RSM Profile: Jean Lafitte

He was born in France. Or maybe it was in the French colony of Saint-Dominque. He died at sea in the Gulf of Mexico, killed by his own men. Or maybe it was in Louisiana, after rescuing Napoleon Bonaparte from exile. Then again, maybe it was in South Carolina…or in the Yucatan. Pirate, privateer, smuggler, anti-hero and legend – all true, but none quite adequate to describe the enigma that was Jean Lafitte.

Born the year of American independence, 1776, no man took more personally the promise of freedom in the New World. By age 29, he operated a warehouse in New Orleans tied the to the smuggling operations of his brother, Pierre. Two years later, in response to the Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade American trade with other nations, he moved the operation to the more remote Barataria Bay.

This move proved fruitful and, within five years, the Lafittes expanded their operations into piracy. They purchased their first schooner in 1812 and hired a privateer captain to command it. Within months, they had expanded the fleet to three ships. The smuggled and stolen wares they traded ranged from textiles to furniture to African slaves – all much in demand for a growing city in the heart of the new state of Louisiana.

Originally, they would ferry the goods via pirogue through the bayous and canals between Barataria and New Orleans. They soon developed more sophisticated methods allowing them to sail directly to and from the city without raising suspicion. Not that the Lafittes’ operation was unknown to officials. Their under-priced contraband luxuries were seen as necessities in a region cut off from international trade and largely ignored by the federal government.

Stealing from the rich and selling at a bargain to rich and poor alike made Lafitte something of a French Robin Hood in New Orleans. Combined with his reputation for treating the victims of his piracy not as enemies, but as gentlemen – often even returning the ships to their crews – made him more popular than the officials in the new state. When one governor put a price on Lafitte’s head, handbills suddenly appeared all over New Orleans offering the same reward for the governor. Lafitte, mortified, personally wrote the governor to refute the charges of piracy leveled against him.

Perhaps that was the man’s most defining characteristic: his disdain for the title inextricably linked to his name. He saw himself more as a privateer working on behalf of a new nation to secure its financial strength. With the coming of war, the government was less inclined to agree. The War of 1812 found privateers obtaining letters of marque from the American government to raid British ships on their behalf. To the dismay of customs officials, booty from the ships of other nations was still smuggled through Lafitte. He was soon indicted, but refused to return to New Orleans for trial.

Eventually, Pierre was arrested again and held in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Jean was establishing himself as a privateering captain in his own right. He turned an offer to fight on behalf of the British into leverage to free his brother and an attempt to get the Americans off his back. It failed … at least initially. Commodore Daniel Patterson sailed into Barataria and seized Lafitte’s operations, confiscating ships, cannon and contraband goods, though not Lafitte himself.

At the behest of Governor Claiborne (who now found himself in the odd position of defending his former enemy) and out of sheer desperation, General Andrew Jackson and Commodore Patterson allowed the Lafitte brothers and their men to crew ships (most of which had been their own prior to Patterson’s raid) and to form artillery companies to defend the city. The skill and bravery of Lafitte and his men in the Battle of New Orleans earned universal praise from Jackson and Patterson … and pardons from both state and federal governments.

Accepting an offer from Spain to spy upon Mexican Revolutionaries, the Lafittes progressively moved their operations to Galveston Island. There, they created a fake nation of sorts, offering letters of marque to privateers and converting the island into a newer, larger version of Barataria. Working alongside the likes of Jim Bowie, Lafitte took advantage of a loophole in the recent law banning importation of slaves by capturing slave ships of other nations, turning the slaves over to customs and collecting half of the sale price. What customs officials didn’t realize is that Lafitte’s agents were the actual buyers. So, he was buying newly imported slaves, despite a law against importation, at half the market rate and reselling them at full price … and it was all legal, if ethically reprehensible.

One of his ships attacked an American merchant vessel – supposedly the first to ever do so – and the Lafittes agreed to leave the Galveston Island when pressured. They burned everything in their wake.

After working unabashedly as pirates and wreaking havoc on Cuban shipping lanes for a time, the Lafittes accepted a commission as privateers for Colombia. Lafitte’s increasingly bold attacks on Spanish vessels would prove his undoing. That is, if you believe that particular account of his death.

His grandson, for one, did not, claiming that Lafitte went underground and lived another thirty years in St. Louis. When it comes to the life and death of Jean Lafitte, the truth may forever be lost … in favor of legend.

2 Responses to “RSM Profile: Jean Lafitte”

  1. I love the legends surrounding Lafitte! We even have a kids’ book that is a VERY tall tale of how Jean Lafitte is mostly responsible for the digging of Lake Ponchartrain.

    It’s so great to have such legendary characters associated with The South!


  1. It’s Pirate Week on Real Southern Men! | Real Southern Men - June 3, 2011

    […] Another RSM Profile introduced us to the gentleman Prince of Pirates, New Orleans’ own Jean Lafitte. […]

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