Jean Lafitte, and the “Pirate Trust”
TWO young Frenchmen — Jean and Pierre Lafitte — started a blacksmith shop in New Orleans in 1809. They had not the look or manner of blacksmiths. Probably Jean — a splendid, handsome giant, the hero of this story — never wielded hammer or shod a horse in all his career. Instead, he made negro slaves do the rough work while he strolled about the city and planned bigger enterprises.
Jean Lafitte was a blackguard. But he was a manly, likeable blackguard. And, once at least, he did our country valiant service. He was a pirate. Yet some historians say he went to sea but twice in his life — once when he came from France to New Orleans as a youth and once when he sailed away from America in 1820, never again to be heard of. Others say it was Pierre who set sail in 1820 and who perished somewhere in the ocean, while Jean went to Yucatan and lived six years longer in ill-earned luxury. The fact remains that there is no absolute knowledge as to whence Jean Lafitte came or whither he vanished. He was a man of mystery.
Louisiana in those days consisted largely of rich, unsettled land. Into these waste spaces the pioneers began to come. Huge plantations sprang up. To work the plantations there was need for thousands of negro slaves. And the slave trade between Africa and America throve tremendously. A negro that cost $20 in his African jungle could often be sold for $1,000 in the New Orleans market. Then the United States declared the horrible African slave trade illegal. This stopped the imports. The planters clamored for more slaves. Gangs of smugglers met the demand by secretly buying slaves intended for Spain’s Cuban and South American plantations and landing them by night in the Louisiana bayous. There was money in this sort of business. More than in blacksmithing. So, the Lafitte brothers became slave smugglers.
Then Jean’s fertile brain still further improved his business in a rather original way. What was the use of buying negroes from the Spanish slave ships off the Cuban coast when, by seizing those ships, he could get the negroes for nothing? It was a clever idea and he at once put it into practice. He also seized vessels laden with other valuables, and altogether he prospered exceedingly.
Lafitte himself did not go in search of such prey. He was a business man, not a cheap sea rover. By this time he had a number of good ships and nearly one thousand men to send on his piratical errands. He had a fortified town and harbor of his own at Barataria and made that place his headquarters. Jean had marvelous control over his men, and, though he seldom troubled himself to fight, he was unconquerable. One night a band of mutineers attacked him in is cabin. Lafitte, single-handed, slew six of them and beat off the rest.
The pirates called Lafitte, behind his back, “The Old Man.” To his face they called him “Bosse” (meaning literally “prominence”). And thus the word “boss” came into our own language. He seldom spoke to his men except when he had to and held aloof from them.
By judicious bribes to the right authorities he managed to steer clear of active prosecution, though countless governmental threats were hurled at him.
When the British planned their attack on New Orleans in the War of 1812 they offered Jean Lafitte a captain’s commission and $30,000 to join them with his men. Instead of accepting, he sent word of the offer (and of the British plot against New Orleans) to the American government, volunteering his services in exchange for a pardon. The British, in revenge, destroyed his Barataria stronghold and seized his ships. But the American general, Andrew Jackson (after cursing him for a “hellish bandit”) accepted Lafitte’s offer. And the pirate fought bravely for America in the battle of New Orleans, receiving a pardon for all past crimes.
After the war Lafitte went blithely back to his old ways. With his men he settled on an abandoned island, where now stands the city of Galveston, and made that place his new headquarters. Thus he was in a sense the real found of Galveston. He hit on an odd way to sell his smuggled slaves. He would arrange for Colonel Bowie (inventor of the bowie knife) to seize them from him and take them to New Orleans. There, as confiscated goods, they were placed on sale, and Lafitte and Bowie each reaped a goodly profit.
A visitor to the pirate lair wrote:
“Gold pieces are as plentiful here as biscuits.”
In 1820 the government captured Lafitte’s Galveston camp and hanged many of his followers.
Adams County News (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) Jun 8, 1912
Thanks to commenter, Robert R., here is a Google ebook preview link regarding Jean Laffite’s death:
Title: The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf
Author: William C. Davis
Edition: reprint, illustrated, annotated
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006
ISBN: 0156032597, 9780156032599
Google eBook preview (can be purchased for $9.99)
Jean Laffite’s death – Page 463
This might not be the same book, but it is the same author. Thanks, Robert!