33] Pierre was arrested and jailed on charges of "having knowingly and wittingly aided and assisted, procured, commanded, counselled, and advised" persons to commit acts of piracy".[34]

War of 1812

British offer

While Pierre was incarcerated, Jean continued to operate the smuggling business. Over the next few months, the British Navy increased their patrols in the Gulf Of Mexico, and by August they had established a base at Pensacola. On September 3, 1814, the British ship HMS Sophie fired on a smuggling ship that was returning to Barataria.[35] The smaller privateer grounded itself in shallow water where the larger British ship could not follow. The British raised a white flag and launched a small dinghy with several officers. Lafitte and several of his men rowed to meet them halfway.[36]

The commander of the Sophia, Captain Nicholas Lockyer, had been ordered to contact the "Commandant at Barataria". He was accompanied by British army Captain McWilliams, who had been given a package to deliver to Lafitte. The Baratarians invited the British officers to row to their island. Only when they had disembarked and were surrounded by Baratarians did Lafitte identify himself to them. Many of the smugglers wanted to lynch the British men, but Lafitte intervened, even placing guards outside his home so that the more unruly of his men would not interfere.[36] McWilliams presented the packet to Lafitte. It contained two letters. The first was written under the seal of King George III and offered the Baratarians British citizenship and landholdings in the British colonies in the Americas if they promised to assist in the naval fight against the United States and return any recent property that had been taken from Spanish ships. If they refused the offer, the British Navy would destroy Barataria. The second letter was a personal note to Lafitte from McWilliams' superior, urging him to accept the offer.[37]

Lafitte was convinced that the United States would eventually prevail in the war, and he believed that he could more effectively defeat the United States revenue officers than he could the British navy.[38] He had also been informed, however, that throughout August, American authories, under Commodore Daniel Patterson, had been planning an assault on Barataria. The Americans feared that the Baratarians would side with the British. Lafitte needed to convince the Americans that they had nothing to fear from him.[39]

His initial response was that few of his men would be willing to assist the British, but he requested 15 days to consider the offer.[38] Lafitte quickly created copies of the letters and sent them to Jean Blanque, a member of the state legislature who had invested in the Barataria operation. In a personal note, Lafitte reminded Blanque that Pierre was still in jail and deserved an early release. Lafitte further included a note to Claiborne, proclaiming that "I am the stray sheep, wishing to return to the sheepfold ... If you were thoroughly acquainted with the nature of my offenses, I should appear to you much less guilty, and still worthy to discharge the duties of a good citizen."[40] Lafitte volunteered himself and his men for any defensive measures needed by New Orleans. Within two days of Lafitte's notes, Pierre "escaped" from jail.[40]

American invasion

Although Lafitte hoped that his missives would prove his loyalty to the United States, on September 13 Patterson set sail aboard the USS Carolina for Barataria. He was accompanied by six gunboats and a tender. The fleet anchored off Grande Terre and the gunboats attacked. By midmorning, 10 armed privateers formed a battle line in the bay. Within a short period of time, however, Lafitte's men abandoned their ships - setting several on fire - and fled. Patterson's men went ashore and found no resistance. Although 80 Baratarians were captured, Lafitte escaped safely. The Americans took custody of six schooners, one felucca, and a brig, as well as 20 cannon and goods worth $500,000.[41] On September 23, Patterson and his fleet, including all of the captured ships, began the return trip to New Orleans. The raid was widely published and hailed by the Niles' Weekly Register as "a major conquest for the United States".[42] Lafitte was personally described in that newspaper as "a man who, for about two years past, has been famous for crimes that the civilized world wars against. ... [He] is supposed to have captured one hundred vessels of all nations, and certainly murdered the crews of all that he took, for no one has ever escaped him."[42]

Black and white painting of side-burned 30-something man in naval uniform
Commodore Daniel Patterson commanded an offensive against Lafitte and his men at Barataria

