Infamous Pirates > Jean Lafitte
Jean Lafitte (1780 - 1823), also spelled Laffite was a famous 19th century French-American pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico. Based out of his pirate haven at Barataria Bay and later at Galveston Island he and his brother Pierre commanded a fleet of pirates and smugglers with his brother and was influential in the development and creation of the United States.
Though Lafitte warned the other Baratarians of a possible military attack on their base of operations, an American naval force successfully invaded in September 1814 and captured most of Lafitte's fleet. Later, in return for a legal pardon for the smugglers, Lafitte and his comrades helped General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in early 1815.
The Lafittes became spies for the Spanish during the Mexican War of Independence and moved to Galveston Island, Texas, where they developed a pirate colony called Campeche. Lafitte continued attacking merchant ships as a pirate around Central American ports until he died circa 1823, trying to capture Spanish vessels. Speculation about his life and death continues among historians.
The early years of Lafitte's life are a mystery with some believing he was born in France while others believing he was born in Saint-Dominigue on the island of Hispaniola.
However, by 1805 Lafitte and his brother Pierre were running a warehouse in the city of New Orleans where they helped smuggle and distribute goods on the blackmarket. When the United States of America passed the Embargo Act of 1807 the Lafitte brothers relocated their operation to Barataria Bay in Louisiana. Within three years the smuggling port was a city unto itself and the brothers soon embarked on a career of piracy in the Gulf of Mexico.Barataria Bay
The United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. 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, who had relied heavily on trade with Caribbean colonies of other nations. 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 Grand Terre and Grande Isle. Barataria was far from the U.S. naval base, and ships could easily smuggle in goods without being noticed by customs officials. Workers would reload goods into smaller batches onto pirogues or barges for transport through the bayous to New Orleans.
Based in New Orleans, Pierre Lafitte 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. Seamen flocked to the island, working on the docks or at the warehouses until they were chosen as crew for one of the privateers.
Lafitte was unhappy with the time it took to transport 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 prehistoric memorial earthwork mound halfway between Grande Terre and New Orleans.
Dissatisfied with their role as brokers, in October 1812 the Lafitte brothers purchased a schooner and hired a Captain Trey Cook to sail it. As the schooner did not have an official commission from a national government, its captain was considered a pirate operating illegally. In January 1813 they took 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 adapted the captured ship for use in piracy, naming it Dorada. Within weeks, Dorada captured a schooner loaded with over $9,000 in goods. The captured schooner was not considered useful for piracy so, after unloading its cargo, the Lafittes returned the ship to its former captain and crew. The Lafittes gained a reputation for treating captive crew members well, and often returned captured ships to their original crew.
The brothers soon acquired a third ship, La Diligent. They outfitted it with 12 fourteen-pounder cannons. Dorada captured a fourth ship, a schooner they renamed Petit Milan. The brothers stripped down their original ship and used its guns to outfit the new one. They sailed three ships, which Davis described as likely "one of the largest privately owned corsair fleets operating on the coast, and the most versatile." 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 create a manifest that listed not the provisions that had been purchased, but smuggled items stored at Barataria. Uninterested in exports from New Orleans, customs agents rarely checked the accuracy of the manifests. The ship would sail to the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, load the contraband goods, and sail "legally" back to New Orleans, with goods listed on a certified manifest.
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, calling his men "brigands who infest our coast and overrun our country". The residents of New Orleans were grateful to the Lafittes for providing them with luxuries otherwise prevented by the embargo. When Claiborne returned to office, he was relatively quiet on the subject.
On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain. Britain maintained a powerful navy, while the United States had little naval power. To supplement their navy, the United States offered letters of marque to private armed vessels. New Orleans issued six such 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. They submitted booty from captured British ships to the American authorities at New Orleans, while booty from all other ships was often channelled for sale on the markets through Lafitte's operation. As the smuggling operations reduced the amount of revenue collected by customs offices, American authorities were determined to halt Barataria's operations. Because the US Navy did not have enough ships to act against the Baratarian smugglers, the government turned to the courts. On November 10, 1812, the United States District Attorney John R. Grymes charged Lafitte with "violation of the revenue law". 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. Officials released the smugglers after they posted bond, and they disappeared, refusing to return for a trial.
