Jean Lafitte


Jean Lafitte, the “Gentleman Pirate” and the “Terror of the Gulf”, was a furious pirate in the early 19th century. Lafitte considered himself a gentleman and preferred the term privateer to pirate. Certainly, every citizen of New Orleans in the early 19th century viewed Ms. Lafitte as, at best, a scoundrel. In one of his poems, Lord Byron wrote of Lafitte, “He left a corsair’s name to other times/ Linked virtue to a thousand crimes.” But when the United States went to war with the British in the War of 1812, Lafitte decided to become a patriot and fight on the side of those who considered him a common criminal.

Jean Lafitte was only involved in the specific Battle of New Orleans, but, because of his skill, Andrew Jackson was able to claim victory against the British. Lafitte had many assets that were considered valuable in the battle. Not only did he have knowledge of the geography of the swamps and bayous of New Orleans, but he also had over eight hundred men in his command. The British, realizing how valuable it would be to have Lafitte on their side, offered Lafitte a bribe to join the British. But Lafitte refused the offer and instead alerted the United States of the offer made by the British and promptly offered his services to Andrew Jackson.

At the beginning, Andrew Jackson did not see the benefits of siding with a pirate. But Jean Lafitte was insistent and won his way to a meeting with Jackson to convince him personally. The reasons behind the success of Jean Lafitte cannot be understood without the knowledge of who Jean Lafitte was, the decisions he made when thinking about which side to join, and the difficulty he had once he had made the decision to join to United States. But once all the barriers had been crossed and Lafitte had made his presence known and accepted in the United States, his benefits were numerous and he played a key role in the victory Jackson had against the British.

A large part of why Jean Lafitte played a large role in the Battle of New Orleans was because of his background. His place of birth and the ancestry of his parents are debated but sources seem to agree with the fact that his ancestry at some point on his father’s side was French and his mother was possibly Spanish. Some historians believe Jean Lafitte’s grandfather on his mother’s side was tortured and brutally murdered during the Spanish Inquisition. With that background, Jean Lafitte grew up being taught to hate the Spanish, which would explain why once he became a pirate, he looted and plundered only Spanish ships. Jean Lafitte himself commented that he never had been an enemy to a nation but Spain.

Once grown, Jean Lafitte and his brother, Pierre Lafitte, operated a blacksmith shop in New Orleans which was run by slaves. Jean Lafitte proved to be a very successful business man and by day, ran a blacksmith repair shop and by night, the shop turned into a drop point for the Lafitte brothers smuggling operation. The brothers made their base on the island of Barataria, which was not really an island at all. Barataria is in reality a bay, sheltered by Grande Terre and Grand Isle. The rivers and lakes that keep the bay away from the rest of Louisiana are the Big Lake of Ouatchas, the Ouatchas River, the Little Lake of the Ouatchas, and the Bayou Pierrot. The Louisianans as well as the pirates named it the island of Barataria because of its isolation from the rest of the world. Once their base had been established, the men’s business of looting and plundering began to flourish and the men began to become millionaires.

Once the brothers established themselves on their island, they began to undermine the merchants of New Orleans by selling their looted products for less than the merchants sold their goods. The merchants began to lose a significant amount of business and complained to Governor Claiborne of New Orleans to put an end to the Lafitte brothers. With the complaints of his citizens in his ears, Governor Claiborne declared a proclamation on the 24th of November, 1813, calling Lafitte and his men pirates and cautioning any United States citizen against giving any aid or support to Lafitte or his men. Claiborne then went on to announce a five hundred dollar bounty on Jean Lafitte’s head. To spite Governor Claiborne and cause him more frustration, Jean Lafitte published his own proclamation on the 26th of November, 1813. He offered a five thousand dollar reward to “any person delivering Governor Claiborne to me at Isle au Chat west of Grande Terre….” After both of the proclamations, his brother, Pierre Lafitte, was captured and put in jail without bail on July 8, 1814. After the arrest of Pierre Lafitte, events with the British began to take hold of the citizens’ minds and the attention was off of the pirates for the time being. Governor Claiborne began to anxiously prepare for a British invasion of the city.

The occupation of Jean Lafitte proved a valuable asset to have when war was approaching. Barataria was in a key location for the invasion or defense of the city of New Orleans. Lafitte himself called the island the “back door to New Orleans.” Not only was he knowledgeable about the geography of the area, but he also had detailed maps of the area. There were also at least eight hundred men were Jean Lafitte’s command. The number of men was increasing daily and the men were well trained as fighters and not afraid of battle. They also carried with them the knowledge of area and were able to serve as accurate guides through the bayous and swamps of Louisiana. Not only were the men a benefit of Lafitte, but he also owned numerous amounts of flints, cannons and ammunition. Ammunition was an especially valuable asset, one both armies would have benefited from.