Following the custom of the times, Patterson filed a legal claim for the profits from the confiscated ships and merchandise. An attorney representing Lafitte argued that the captured ships had flown the flag of Cartagena, an area at peace with the United States. One of Lafitte's men testified that the Baratarians had never intended to fight the United States, but had prepared their vessels only to flee. The judge ruled that profits from the goods that had already been sold should go to Patterson, but did not settle the ownership of the ships, which remained in port under custody of the United States marshal.[43] Likely inspired by Lafitte's offer to help defend Louisiana, Governor Claiborne wrote the US Attorney General, Richard Rush requesting a pardon for the Baratarians, explaining that for generations smugglers were "esteemed honest ... [and] sympathy for these offenders is certainly more or less felt by many of the Louisianans".[44] Shortly after, Claiborne wrote to General Andrew Jackson, according to Ramsay "implying Patterson had destroyed a potential first line of defense for Louisiana."[45] Jackson responded, ""I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers".[45]

Battle of New Orleans

Jackson arrived in New Orleans on December 1 and discovered that the city had not taken any defensive measures.[46] The city could depend on approximately 1,000 unseasoned troops and two ships. Although the city retained ownership of the ships captured from Lafitte's men, there were not enough sailors to allow them to participate in the defense. Although many of the Baratarians were not imprisoned, they were angry enough at the raid to refuse to serve on their former ships.[47] In mid-December, Jackson met with Lafitte, who offered to serve if the United States would pardon any of his sailors who would agree to defend the city. Jackson agreed to do so.[48] On December 19, the state legislature passed a resolution recommending a full pardon for all of the former residents at Barataria.[49] Lafitte encouraged the Baratarian men to join the New Orleans militia, and many of them signed up as sailors. Others formed three artillery companies.[50]

On December 23, advance units of the British fleet reached the Mississippi River.[50] Lafitte realized that the American line of defense was too short, allowing the British to potentially encircle the American troops. He proposed that the line be extended to a nearby swamp, and Jackson immediately ordered the extension.[51] The British began firing at the American lines on December 28, but were repulsed by an artillery crew manned by two of Lafitte's former lieutenants, Renato Beluche and Dominique Youx.[52] Patterson widely praised the Barataria men who had agreed to serve on one of the US Navy ships, and whose skill at the artillery was much greater than their British counterparts.[53] The gunners—on both land and sea—continued to garner praise as the battle stretched on. On January 21, Jackson issued a statement praising his troops, especially the cannooneers and "Captains Dominique and Beluche, lately commanding privateers of Barataria with part of their former crews and many brave citizens of New Orleans, were stationed at Nos. 3 and 4."[54] Jackson also singled out Jean and Pierre Lafitte for having "exhibited the same courage and fidelity".[54] Jackson then formally requested clemency for the Lafittes and the men who had served under them. They were all granted a full pardon on February 6.[55][56]

Galveston

In late 1815 and early 1816, the Lafitte brothers agreed to act as spies for Spain, which was in the midst of the Mexican War of Independence. The brothers were collectively known as "Number thirteen". Pierre would keep the Spanish informed of happenings in New Orleans, and Jean was sent to Galveston Island, a part of Spanish Texas that served as the home base of privateer Louis-Michel Aury, who claimed to be a Mexican revolutionary.[57] By early 1817, other revolutionaries had begun to congregate at Galveston, hoping to make it their base to wrest Mexico from Spanish control. Lafitte visited in March 1817.[58] Two weeks into his stay, the two leaders of the revolutionaries left the island. The following day, Lafitte took command of the island and appointed his own officers. On April 18, he sailed for New Orleans to report his activities.[59] With Spanish permission, Lafitte returned to Galveston, promising to make weekly reports of the activities there.[60]

Lafitte's motives were not selfless; he essentially turned Galveston Island into a new Barataria. Like Barataria, Galveston was a seaward island that protected a large inland bay. It had the advantage of being outside the authority of the United States, and it was largely uninhabited, except by Karankawas.[61]

Lafitte quickly began improving his new colony. Existing houses were torn down, and 200 new, sturdier buildings were constructed.[62] Ships operating from Galveston flew the flag of Mexico, but they engaged in no revolutionary activities, as Lafitte worried about a potential Spanish invasion.[63] Aury returned to Galveston several months later, but left in July when he realized that the men were unwilling to revolt.[64]