Although under indictment, in March 1813 Lafitte registered as captain of Le Brig Goelette la Diligente for a supposed journey to New York. Biographer Jack Ramsay speculates that the voyage was intended to "establish...[Lafitte] as a privateering captain". Lafitte soon acquired a letter of marque from Cartagena, but never sent any booty there. He brought all captured goods to Barataria.
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". The proclamation was printed in the nationally read Niles' Weekly Register.
In October, a revenue officer prepared an ambush of a band of Lafitte's smugglers. The smugglers wounded one of the officers and safely escaped with the contraband. 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". Following the reward offer, Lafitte wrote Claiborne a note denying the charges of piracy.
Given the success of his auctions at the Temple, in January 1814 Lafitte set up a similar auction at a site just outside New Orleans. Officials tried to break up this auction by force, and in the ensuing gunfight, one of the revenue officers was killed and two others were wounded. Many of the city's merchants were also unhappy with this auction, because it allowed their customers to buy goods directly from Lafitte at a lower price than the merchants could charge.
Claiborne appealed to the new state legislature, citing the lost revenues due to the smuggling. 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". The legislature appointed a committee to study the matter but, as most of their constituents benefitted by the smuggling, they never authorized the militia. A grand jury indicted Pierre Lafitte after hearing testimony against him by one of the city's leading merchants. Lafitte was arrested, tried, convicted and jailed on charges of "having knowingly and wittingly aided and assisted, procured, commanded, counselled, and advised" persons to commit acts of piracy".
Lafitte and his fellow pirates known as 'Baratarians' knew full well of the risk of an American attack on their port as the first war the young nation ever fought was the Barbary Wars over piracy in Africa. In September of 1814 just that happened and the fleet was captured by the US under Andrew Jackson.
War of 1812
While Pierre was jailed, Jean operated the piracy and smuggling business. Over the next few months, the British Navy increased 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 pirate ship returning to Barataria. Lafitte's ship grounded 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.
Captain Nicholas Lockyer, the commander of the Sophie, had been ordered to contact the "Commandant at Barataria". He was accompanied by a Royal Marine infantry Captain, John McWilliam, who had been given a package to deliver to Lafitte. The Baratarians invited the British officers to row to their island. When they had disembarked and were surrounded by his men, Lafite identified himself to them. Many of the smugglers wanted to lynch the British men, but Lafitte intervened and placed guards outside his home to ensure their protection. McWilliam brought two letters in his packet for Lafitte: one, under the seal of King George III, offered Lafitte and his forces British citizenship and land grants in the British colonies in the Americas if they promised to assist in the naval fight against the United States and to return any recent property that had been taken from Spanish ships. (The British were allied with Spain against the French and the US.) If they refused the offer, the British Navy would destroy Barataria. The second item was a personal note to Lafitte from McWilliam's superior, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, urging him to accept the offer.
Believing that the US would eventually prevail in the war against Great Britain, Lafitte thought he could more easily defeat the US revenue officers than he could the British navy. He had also been told in August that American officials were planning an assault on Barataria with forces under the command of Commodore Daniel Patterson. They feared that Lafitte and his men might side with the British.
Lafitte tried to convince the Americans that they had nothing to fear from him. He sent a message to the Americans that few of his men favored helping the British, but said he needed 15 days to review their offer. Lafitte had copies of the letters sent to Jean Blanque, a member of the state legislature who had invested in the Barataria operation. In a personal note, Lafitte reminded Blanque that his brother Pierre was still in jail and deserved an early release. Lafitte added a note to Governor Claiborne, saying,
"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."
Lafitte committed himself and his men for any defensive measures needed by New Orleans. Within two days of Lafitte's notes, Pierre "escaped" from jail.
Black and white painting of side-burned 30-something man in naval uniform
US Commodore Daniel Patterson commanded an offensive force against Lafitte and his men at Barataria, 1814
The US ordered an attack on Lafitte's colony. On September 13, 1814 Commodore Daniel 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 pirate ships formed a battle line in the bay. Within a short period, Lafitte's men abandoned their ships, set several on fire, and fled the area. When Patterson's men went ashore, they met no resistance. They took 80 people captive, but 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.
On September 23, Patterson and his fleet, including the eight captured ships, began the return trip to New Orleans. Widely publicized, the raid was hailed by the Niles' Weekly Register as "a major conquest for the United States". Lafitte was described 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."
