In honor of Fat Tuesday and the Mardi Gras festival, todays article is about a Fench Pirate named Jean Lafitte. TGIF!
TftCN: Jean Lafitte Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans
Jean Lafitte (ca.1776 – ca. 1823) was a French 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.
By 1805, Jean appears operating a warehouse in New Orleans to help sell the goods smuggled by his brother Pierre and on Grand Terre, where the Lafittes made their privateering base, on the western tip of the island, facing Barataria Pass . The Lafittes grew rich from the sale of their privateered goods during the trade embargo before the War of 1812 and the British blockade. Grande Terre was six miles long and one to three miles wide . By 1809, it was well known that slaves fresh from Africa could be gotten at Grande Terre, which were kept in barracon, or slave barracks. Here they erected storehouses and a small brick fort . By 1810, their new port was very successful; the Lafittes pursued a successful smuggling operation and also started to engage in piracy.
Note: The last remains of the fort were destroyed by a hurricane in 1965.
Jean was reported to be tall for the time, an inch or two over six feet, with pale skin dark hair and hazel eyes and liked to dress in style. He could speak some English and Spanish, and was spoke Bordelaise French. New Orleans at this time was flooded with French refugees from Cuba, who had fled there from San Domingue. Cuba ordered the French to leave after Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother on the Spanish throne. Out of a population of about 25,000 at this time, fewer than 3,300 were English or American. The French population was generally anti-American and sympathetic to the illegal activities of the Lafitte brothers .The Lafittes were often seen at the Coquet’s Ballroom on St.Phillip street, the Cafe des Refugies and the Hotel de la Marine while in New Orleans .The revenue from the lucrative slave trade allowed the Lafittes to buy a warehouse on Royal Street .
In 1811 there was a slave rebellion led by Charles Deslondes, a San Domingue slave in St.Charles Parish and marched upon New Orleans. The rebellion was stopped and many members of the rebellion were executed and their heads put on spikes as a warning . The rebellion put New Orleans into a panic, and thereafter authorities took greater notice of the Lafitte slave smuggling activities. The American governor of Louisiana, Gov Claiborne, angered by the privateer’s disregard for custom laws, ordered an attack on Grand Terre. The Gov also offered a reward of $300 for the capture of Lafitte, to which Lafitte responded by printing handbills offering a larger reward of $1,000 for the capture of the Gov if he were delivered to the Lafitte’s new base of operations on Cat Island. At the bottom of the handbill, it was written that this was only in jest.
During this time while awaiting an expected attack from the Americans on his home base, Grande Terre, a large British expeditionary force of 18,000 sailed from Jamaica under Sir Edward Pakenham. The British, expected to sweep aside the meager American force, seize the ‘Beauty and Booty’ of the rich trading port of New Orleans and with the Mississippi in their hands, separate the western states from the rest of the Union. The British expected the French settlers, Spanish settlers and the large slave population would aid them in their conquest of the Americans. They believed if they were able to take New Orleans they would be in a much stronger bargaining position at the ongoing peace talks, which had started at Ghent, Belgium on August 8, 1814. The British were making objections at the negotiations to drag the process out, counting on a victory at New Orleans. A British victory might even tip the New England states into succeeding, perhaps even ending the American ‘experiment’ and bring the colonies back into the English fold.
When they arrived, on Sept 3, 1814, a Captain Nicholas Lockyer and a Captain McWilliams, approached Jean Lafitte and attempted to bribe him into aiding the British cause with 30,000 British pounds and a commission in the British navy. The knowledge Laffite had of the bayous leading into New Orleans from Barataria bay and his being the leader or boss of the Baratarian privateers and smugglers on Grand Terre island and made him an important player to the British and Americans. The Laffite’s also had well trained gun crews and large stores of flints, gunpowder and other supplies.In response to the British’s offer, he requested 15 days to sound out his men on the matter. Despite the Americans holding his brother Pierre in jail on a smuggling charge, and threats of attack upon Grande Terre, Jean decided to warn to the American New Orleans leaders with his fastest courier, who could arrive within a day. The warning included a copy of the British offer, a plea for the release of his brother, and a request a stop to the ‘persecution’ of his privateers. In exchange he offered his services, those of his men and his supplies to the aid of New Orleans defense.