In less than a year, Lafitte's colony grew to 100–200 men and several women.[65] All newcomers were personally interviewed by Lafitte and required to take an oath of loyalty to him. The headquarters of the operation was a two-story building facing the inland harbor, where landings were made. The building was surrounded by a moat and painted red; it became known as Maison Rouge. Most regular business was conducted aboard Lafitte's ship, The Pride, where he also lived.[66] Lafitte created letters of marque from a nonexistent nation for all of the ships sailing from Galveston. These letters gave the ships permission to attack ships from all nations.[67]

In April 1818, the United States passed a law prohibiting the import of slaves into any port in the United States. The law left several loopholes, however. It essentially gave permission to any ship to capture a slave ship, regardless of the country from which it originated. Furthermore, any newly imported slaves who were turned over to the customs office would be sold within the United States, with half the profits of the sale going to the people who turned them in. Lafitte worked with several smugglers, including Jim Bowie, to profit from the poorly written law. Lafitte's men would target ships that carried slaves. Smugglers would purchase the slaves for a discounted price, march them to Louisiana, and turn them in to customs officials. A representative of the smuggler would purchase the slaves at the ensuing auction, and the smuggler would be given half of the purchase price. The smuggler was then the lawful owner of the slaves and could transport them to sell in other parts of the United States.[68]

The colony experienced hardships in 1818. After a Karankawa woman was kidnapped, the Indian tribe attacked and killed five members of Lafitte's colony. The corsairs aimed the artillery at the Indians, killing most of the men in the tribe. A hurricane in September covered almost all of the island in water, killing several people and destroying four ships and most buildings. Only six homes were habitable afterwards.[69]

Around 1820, Lafitte reportedly married Madeline Regaud, possibly the widow or daughter of a French colonist who had died during an ill-fated expedition to Galveston. In 1821, the schooner USS Enterprise was sent to Galveston to remove Lafitte from the Gulf after one of the pirate's captains attacked an American merchant ship. Lafitte agreed to leave the island without a fight, and in 1821 or 1822 departed on his flagship, the Pride, burning his fortress and settlements and reportedly taking immense amounts of treasure with him. All that remains of Maison Rouge is the foundation, located at 1417 Avenue A near the Galveston wharf.

Later years

On May 7, 1821, Lafitte and the remainder of his men sailed from Galveston aboard three ships. He was also accompanied by his mulatto mistress and an infant son. Before leaving, the group burned most of the structures they had erected on Galveston.[70] Most of the men believed that Lafitte had a valid privateering commission, although there was confusion on which country had issued it.[71] Two weeks after setting sail, they captured a Spanish ship, which they sent to Galveston, hoping the Longs would smuggle the goods to New Orleans.[71] Lafitte's men buried some of the cargo on the island and ran the prize aground, but an American patrol spotted the ship and after investigating discovered the buried cargo. Several of Lafitte's men were arrested and convicted of piracy.[72][Note 1] The remainder of the crew rejoined Lafitte, who finally announced that he did not have a valid commission, and his ships would be sailing as pirates.[73] Almost half of the combined crew refused to sail as pirates; Lafitte allowed them to leave aboard his largest ship, the brig General Victoria. That night, however, the remaining crewmen reboarded the General Victoria and destroyed its masts and spars, crippling the ship, before leaving the crewmen unharmed.[74][Note 2]

Lafitte and his men continued to take Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico, often returning to Galveston or the barrier islands near New Orleans to unload cargo or take on supplies that had been left by Pierre.[75] The congressional delegation in Louisiana began to demand that the federal government do something to halt the smuggling, and more U.S. Navy ships were sent to the Gulf. The number of active pirates began to decline.[76]

In October or November 1821, Lafitte's ship was ambushed as he attempted to ransom back a recent prize. He and a few crewman initially escaped but he was soon taken prisoner and jailed. On February 13, he escaped, likely with outside help.[77] Over the next few months, Lafitte established a base along the coast of Cuba, bribing local officials with a share of the profits.[78] In late April, Lafitte was captured after taking his first American ship. The American warship which captured him turned Lafitte over to the local authorities, who promptly released him.[79]