The British were the first to take notice of Jean Lafitte and the benefits they would reap for having him on their side for the impending battle. They planned to use the island of Barataria for an invasion point into the city of New Orleans and use Jean Lafitte and his men as their guides and possible soldiers. In August of 1814, the British Captain Nicholas Lockyer sent Captain John McWilliams onto the island of Barataria, carrying with him a letter, written by W. H. Percy, the senior officer in command of the Gulf of Mexico. By the 4th of September, 1814, Captain McWilliams handed the letter to Jean Lafitte on the island of Barataria. The letter politely asked Lafitte and his men join the British army against the United States in the battle over New Orleans. The letter offered many rewards to Jean Lafitte based on his acceptance of the deal. The benefits included: a full pardon, the position of becoming British subjects, land in the Americas at the end of the war, and the restitution of any Spanish property that had been confiscated. Jean Lafitte was also offered a position in the British Royal Navy as a captain. Although not part of the original proposal from Percy, Lockyer added an extra $30,000 if Lafitte would not only assist in the battle against New Orleans but also against Mobile. The benefits of Jean Lafitte agreement to the British were numerous and well calculated.

The letter from the British gave Lafitte an incentive to join to British force, but whether or not Lafitte accepted the proposal, he was forbidden to attack Spanish ships again. The British claimed the country of Spain was at peace and should not be harmed any more. If, by some strange thought, Lafitte was to deny the proposal of the British, he was required to remain neutral throughout the remainder of the war. But W.H. Percy was not expecting a denial, and as a threat, he included in his letter if Lafitte refused to accept the offer, the island of Barataria and all of its inhabitants would be destroyed. “I have directed Captain Lockyer…in the case of refusal, to destroy to his utmost every vessel there, as well as to carry destruction over the whole place.” After reading the letter, Lafitte asked Lockyer for two weeks to consider the offer presented to him. His request was granted and the British returned to their ships to wait for Lafitte’s reply.

Even though Jean Lafitte asked for a fortnight to make his decision about the British proposal, he knew exactly what he was going to do the minute he received the offer. The same day Lafitte wrote to Lockyer asking for time to make his decision, the 4th of September, 1814, he also wrote to Jean Blanque. Jean Blanque was a friend of Lafitte’s who served in the state legislature of Louisiana as well as owned a number of pirate ships. The letter to Blanque explained in detail the visit and the proposition of the British. Lafitte not only described reaction and behavior towards the British and but also defended himself and the actions he had taken throughout the course of his life. “I may have evaded the payment of duties to the custom house, but I have never ceased to be a good citizen….” Lafitte also included in his letter a plea to free his brother from the jail in Louisiana. This could be a possible explanation for the apparent patriotism of Jean Lafitte. He could have possibly hoped to buy the favor of the United States in regard to his brother’s release from jail.

Once Jean Lafitte had made his decision to side with the United States during the battle of New Orleans, the acceptance of his offer of assistance was not easy to obtain. Jean Blanque gave the letter from Lafitte concerning the British proposition and pending invasion to Governor Claiborne. Claiborne read the letters and then brought them before the Louisiana legislature to discuss the possibility of joining forces with the pirates to defeat the British. The legislature at that time consisted of Major Jacques Villeré, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, Colonel George Ross, and Pierre DuBourg. The men were appalled at the thought of accepting the offer given by Lafitte. Commodore Patterson was opposed to accepting the pirates offer on the basis that he was already commissioned by the Secretary of the Navy to destroy the island of Barataria. Du Bourg commented, “The smugglers’ stronghold should be attacked and destroyed, now!” The only member of the legislature to support Lafitte and his offer was Villeré. But his support was in vain, and the Louisiana legislature concluded the letters were forged and Jean Lafitte was not to be trusted. But during the same time that the legislature had met to discuss Lafitte’s proposal, a jail break occurred and Pierre Lafitte escaped from jail and returned to Barataria.

