Jean Lafitte (c. 1780 – c. 1823) was a French-American 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". The latter has become the common spelling in the United States, including for places named for him.
Lafitte is believed to have been born either basque-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, Louisiana. By 1810, their new port was very successful; the Lafittes pursued a successful smuggling operation and also started to engage in piracy.
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 the final battle of the War of 1812.
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 they 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
Ramsay speculates that Lafitte was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). In the late 18th century, adult children of the French planters in Saint-Domingue often resettled along the Mississippi River in La Louisiane, especially in its largest city of New Orleans. He has found families with the surname Lafitte in Louisiana documents dating as early as 1765. According to Ramsay, Lafitte, his elder brother Pierre, and his widowed
mother migrated from Saint-Domingue to New Orleans in the 1780s. In
approximately 1784, his mother married Pedro Aubry - a New Orleans
merchant - and kept Jean with her. Pierre was raised by extended family
elsewhere in Louisiana.
According to Ramsay, as a young man, Lafitte likely spent much time
exploring the wetlands 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". His elder brother Pierre became a privateer; he may have operated from Saint-Domingue, which frequently issued letters of marque. Lafitte likely helped his brother to sell or trade the captured merchandise. By 1805 he was thought to be running a warehouse in New Orleans and possibly a store on Royal Street.
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.
Davis places Lafitte's brother Pierre in Saint-Domingue in the late
1790s and the early 19th century. Due to escalating violence from the Haitian Revolution, in early 1803 Pierre boarded a refugee ship for New Orleans. By 1806, several "Captain Lafitte"s operated in New Orleans; Jean Lafitte was likely one of them.
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 channeled 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
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.
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
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 benefited 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,
counseled, and advised" persons to commit acts of piracy".
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
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
In 1821, the schooner USS Enterprise
was sent to Galveston to remove Lafitte from the Gulf. One of the
pirate's captains had attacked an American merchant ship. Lafitte agreed
to leave the island without a fight, and on May 7, 1821 departed on The Pride. His men burned the Maison Rouge, fortress and settlement. He reportedly took immense amounts of treasure with him, and was accompanied by his mulatto mistress and an infant son. All that remains of Maison Rouge is the foundation, located at 1417 Harborside Drive near the Galveston wharf.
Most of his men had believed that Lafitte had a valid privateering
commission, although there was confusion on which country had issued it.
Two weeks after setting sail, they captured a Spanish ship, which they
sent to Galveston, hoping the Longs would smuggle the goods to New
Lafitte's men buried some of the cargo on the island and ran the
captured vessel 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.
The remainder of the crew rejoined Lafitte, who finally acknowledged
that he did not have a valid commission. He said his ships would sail as
pirates. 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 his remaining men reboarded the General Victoria and destroyed its masts and spars, crippling the ship, but they left the crew unharmed.
Over the next few months, Lafitte established a base along the coast of Cuba, where he bribed local officials with a share of the profits.
In late April 1822, Lafitte was captured again after taking his first
American ship. The American warship which captured him turned Lafitte
over to the local authorities, who promptly released him.
When Lafitte and other pirates operating in the area began attacking
merchant ships carrying legal goods to Cuba, they angered Cuban
officials. By the end of 1822, Cuba had banned all forms of sea raiding.
In June 1822, Lafitte approached the officials in Colombia,
whose government had begun commissioning former privateers as officers
in their new navy. Lafitte was granted a commission and given a new
ship, a 40-ton schooner named General Santander. For the first time, Lafitte was legally authorized to take Spanish ships.
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 cannonballs and food.
Davis writes that Lafitte's death prevented his becoming obsolete; 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".
Given his legendary reputation, there was much speculation about
whether, or how, Lafitte had died. Rumors abounded: he changed his name
after leaving Galveston and disappeared; he was killed by his own men
shortly after leaving Galveston; or, he rescued Napoleon and they both died in Louisiana. 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. By this time, Lafitte's only known son, Jean Pierre Lafitte, had died in October 1832 during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans.
Ramsay compares the numerous legends related to the life and death of Lafitte to those about King Arthur and Robin Hood. Lafitte is rumored to have buried treasure at many locations, including Galveston and sites along coastal Louisiana, such as Contraband Bayou in Lake Charles. Ramsay believes that over time, almost "every foot of Grande Isle has been spaded for pirate gold".
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 and taking their money for the
promise to find it.
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