Lafitte and other pirates operating in the area began targeting ships carrying legal goods to Cuba, angering Cuban officials.[80] By the end of 1822, Cuba had banned all forms of sea raiding.[81] In June 1822, Lafitte approached the officials in Colombia, whose government had begun commissioning former privateers into their new navy. Lafitte was granted a commission and given a new ship, a 40-ton schooner named General Santander.[82] For the first time, Lafitte was legally authorized to take Spanish ships.[83]

Lafitte continued to patrol the shipping lanes around Cuba. In November 1822, he made news in the American press after escorting an American schooner through the pirate-strewn area and providing them with extra cannon balls and food.[84]

In February 1823, Lafitte was cruising off the town of Omoa, Honduras on his 43 ton armed Colombian schooner named "GENERAL SANTANDER". Omoa was the site of the largest Spanish fort in Central America and it guarded the silver shipments from the mines of Tegucigalpa to overseas destinations. Lafitte attempted to take what appeared to be two Spanish merchant vessels on the night of February 4. It was cloudy and visibility was low that night. His misjudgement would prove to be fatal. The Spanish ships appeared to be fleeing but at 10:00pm made some lantern signals and turned back for a frontal counterattack...they were actually heavily armed Spanish privateers or warships and returned heavy fire. Lafitte was wounded in the battle and died just after dawn on February 5. He was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras.[85][Note 3] Two obituaries have been found for Lafitte: the Gaceta de Cartagena and the Gaceta de Colombia wrote that "the loss of this brave naval officer is moving".[86] No American newspaper ever carried an obituary for him.[87]

Legacy

Full length portrait of a man in his forties, in high-ranking dress white and dark blue military uniform. He stands amid rich 18th-century furniture laden with papers, and gazes at the viewer. His hair is Brutus style, cropped close but with a short fringe in front, and his right hand is tucked in his waistcoat.
A persistent rumor claimed that Lafitte rescued Napoleon (pictured) from exile and both of them died in Louisiana

Davis writes that Lafitte's death may have been a blessing; by 1825 piracy had been essentially eradicated in the Gulf of Mexico, and "the new world of the Gulf simply had no room for [his] kind".[88] There was much speculation about whether, or how, Lafitte had died. Rumors abounded: that he changed his name after leaving Galveston and disappeared; that he was killed by his own men shortly after leaving Galveston; that he rescued Napoleon and they both died in Louisiana.[87] In 1843, Mirabeau B. Lamar investigated many of the Lafitte stories and concluded that while there were no authentic records of death, Lafitte was likely dead.[87] By this time, Lafitte's only known son, Jean Pierre Lafitte, was also dead; he perished during an epidemic in New Orleans in October 1832.[89]

Ramsay compares the number of legends surrounding the life and death of Lafitte to those about King Arthur and Robin Hood.[90] Lafitte is rumored to have buried treasure at many locations, including Galveston and many locations along coastal Louisiana.[91] Ramsay believes that over time, almost "every foot of Grande Isle has been spaded for pirate gold".[90] In 1909, a man was given a six-year prison sentence for fraud after swindling thousands of dollars from people by claiming that he knew where the Lafitte treasure was buried.[92]

A search for the treasure of Lafitte extended to the draining of Indian Bayou in the mid 1920's. As an arm of the Natalbany River in Springfield, La., the entire bayou was dyked and drained in a dedicated search that was financed exclusively to search for the treasure of Lafitte. An Indian dugout canoe was found in the mud, retrieved and resides at the Cabildo in New Orleans, La. Mysteriously, the crew and all the workman broke camp without a word and left one night after several weeks of work. A warehouse had been located in the same area of Indian Bayou serving as a transfer point on the east side of Springfield for trade from New Orleans which also confirms the viability of the route Lafitte took from New Orleans.[citation needed]