Unfortunately many of the leaders assumed this was just a ploy in order to evade the planned attack on Grand Terre. The Carolina, a schooner with 14 guns under command of the American Commodore Daniel Patterson and six gunboats left New Orleans, sailed down the Mississippi River and attacked Grande. Lafitte’s men, not knowing if the attacking fleet was British or American, took battle stations. The Carolina raised a flag offering pardon for deserters. The Baratarians abandoned their vessels. The Americans seized 8 ships, 20 canons and an estimated $500,000 worth of goods and captured 80 Baratarians. Most of the 500 or so Baratarians escaped. The seized goods never were returned. Most of the 500 or so Baratarians escaped. Ironically, the Carolina was to play a decisive role in the Battle of New Orleans, and would not have been there except for the attack on Grande Terre.
After two weeks, a British brig-of-war appeared off Barataria Pass awaiting Jean’s reply to the British offer. No ship from Lafitte came to meet it and it sailed off, no doubt cursing the Lafitte’s and the time they had wasted. Now the British knew they could not count on Lafitte. Andrew Jackson at this time was placed in command of the Seventh Military District, and was in Mobile, Alabama fighting the Creek Indians. On the same day as the Grande Terre attack, Edward Livingston, a former mayor of New York who had fled to New Orleans to escape legal trouble, organized a committee of defense. Jackson arrived in New Orleans on Nov 30, 1814 , severely weakened by dysentery. Despite this, his presence inspired the inhabitants of New Orleans.
Jackson, who needed every man, still would not release the men captured at Grande Terre or take up Lafitte on his offer. After the defeat of the gunboats, Claiborne meet with Jackson and changed his mind .Claiborne issued a proclamation on Dec 17, offering amnesty to all Baratarians if they joined the fight against the British. Jean Laffite who had evaded capture by seeking refuge with some plantain owners with whom he was friends, returned to New Orleans, and arranged a meeting with Jackson through Edward Livingston at the general’s headquarters at 106 Royal Street. Jackson was reported to be surprised by the sophistication of Lafitte and found him not to be the ‘hellish banditti’ he had imagined. Jean Laffite was sent to Barataria on Dec 22nd to watch for any invasion from the Barataria Bay route and did not see action in the battle of Jan 8. Pierre Laffite remained at Jackson’s HQ to provide his knowledge of the land around New Orleans . During the battle on Jan 8, 1815, Lafitte seemed to be sincerely patriotic in his help for the American cause and furnished Jackson’s small army of 2,000 men, who faced 10,000 British veterans with 366 cannons and a large supply of powder and shot and trained artillerymen who played havoc with the British at the Battle of New Orleans . Jean was out of sight, perhaps reconnoitering to the south at Grand Isle. The Baratarians made up about 50 of the 5,000 men on Jackson’s main line.
After the battle, due to their reported valor and actions during the Battle of New Orleans, President James Madison gave full pardons to the Barataria privateers for their actions. But it was obvious that Lafitte could not continue his privateering operations at Grand Terre . He needed someplace not under American control. and moved to Galveston Island, which they called Campeche, where they developed the colony. In 1816 Lafitte explored the interior of the Louisiana territory with Major Arsene Latour, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The Lafittes turned agents for Spain and moved to Galveston Island, which they called Campeche, where they developed the colony. The Spanish government asked them to determine the attitudes of the Americans and Indians to Spain’s lands that were west of the Louisiana Purchase. Spain was afraid of Indian raids and possible filibuster actions against its territory. For 8 months they explored what is now the Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri areas and returned to New Orleans.
Lafitte continued pirating around Central American ports until he died trying to capture Spanish vessels sometime around 1823. Speculation about his life and death continues among historians.
For more information there are several books and website which go into greater detail where you may find out more about this Famous pirate.