Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans
"Fortune's wheel never stands still the highest point is therefore the most perilous."
A fleet of eight ships left Barataria Bay in April of 1817. Its crews didn't look back. Many of his original colony, including brother Pierre and Dominique Youx, followed Lafitte in search of a new port of call. They still called him bos.
They first docked in Santo Domingo, hoping to re-ingratiate themselves with the smugglers there in hopes of returning to the profession they knew best. But, the Hispanically-inclined government still remembered and resented the way the Baratarians had picked on its ships. They were told to leave.
Realizing it would be much the same throughout the Caribbean, they returned to the Gulf and settled on the deserted Galveston Island off Texas. Galveston was also owned by Spain, but Mexico, of which Texas was a province, was fighting for its independence. In return for being allowed to remain on the isle, Lafitte accepted a privateering commission from the Mexican revolutionaries to attack as many Spanish ships as possible. The booty would be his. It was like old times again.
Galveston Lafitte called it Campeche, its original name greatly resembled Grande Terre. His experience in settling up a smuggling operation engendered Lafitte to make lucrative contracts on the east coast of Texas through which he could transport his contraband inland to growing towns that required provisioning. One of his slave runners was a young adventurer and mercenary named James Bowie who would later reach hero status after dying at the Battle of the Alamo.
On Campeche, Lafitte built a fine, two-story brick haven called Maison Rouge (Red House) after the color he painted it. Half home, half fort, it offered excellent living quarters and rooms in which to entertain business partners, as well as a barracks for his men. Cannon barrels protruded from its upper portholes over the Gulf. Around it sprang the warehouses of trade, a slave quarters, cattle pens, taverns and frame cottages of his crew.
Lyle Saxon gives an excellent description of the village at its most active. "More buccaneers arrived, bringing their women with them; an ever-increasing number of traders came to the settlement; and there was a constant infusion of men of all nations gamblers, thieves, murderers and other criminals who joined Lafitte's colony in order to escape punishment for crimes committed within the borders of the United States. Numerous rich prizes were brought in, including several captured slavers loaded with Africans. 'Doubloons,' says one writer, 'were as plentiful as biscuits.'"
But, Campeche was not to last. The reasons were many.
For one, Lafitte had blundered in allowing too many fugitives-from-the-law to penetrate his new colony. These were not of the sea-worthy kind he was used to dealing with; these men were not of his kin; they were opportunists who felt no vested interest in Galveston (nor to anything or anyone) as had the Baratarians on Grand Terre. He had trouble controlling their behavior and had to endure constant interference and investigation from both Mexican and U.S. officials pursuing their trails. Campeche was always under scrutiny. Many of his old-time faithfuls such as Beluche or Dominique Youx, not approving of this climate of circumstances, left for other parts.
As well, the Karankawa Indians, who lived on the island long before the white man, proved meddlesome and even hostile. They were forever raiding Lafitte's properties, killing his men.
In late 1818, a great hurricane struck the island killing hundreds of men, flattening the settlement, sinking the fleet, washing contraband to sea. It was a devastatingly financial setback
Still, all of these could have been overcome. But, in the end, it was Lafitte's pirating activity that brought about his undoing. Continuing to harass Spanish ships for Mexico, he insisted everthemore that he was and had always been a privateer making a living off the liberties allowed in a letter of marque bestowed by a patron country. But, the nation now eyed a new diplomacy of peace. The only thing that stood in its way of developing a friendship with Spain was the constant harassment of Spanish ships by buccaneers anchored off the American coast. President Madison issued an all-out war on piracy. Lafitte had to go.
In late 1820, the USS Enterprise docked in Campeche Bay. On board was a designated naval diplomat, Lieutenant Larry Kearney, who, in speaking for President Madison, ordered Lafitte to abandon Galveston Island. For months, Lafitte stalled. But, a subsequent visit by Kearney, accompanied this time by a war fleet on a May day in 1821, produced a single command: Get off the island now or be blown to smithereens. This time, the island's chief graciously consented.
"That night," writes Robert Tallant, "Lafitte set fire to Campeche. Men aboard the USS Enterprise saw it burst into flames...When they went to shore at dawn they found only ashes and rubble. The ships of Lafitte were gone..."
Lafitte, at this point, returns to the oblivion from whence he came. Where he traveled, where he wound up, where or when he died, is mystery. There are, of course, many conjectures. There is strong evidence he sailed to and settled in, at least for a while, Charleston, South Carolina. Some writers say he fought with Bolivar's rebels against the South American nationalists. Other suppositions place him ahead of a band of pirates in Santo Domingo or dying of a plague at age 47 on the Isle de Las Mujeres near Yucatan.
The site of his burial continues to lure researchers and would-be archaeologists.
"Today, Baratarians cherish the fantasy that the Gentleman Pirate is buried in an unmarked grave along the bayou that runs through the village of Lafitte," says New Orleans writer Mel Leavitt. Concluding, tongue in cheek, he adds, "He rests, some say, next to the unmarked graves of Napoleon Bonaparte and John Paul Jones. 'Around here,' say the natives, 'Lafitte's buried in everybody's backyard.'"
The book, Louisiana A Narrative History by Edwin Adams Davis cites a rather new and surprising theory that spots Lafitte's final years in America's Midwest. Claimants say he married in Charleston, moved west with his wife, bore children and died in Alton, Illinois on May 5,1854. A supposed letter written in 1833 to his brother in law indicates a bitter man. It reads: "I saved the Union from the Octopus, but the city of Washington remains deaf and dumb. I have received eulogies, but not recompense not even a wooden medal."
One thing is certain. When Jean Lafitte left America he did so failing to understand why the nation he trusted never trusted him. He would say it over and over again: "I am not a pirate I am a corsair, a privateer!" But in the end he may have found solace, somewhere out there in the only country that had never disappointed him. The sea.