American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

LAFITTE, JEAN (c. 1780-c. 1826). Jean Lafitte was perhaps the most successful, colorful, and popular of all America-based pirates.* For a short time during the early years of the nineteenth century, he was one of the most powerful men in New Orleans, and when he disappeared around 1821, he sailed directly into myth and legend, becoming the central character in numerous novels, plays, and ballads.

Concerning Lafitte’s early years there are conflicting stories. According to one, he was born in southwestern France, possibly Bayonne, and he is thought to have been the “Captain Lafette” of a French privateer that sailed into the Mississippi for repairs and provisions in 1804. More likely, however, Lafitte was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1782 and moved to New Orleans after the French were expelled during the Haitian revolution of 1794. Sometime around 1805 he became the joint owner with his brother, Pierre, of a New Orleans blacksmith shop, where he traded in contraband brought in by smugglers and privateers. By 1810 Lafitte had established a base on Grand Terre, a secluded island in the Barataria Bay, and from there he commanded up to a dozen ships, which carried letters of marque from the republic of Cartegena to attack Spanish shipping throughout the gulf. All of the plunder was taken to Grand Terre, where it was loaded onto barges and taken into New Orleans. At the height of Lafitte’s reign, up to a barge a day arrived in the city, and his pirated goods became a prominent part of the local merchant economy. Lafitte and his Baratarians were accused of attacking ships of all nations, but according to one report it was only after his smuggled goods threatened to monopolize the import trade that Governor Claiborne issued a warrant for Lafitte’s arrest.

Lafitte is best known for his actions during the Battle of New Orleans. On 3 September 1814, three British officers approached Lafitte with an offer of money, lands, a pardon, and a commission if he helped their forces when they attacked New Orleans. Lafitte politely stalled and informed the American forces of the impending attack, offering the support of his followers in return for full pardons. Despite his offer, a combined force of the American army and navy raided Grand Terre on 16 September, seizing all ships, arresting Lafitte’s followers, and destroying the settlement. Negotiations between Lafitte and the Americans continued, however, and on 17 December Governor Claiborne formally invited Lafitte and the Baratarians to assist the American forces in return for citizenship and full pardons. According to most historical sources, Lafitte and the Baratarians were crucial in the overwhelming American victory when the battle took place early on 8 January 1815.

Although many of his followers settled down to fish, trap, and trade, Lafitte became restless, and within two years he had established a new pirate base on Campeche, at the site of what is now Galveston, Texas. Again Lafitte and his band were accused of attacking ships indiscriminately, and throughout the gulf they were generally known as pirates, not privateers. On 22 September 1819, sixteen of Lafitte’s followers were hanged in New Orleans for piracy, and later that year Lafitte was forced to hang one of his own men in order to pacify the Americans for a raid along the Louisiana coast. In 1821, after an American merchant ship was attacked, a military force sailed into Galveston Bay with orders to destroy Campeche. Rather than fight, Lafitte burned his village and sailed away. For several years more Lafitte sailed with his brother, Pierre, but little is known of their experiences. According to one report, Lafitte turned up in Charleston a decade or so later under the name John Lafflin, and for the next twenty years attempted various ventures, including the manufacture of gunpowder in St. Louis.

Lafitte was known as the “the Gentleman Pirate,” and almost immediately following his disappearance in the 1820s popular narratives were published about his adventures. During the 1820s two anonymous novels appeared: The Memoirs of Lafitte, or The Baratarian Pirate (1826) and Lafitte or The Baratarian Chief (1828). Far more important was Joseph Holt Ingraham’s* best-seller, Lafitte, the Pirate of the Gulf (1836), which Edgar Allan Poe* attacked in the Southern Literary Messenger for its romanticization of the pirate.

Throughout the nineteenth century Lafitte and his pirates continued to appear as a fascinating episode in America’s past, and both historical texts and children’s books inevitably mentioned their participation in the Battle of New Orleans, while rumors of pirate treasure circulated along the Louisiana coast. In the twentieth century Lafitte and his band appeared in two notable historical novels: Odell and Willard Shephard’s Holdfast Gaines (1933) and Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse (1946). In the former, Lafitte is depicted as the colorful, larger-than-life figure of romantic lore, while in the latter he is less attractive, more like a Cajun Napoleon of the swamps. More recently, Lafitte has appeared as a ghostly presence in the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, particularly Sunset Limited (1998).

The historical Lafitte perceived himself a gentleman and took great pride in his manners and appearance, fiercely denying that he was a pirate, claiming that he was a merchant who only invested in privateering ventures against the Spanish. Despite his protestations, Lafitte became widely known as a pirate and a smuggler, and the romanticized literary character soon replaced the historical figure.

Daniel E. Williams