He’s one of the most romantic figures in the history of New Orleans. Books and movies have been written about him. A National Park and the oldest rumored bar in the United States is named after the man, the pirate. There was even a ride at the old JazzLand amusement park themed for him. But who was the “real” Jean Lafitte?
He was born somewhere between 1776 and 1780, but where is still a subject of debate. Jean and his older brother Pierre gave a number of differing accounts of their origins. Speculation puts them all over France, while some believe the brothers were born in St. Domingue (Haiti). Wherever they were born, most accounts put the boys and their mother in New Orleans in 1784. The boys’ mother was married to a New Orleanian named Pedro Aubrey. Because he was a merchant, it is likely that Jean learned the ins and outs of the business, as well as having time to roam the back bayous south of New Orleans. This supports claims by biographers and Lafitte himself that nobody knew the inlets and waterways from New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi better than him.
Having been raised by another branch of the Lafitte family, Pierre re-connected with his brother by the early 1800s. The brothers established a smuggling operation into New Orleans. Smuggling was quite lucrative and the Lafittes began to make a name for themselves. Their business ran into a snag in 1808, however. In an effort to avoid the wars in Europe pitting the British against Napoleon, the US Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade American flag ships from docking in foreign ports. The main purpose of the act was the hope that, by cutting off trade with Britain, the Royal Navy would stop harassing American ships and impressing sailors. It also put a serious damper on legitimate trade between New Orleans and France, but it was Washington’s hope that by outlawing all trade with Europe, neither side in that conflict would turn their attention to the United States.
While the Embargo Act was a disaster for merchants, it was a boon for smugglers like the Lafittes. The only problem was that the US Navy actually enforced the Embargo Act in New Orleans in 1808. That meant the Lafittes couldn’t conduct smuggling operations under the cover of legal traders in the city. They moved their base down the bayou to Barataria Bay. Jean handled the naval operations, while Pierre “fenced” the smuggled goods. Because the embargo put so many sailors out of work in New Orleans, those men made their way down the bayous to work for Lafitte. This naturally outraged the American government in the city but the locals liked the goods Lafitte brought in, so nothing was done.
When war broke out between the United States and the UK in 1812, several of Lafitte’s ship captains were issued “letters of marque” from the American government, authorizing them to raid British ships. Those captains also obtained similar letters from other governments, so they were essentially freelance pirates. Goods captured from British ships were supposed to be turned over the US, but it was hard to tell what was what, so the Americans quickly felt double-crossed by Lafitte and his men. On November 13, 1812, the Americans raided Barataria, arrested the Lafittes and 25 of their men and confiscated all their goods. The brothers Lafitte made bail but then skipped, not returning for trial. Pierre was re-arrested in 1813 and jailed. Jean continued the smuggling and piracy operations in spite of his brother being locked up.
As the War of 1812 moved to the Gulf of Mexico in 1814, the British made overtures to Lafitte. Jean decided that he would do better in the long run if the Americans prevailed, so he reached out to Governor Claiborne and his staff. His offer of assistance was accepted, and Pierre was allowed to “escape” from jail. This didn’t satisfy the US Navy, however, who continued to harass Lafitte and his Barataria base.
Jean Lafitte was already a cult hero in New Orleans by the time Andrew Jackson took over the defense of the city in late 1814. The Embargo Act and subsequent actions by the US Navy had created such a rift between the government and the sailors who regularly worked the ships based in New Orleans that none of the Barataria men were interested in fighting for the US, even to defend New Orleans. Although he initially did not trust dealing with Lafitte, Jackson gave in, offering the brothers and their men a full pardon if they assisted him. Assist they did, taking a major role in the defense of New Orleans in December, 1814 and January, 1815.
After receiving his pardon in February, 1815, Jean acted as a spy for the Spanish against the Mexicans as they tried to gain their independence. He moved to Galveston Island, which he used as base of operations for spying and priacy, until his death in 1821.
While Lafitte was arguably a criminal and a pirate, his business enabled many New Orleans to live comfortably and profit. That raised his status from cult hero to legend, causing a number of myths and tales to develop after his departure from Louisiana. From post-war Napoleonic intrigue to spy stories to ghost stories later in the Nineteenth Century, Jean Lafitte continues to be a colorful character.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is set for release October 31st. He is a partner in Yatmedia LLC, and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.