Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans
"Do your duty, and leave the rest to the gods."
Louisiana had seen different flags over the past century before America acquired in it 1803, but had remained predominantly French in its population, ways and customs. New Orleans typified this. Founded in 1718 by a French soldier, Jean Baptist de Bienville, it remained under French control until the colony was treatied to Spain in 1763. Again, it fell under French govern, but, because Napoleon Bonaparte desperately needed the money to revive his war chest, he sold it and other vast holdings to President James Madison two years later. Now with Louisiana and territories northward in its possession, America had removed one more foreign-owned roadblock to keep its own people moving westward to fulfill its dreams of Manifest Destiny.
The only trouble is, in New Orleans...well, America found other hurdles to overcome. When newly appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, 28-year-old William Charles Cole Claiborne, stepped onto the balcony of the Cabildo facing New Orleans' Place D'Armes in December, 1803, to speak to the crowds of curious townsfolk gathered there purportedly Jean Lafitte was among them he immediately realized he faced a thankless job. When he finished his brief address, welcoming them all as "brothers" to the American cause, not one pair of hands applauded.
America was disliked and unwelcome. New Orleans had always been French in its psychology. Even the Spaniards who ruled for a time didn't try to change the flavor, but partook of it to marry its mademoiselles and eat its rich foods. Now, here was a governor from a country that represented Total Change, who brought along his armies in blue uniforms and black leather shakos, playing their fifes and drums, and waving their red-white-and-blue.
While the New Orleanians didn't approve of these Yankee Doodles, the feeling was often mutual. Most disliked were the traditionalistic Creoles of French-Spanish blood, dark eyed and saucy tempered. The American administration "found New Orleans like a foreign city...different from New England, New York or Virginia," author Robert Tallant explains. "They thought the people lazy and lawless. Among the things they could not understand was the dealing with the smugglers."
In retrospect, Claiborne's position is to be both pitied and respected. He was a straight-laced Virginian who had experienced nothing but the ways of life of other straight-laced Virginians. Faced with the tremendous task of "Americanizing" New Orleans, a city more Parisian in thought and deed, he was simultaneously charged by the federal government with, of course, keeping the law which, in New Orleans, meant sometimes changing laws that the citizens had molded out for custom and demography and did not want tampered. Waving the olive branch of peace in one hand, Claiborne found himself often loading all barrels with the other. He became very unpopular.
He knew of Jean Lafitte; had brushed shoulders with him at many of the plantation balls to which both men were invited. Caught between the perennial rock and hard place in the Lafitte situation, sensing Lafitte's popularity but aware of his tariff- defying smuggling, Claiborne chose the better of two possible directions: He decided to wait and watch before taking any drastic action. He permitted, at least for a while, the smuggling to continue.
New Orleans, the turbulent city of New Orleans, needed attention. It was growing outside itself and starting to burst. Between the years 1803 (when it became part of the Louisiana Territory) and 1812 (when Louisiana was admitted into the union), its population more than tripled. River commerce lured many, as did promises of adventure. Thousands of refugees from the Caribbean isles migrated there to partake of the milk and honey that claims of American posterity offered. With this rapid growth, Claiborne and his mayors (most of whom resigned long before their term ended out of sheer exhaustion) seemed unable to stop escalating crime. The police force argued amongst itself while under-equipped constabulary failed to cease river front murder and "pocket-snatching," constant dueling (mostly between American and Creole fops), drunkenness and whoring. Leonard V. Huber in New Orleans - A Pictorial History illustrates the "indolence, dissipation, and a singular indifference to law and order...Gambling among men of all classes was a common vice; and there were also the quadroon balls (where wealthy gentleman selected mistresses). Respectable white women had few opportunities for social and mental development."
Nature, too, was unkind. As Deirdre Stanforth exclaims in her Romantic New Orleans, "The city's temperament...was molded in a series of cataclysms: its extreme tropical climate and the tempestuous Mississippi River drowned it in floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes; many of its building burned in countless fires...(and) plagues of yellow fever and cholera repeatedly decimated its population..." An epidemic of yellow fever in 1805, carried by swamp mosquitoes, struck the governor's mansion on the Rue de Quay to kill his first wife Eliza and two-year-old daughter.
But, in spite of the pestilence and deluges, the gales and the malefactors, New Orleans remained what it sought utmost: to remain: the aesthete. It was a milieux de elegance of wrought-iron galleries and mansard roofs, of narrow streets and open cafes, of shutters and peaked dormers, of pirouetting staircases and Grecian fountains, of red-colored brick, and white-colored brick and bricks in any one of two-dozen or more colors, of oil lanterns and kerosene, of sunken arcades and recessed courtyards framed in lattice and razor palms.