The legends have been expanded through a multitude of fictional works. The first novel featuring Lafitte was the 1826 The Memoirs of Lafitte, or The Baratarian Pirate; a Narrative Founded on Fact.[93] Several years later, many Americans assumed that Lord Byron's poem "The Corsair" was based on the life of Lafitte; the work sold over 10,000 copies on its first day of sale.[94] By 1840, Lafitte was commonly known "as a fatal lothario with women, and a cold-blooded murderer of men who yet observed some forms of honor".[95]

The first serious biography of Lafitte, Historical Sketch of Pierre and Jean Lafitte, the Famous Smugglers of Louisiana, was written by Charles Gayarre and published in 1883.[96] Other biographies followed; a 1930 book by Lyle Saxon served as the basis for the Cecil B. DeMille movie The Buccaneer.[97] The movie was remade in 1958, starring Yul Brynner as Lafitte. Perhaps the most recent film on Lafitte can be seen at The Pier 21 Theater off The Strand in Galveston, which has a year-round screening of the 18 minute film called The Pirate Island of Jean Lafitte, directed by C. Grant Mitchell[98] (this movie appears to have been made after the 1980s).

Daylight photo of canal with many tree branches stretching from the banks out over the canal.
Part of the Barataria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

In 1948, John Andrechyne Laflin approached the Missouri Historical Society with a document he claimed was a journal Lafitte kept from 1845 until 1850.[99][100] When the historical society could not authenticate the claim, Laflin approached Louisiana author Stanley Arthur, who wrote Jean Laffitte: Gentleman Rover based on the journal. In 1958, Laflin self-published an English translation of the journal, but he refused to allow anyone to see the original documents until 1969, when he sold them to a professional document dealer.[100] The paper and ink were analyzed and confirmed to be of mid-19th century origin. An archivist for Bexar County, Texas soon declared the papers authentic.[101] In 1980, the manuscript was donated to the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Texas, and became available to researchers for the first time.[101] Many researchers noticed a similarity between Laflin's handwriting and the writing in the journal.[101] Laflin has also been accused of forging letters from Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Davy Crocket.[102] Most historians now believe the Lafitte journal to be a forgery.[103][Note 4]

Since 1957, the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana devotes an annual festival, Contraband Days, to Lafitte. Held during the first two weeks of May, the festival celebrates rumors of buried treasure in Lake Charles and Contraband Bayou. The festival features a band of actors portraying Lafitte and his pirates, who sail into the city's namesake lake and capture the city's mayor, forcing him to walk the plank.[104] No such event is known to have occurred, although there are unsubstantiated legends that Lafitte hid treasure in the area of the lake. A fishing village along Bayou Barataria in Louisiana bears his name, as does the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.[105]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ These men were later pardoned when they announced they had deserted from Lafitte's ship in Galveston when they discovered it did not have a valid privateering commission. (Davis (2005), p. 436).
  2. ^ The General Victoria was rescued after more than two weeks, and the starving crew members were given rewards for having taken it from a pirate. (Davis (2005), p. 439).
  3. ^ This account of Lafitte's death is not accepted by all historians. Ramsay believes that Lafitte died of a fever in 1826 or 1827 on Isla Mujeres just northeast of the Yucatán Peninsula. (Ramsay (1996), pp. 129–133.) Davis recounts a similar story, but maintains that the man who died on this island was Pierre Lafitte, and that the death occurred in late 1821. (Davis (2005), pp. 453–5.)
  4. ^ Ramsay believes the documents were written by Laflin's ancestor, Matthew Laflin (1803–1854), who may have convinced his descendants that he was Jean Lafitte.(Ramsay (1996), pp. 151–2.) Handwriting analysis shows similarities between John Laflin's handwriting and that of the journal, however. (Nickell (2005), p. 73.)

References

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Sources

  • Davis, William C. (2005), The Pirates Laffite: the treacherous world of the corsairs of the Gulf, Harcourt Books, ISBN 9780151004034
  • Nickell, Joe (2005), Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents, University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 9780813191256 
  • Ramsay, Jack C. (1996), Jean Laffite: Prince of Pirates, Eakin Press, ISBN 9781571680297

External links








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