Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pirates: Jean Laffite

Jean Lafitte (c. 1780c. 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 historians.

A number of details about Jean Lafitte's early life remain obscure - often they contradict each other. 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. Lafitte's biographer Jack C. Ramsay says, "this was a convenient time to be a native of France, a claim that provided protection from the enforcement of American law". Other contemporary accounts claim that Lafitte was born in Orduna, Spain or in Westchester, New York.

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.

The 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, including at least three daughters. Jean Lafitte was likely born in 1782, although he was not baptized until 1786. Pierre Lafitte had one other child, also named Pierre, from his first marriage to Marie LaGrange, who died in childbirth. The boys were given a basic Catholic education.

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 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 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".


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 mid-morning, 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 $500K.

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?".

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.

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).

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 Orleans. 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.



Source: Wikipedia

This work released under CC 3.0 BY-SA: Creative Commons





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