Depending upon location, nostrils detected the smells of sugar cane and peanuts cooked in the huge vats of confectioneries, or the malts of ale houses, or the sweetness of vegetables and fruits in the open-air markets, or fish from the wharves, or the sharpness of French coffee houses, or the thousand spices from the import warehouses. Street merchants with pushcarts yodeled their wares and Haitian princesses jangling huge earrings sang out for their voodoo trinkets and incenses: "Sisters, get your chaaarms! Your good luck chaaarms!"
At the intersections under the shade of piazzas the diversity of life passed: trim-cut ladies under plumed bonnet, and the dusty pirate, and the padre with his round brim hat and rounder belly, and the gentleman in bay rum and cutaway coat, and the tradesman in gingham, and the merchant in apron, and the whore in next to nothing. They spoke French, mostly, and English was quickly catching up; but they also spoke Portuguese, Italian. Greek and Spanish. No one understood the Creoles but the Creoles themselves. Central to town was the Place D'Armes, the "town square" that edged the river front levee. In contrast to the nearby wharves, with their squat, dirty warehouses and ramshackle fisheries, the park square was beautified by oaks and natural blossoms. Lining cypress boardwalks were tiny storefronts of every kind imaginable. Saturday morning, market time, the encircling walks creaked under pedestrian traffic. Shoppers bundling groceries paused to admire the works of local landscape artists come to preserve in oil the magnetic aura around them. Favorite subject for these artistes were the St. Louis Cathedral whose ten-column facade rose as if in a state of grace at the entrance to the plaza, and the city-council Cabildo Building and the architecturally matching Presbytere (home of the church wardens), flanking the cathedral.
One of the busiest spots on weekends was, however, a stretch of cobblestone adjacent to the square; here, Lafitte's marketers brazenly barked their wares over rustic tables and from hastily erected booths. Although not intended as a sacrilege, this "Pirate's Alley," as it became known, occupied an open walkway beside the cathedral through which pedestrians would short-cut from the Place D'Armes to the Rue de Royale. Some church-goers complained that the din of the pirate market would sometimes interfere with the Rite of Mass, the Domine vobiscums drowned under the Come One-Come Alls of the peddlers. Goods on sale here were usually carted early those mornings from nearby Rue de Chartres where, in Maspero's Exchange, a warehouse/auction block/gin mill, Lafitte retained large quantities of popular contraband in its rear chambers.
"One of the most picturesque parts of old New Orleans was Levee Street," according to author Huber in his other informative retrospect of days-gone-by entitled New Orleans As It Was In 1814-1815. "The levee, a low embankment of earth thrown up to prevent the encroachment of the (Mississippi) river during high water, was a landing place and market for the great variety of produce brought to the city and shipped abroad...
Here barges, keel boats and flatboats in great numbers discharged their cargoes...Often the flatboats were converted into stores, taverns...even places of amusement. When the Mississippi fell, these boats were stranded on dry land and were then broken up for lumber...."
Upstream from the levee was the 300-foot long French Market Arena with its hundred vendor stalls just inside its arcade doorways. The articles it sold were various, according to Huber, and consisted of "wild ducks, oysters, poultry of all kinds, fish, bananas, oranges, sugar cane, sweet and Irish potatoes, corn in the ear and husked, apples, carrots, and all sorts of other roots, eggs, trinkets, tin ware (and) dry goods."
Across town, on the site of the old Spanish barracks, stood the Baroque convent founded by the Ursuline nuns from France around 1747. These devout ladies of God worked with Governor Claiborne to advise the city's educational system as well as guide the moral and domestic lives of the indigent female youth. Within the convent grounds the nuns worshipped mornings and evenings before a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, which was brought back from France in 1810 by one of the sisters. To Her, they prayed for the city's deliverance from evil.
After Claiborne took office, one of his aims quickly became to upscale the city's educational and cultural values, both, he felt, left wanting. With support from the Louisiana Territory Legislature, he was able to construct the College d'Orleans, forerunner of today's University of New Orleans. His efforts also produced two playhouses, the Phillip Street Theatre, which presented popular dramas and farces, and the Theatre d'Orleans, an opera house, on the Rue de Bourbon. Jean Lafitte was a charismatic presence in New Orleans. A central element to the town's industry, the politicians admired him, the shopkeepers and saloonkeepers flattered him, the artisans exulted him,. Everyone knew him, the highlife and the lowlife. Even the flatboatsmen who towed their crafts into New Orleans from hundreds of miles upstream knew him. From his blacksmith shop "front" to Maspero's Exchange to "Pirate's Alley" to the French Market to the wharves, his figure cut into the scene like the rapier he wore; he incited whispering gossip and intrigue. Lafitte embodied the notion of the "man born in the right place at the right time". He didn't move around the city. In essence, the city moved around him.