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 US but had prepared their vessels to flee. The judge ruled that Patterson should get the customary share of profits from the goods that had already been sold, but he did not settle the ownership of the ships. They were held in port under custody of the United States marshal. 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, saying that for generations, smugglers were "esteemed honest ... [and] sympathy for these offenders is certainly more or less felt by many of the Louisianans". According to Ramsay, Claiborne next wrote to General Andrew Jackson, "implying Patterson had destroyed a potential first line of defense for Louisiana" by his capture of Lafitte and his ships. 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?"
Battle of New Orleans
When Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans on December 1, 1814, he discovered the city had not created any defenses. It had approximately 1,000 unseasoned troops and two ships for its use. Although the city kept control of the eight ships taken from Lafitte, it did not have enough sailors to man them for defense. Resentful of the raid on Barataria, Lafitte's men refused to serve on their former ships.
In mid-December, Jackson met with Lafitte, who offered to serve if the US would pardon those of his men who agreed to defend the city. Jackson agreed to do so. On December 19, the state legislature passed a resolution recommending a full pardon for all of the former residents at Barataria. With Lafitte's encouragement, many of his men joined the New Orleans militia or as sailors to man the ships. Others formed three artillery companies.
On December 23, advance units of the British fleet reached the Mississippi River. Lafitte realized that the American line of defense was so short as potentially to allow the British to encircle the American troops. He suggested that the line be extended to a nearby swamp, and Jackson ordered it done. 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.
Patterson praised the Barataria men who served on one of the US Navy ships, and whose skill with artillery was greater than their British counterparts. On land and sea, the former pirate gunners earned praise as the battle continued. On January 21, Jackson issued a statement praising his troops, especially the cannoneers 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." Jackson named Jean and Pierre Lafitte for having "exhibited the same courage and fidelity". He formally requested clemency for the Lafittes and the men who had served under them. The government granted them all a full pardon on February 6.Galveston Island
In late 1815 and early 1816, the Lafitte brothers agreed to act as spies for Spain, which was embroiled in the Mexican War of Independence. Collectively they were known as "Number thirteen". Pierre was to inform about the situation in New Orleans, and Jean was sent to Galveston Island, a part of Spanish Texas that served as the home base of Louis-Michel Aury, a French privateer who claimed to be a Mexican revolutionary. 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. 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. With Spanish permission, Lafitte returned to Galveston, promising to make weekly reports of his activities.
Lafitte essentially developed Galveston Island as another smuggling base. Like Barataria, Galveston was a seaward island that protected a large inland bay. As part of Mexico, it was outside the authority of the United States, and was largely uninhabited, except by Native American Karankawa.
Lafitte named his colony Campeche, after a Mexican outpost further south along the Gulf Coast. His men tore down the existing houses and built 200 new, sturdier structures. Ships operating from Galveston flew the flag of Mexico, but they did not participate in the revolution. Lafitte wanted to avoid a Spanish invasion. Aury returned to Galveston several months later, but he left in July when he realized that the men were unwilling to revolt.
In less than a year, Lafitte's colony grew to 100–200 men and several women. Lafitte interviewed all newcomers and required them to take a loyalty oath to him. The headquarters 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. Lafitte conducted most business aboard his ship, The Pride, where he also lived. Lafitte created "letters of marque" from an imaginary nation to "authorize" all the ships sailing from Galveston as privateers. The letters gave the ships "permission" to attack ships from all nations.
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, giving permission to any ship to capture a slave ship, regardless of the country of origin. Slaves captured in such actions who were turned over to the customs office would be sold within the United States, with half the profits 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 identified slave ships and captured them. 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 became the lawful owner of the slaves and could resell them in New Orleans, or transport them for sale in other parts of the Deep South, which was the major market of the time.
In 1818, the colony suffered hardships. After Lafitte's men kidnapped a Karankawa woman, warriors of her tribe attacked and killed five men of the colony. The corsairs aimed the artillery at the Karankawa, killing most of the men in the tribe. A hurricane in September resulted in flooding of most of the island, in which several people died. It destroyed four ships and most buildings. Only six houses survived as habitable.
Marriage and family
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. They had his only known son, Jean Pierre Lafitte (d. 1832).
Later Life & Fate