The 19th century also witnessed some home-grown American pirates, such as the Oyster Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay. There was a healthy tradition of American River piracy such as the one run by Jean Lafitte and his brother, Pierre. The Lafitte’s did not operate on a grand scale but they did have a number of independent colonies, and their own fleet of corsairs.
A Nexus of Privateers, Pirates, and Smugglers
Some biographers think that Jean and Pierre Lafitte were born in Haiti and moved to New Orleans in the 1780s, or perhaps even later. However, by the early 19th century, the Lafitte brothers were privateering out of New Orleans, and Jean, in particular, had a reputation for a superlative knowledge of the inlets and local waterways.
Following the Louisiana purchase, the fledgling United States government placed a heavy embargo against foreign imports, which by then included the merchant vessels plying their trade to and from the Caribbean. The brothers smelled an opportunity, with the elder, Pierre, maintaining the face of a respectable blacksmith in New Orleans, Jean headed to the Barataria Bay in the Gulf of Mexico and set up a bustling nexus for outfitting and fencing on behalf of privateers, pirates, and smugglers.
Soon they had their own little pirate fleet, trading in stolen goods and enslaved Africans kidnapped from Spanish ships. And, as always, the old story held true. The Lafitte brothers were not even plausibly privateers, but their depredations benefited the economy of New Orleans, and so the local government held its nose. Eventually, Pierre was arrested because local enslaving merchants were annoyed by the smuggler’s ability to undercut their prices.
War of 1812
Then, the War of 1812 broke out, and Jean, who was still free and running the family business, was eyed with interest by both the American and the British navies. The British made overtures, but Jean calculated that he needed to avoid being quashed by the American forces eager to prevent such an alliance.
In late 1814, Lafitte was able to secure pardons from James Madison for his men, in exchange for taking part, indeed enabling, New Orleans’ defenses in the Battle of New Orleans.
Lafitte Benefit American Forces
Andrew Jackson, whose bloody career was made by the victory in that unfortunate post-war battle, had arrived to find New Orleans without much in the way of official defenses. Lafitte’s encouragement in getting his pirates to participate was of essential benefit to the American forces.
Directly afterwards, they began ostensibly working on the side of Spain in the Mexican war for independence. Although, in reality, they worked with both sides for their own benefit.
Jean essentially established a smuggler’s colony on Galveston Island. They flew the Mexican flag, but all residents for their allegiance only to Lafitte, who began drafting letters of marque for his privateer ships.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Establishing Base in Cuba
The privateer ships went cruising against the enemies who were, according to Laffite, every one of his theoretical tiny nation called Campeche. They began targeting enslaving vessels and smuggling the captive enslaved into Louisiana ports. Eventually, the American Navy had enough and insisted that he decamp from Galveston in 1821.
Lafitte headed for Cuba and established a base from whence he eventually persuaded the Latin American independence leader, Simon Bolivar, to issue him a real letter of marque, to cruise against their mutual enemy, the Spanish. Lafitte, in the meantime, had been operating openly as a pirate. He was killed in battle around 1823.
Pierre, meanwhile, had died in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1821, of wounds he’d received while being hunted as a pirate, or maybe of a fever he contracted, possibly both, it’s not entirely clear. Rumors persisted for years that Jean at least had escaped his doom. In one highly unsupported version, he rescued and teamed up with Napoleon Bonaparte. In another, he occasionally popped up in alleys and shadows of New Orleans to rob the unsuspecting.
An American Legend
The Lafitte legacy was significant, not in terms of economics or a lasting colony, but in terms of stories. Though denounced, correctly enough as monstrous pirates during the period of their depredations, the brothers Lafitte, quickly made the jump into American legend.
The brothers were said to have buried treasure waiting to be rediscovered. They single-handedly fought and won the Battle of New Orleans. Both Pierre and Jean were depicted as witty, attractive, and at times rakishly charming men. Fredric March, played Jean in the 1938 film The Buccaneer and the charismatic Yul Brynner, played him in the 1958 remake.
Perhaps because of their charm, a rumor started that Lord Byron had based Conrad, the tragic but hot star of his best-selling poem, The Corsair, on Jean Lafitte. This is very silly; everyone knows Byron based his hot doomed protagonists on himself.
Jean Lafitte’s Journal
In reality, however, in the end, the Laffite’s were piratical enslavers, men who made money from the misery of others, and even then, spent as fast as they gained, leaving little of substance behind them, or maybe not. There’s one more twist to this story.
In the middle of the 20th century, an eccentric man named John A. Lafitte, or Lafflin, claiming to be descended from the original Jean Lafitte, produced a journal in Creole French, that he said was the work of his forefather, detailing the man’s life for two decades after he was supposed to have died, living in quiet retirement in Illinois.
The journal was translated and published in 1958. Its original or possibly a copy of the original, is in the Jean Lafitte collection at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, Texas State Archives. Its providence remains controversial, to say the least. It cannot thus far be authenticated, but its mysteries, the language and handwriting, which seem correct, also have not been explained.
Common Questions about the Lafitte Legacy
Some biographers think that Jean and Pierre Lafitte were born in Haiti and moved to New Orleans in the 1780s, or perhaps even later.
Jean Lafitte was killed in battle around 1823. Pierre Lafitte, meanwhile, had died in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1821, of wounds he’d received while being hunted as a pirate, or maybe of a fever he contracted, possibly both, it’s not entirely clear.
Both Pierre and Jean Lafitte were depicted as witty, attractive, and at times rakishly charming men.