After the denial of the validity of the letter, Jean Lafitte composed a letter written directly to Governor Claiborne. This letter offered the services of Lafitte and his men to the United States. Not only did he offer his men, but Lafitte also offered the island he inhabited, stressing the importance of the location of the island. The only thing he asked was “that a stop be put to the prosecution against me and my adherents….” But the letter was written in vain and had no impact on the decision already made in the legislature. Jean Lafitte feared an attack by the British because of his stalling in answering the British, so he and Pierre Lafitte, once again reunited, left Barataria for the island of Grande Terre.

An attack did come to the island of Barataria, but not from the British who the pirates had suspected. On the 16th of September, 1814, Commodore Patterson from the United States’ Navy led the attack on the island. He was there to carry out his previous orders given to him to destroy the island of Barataria before the proposition of Jean Lafitte. When the attackers were in close enough view, the pirates saw the United States flag and realized their assailants were not the British as expected. Rather than fire on the United States, the pirates burned their ships and warehouses on the island and fled. Eighty of the pirates were captured by Patterson and his crew as well as the loot that was able to be saved from the burning warehouses. The pirates were placed in jail in Cabildo. Meanwhile, the British, after waiting two weeks and hearing nothing, left Barataria humiliated and headed toward Pensacola.

Not long after the British left the island, Lafitte received an anonymous letter concerning the invasion the British were planning on New Orleans. The letter was written from Havana and contained great detail about the recent actions of the Colonel Nicholls. It described the British intent of proclaiming all slaves would be freed from their masters if they sided and fought with the British army. The British also promised to the Indians that their land would be reinstated after the war if they pledged to fight with the British. The writer stressed the importance of speed, saying, “You have not a moment to loose; because if they get a footing, it will be very difficult to get clear of them….” Lafitte again sent the letter he received to Blanque. Along with the anonymous letter, Lafitte again stressed his eagerness in serving the United States and told of the defenses he had set around his island to prevent a British invasion.

After Blanque received the second letter from Lafitte, he refused to let the government continue to ignore Lafitte and the possibility of aid from him and his men. Blanque sent the letter to Edward Livingston, a famous lawyer in New Orleans, who published the letter along with Lafitte’s letters in the New Orleans newspapers and spread them throughout the city to gain public acceptance of the pirates. While Livingston worked on gaining public favor, Claiborne sent the letters to General Andrew Jackson. At the beginning, Jackson refused to acknowledge the pirates, but Livingston was persistent in presenting the benefits the pirates could bring to the United States.

Edward Livingston had many arguments for accepting Jean Lafitte and his men. A main point he dwelled on was the fact that New Orleans did not have enough men to stock the army in a battle. Jean Lafitte would provide at least eight hundred men who not only provided man power but were also knowledgeable of the geography of the area as well as good fighters. The pirates could be used in the battle on the seas to sail and man the ships. At that point in time, the ships of the United States did not have enough men to simply be the crew, let alone fight a successful battle with their ships. Livingston also pitched the argument that the pirates were loyal to the United States. They did not fight against Commodore Patterson when he led the attack on Barataria. But Jackson was not to be swayed and claimed that the pirates who were presently in jail where “being prosecuted by civil officers of the United Sates and that he neither would nor could do anything in the matter.” The pirates that had not been caught yet should be caught and punished according to the law of the land.

Blanque and Livingston again refused to be silent and accept Jackson’s statement as final and took their case to the District Attorney, Dominick Augustus Hall. Hall declared: “I am general in these circumstances. Present at once a resolution in the legislature demanding that the procedures against these men be suspended for four months and I will immediately give my orders to the District Attorney of the United States.” The resolution was written and passed unanimously in the legislature. Hall immediately overruled Jackson and released the eighty pirates that were being held as prisoners in Cabildo on the condition they enlist in the military. Hall also demanded the persecution of pirates be stopped immediately and granted safe pardon for Jean Lafitte so he could meet and talk with Andrew Jackson face to face.

Through many letters and appeals, Jean Lafitte was able once again to walk the streets of New Orleans without the fear of arrest. Having proven his loyalty to the United States to all but one, he walked with the purpose of changing Andrew Jackson’s mind about him and his men. When Lafitte met Jackson for the first time, it was on accident. They ran into each other on a street corner, but both recognized one another. Lafitte immediately began his argument of why he should be allowed to fight in the United States army against the British. Lafitte told Jackson about his knowledge of the area, his manpower, his cannons and his ammunition which was scarce those days. Jackson was impressed by Lafitte’s enthusiasm, aggressiveness, bravery and desire to fight and found he could not refuse the man. Jackson immediately gave Lafitte his first assignment: to build up the defenses between Barataria and New Orleans.