Jean Lafitte – life as a pirate

Published 6:19 am Monday, July 25, 2011

Many of the details of Jean Lafitte’s early life are obscure and sometimes contradict each other. Sometimes it is said that Lafitte was born in 1776 in either France or the French colony of St. Dominique, which is now the island of Hispaniola that includes the countries of Haiti and Dominican Republic.

Others claim that Lafitte was born in 1780, and his birth place was Bordeaux, France. They also claim that he lived the first 21 years of his life there. Still others say he is from Brest, France, and still others say Westchester, N.Y. Most likely, St. Dominique is his birth place.

There is also the story that he was born in France, one of six children, that his father was a ship’s captain and Jean spent a lot of time with his father out on the sea. This would explain his love for a sailor’s way of life.

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The Lafitte name was very common in Louisiana and appears in records as early as 1765. Jean Lafitte settled in New Orleans when his widowed mother married Pedro Aubrey, a rich merchant, in 1784.

Jean stayed with his mother while his brother, Pierre, was raised elsewhere in Louisiana by an aunt.

As a young man, Lafitte spent many years exploring the bayou country south of New Orleans until he knew the area like he knew his hand.

When grown to manhood, Jean and Pierre joined together and in 1805, operated a warehouse in New Orleans, possibly on Royal Street.

However, the Lafitte brothers became dissatisfied being the ones who distributed the stolen goods. They wanted to capture ships and seize their own cargo. So in 1812, the brothers purchased a ship and captured their first prize, a Spanish brig loaded with spices, silks and slaves. They turned their captured ship into a pirate ship and within two weeks they had pirated more than $40,000 in cargo.

Jean, who was the better of the two when it came to sailing, did not like the way the new ship handled and returned it to its former captain and crew. By doing this, the Lafitte’s gained a reputation for treating captives well and they often did return ships that they had hijacked.

When the brothers acquired their next ship, they outfitted it with 12, 14-pound cannons. It took no time at all for them to accumulate the largest pirate fleet in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Lafitte’s were very popular with the people of New Orleans because they provided them with luxury items that they normally would not have.

During the War of 1812, the British captured Pierre and his ship and imprisoned him for smuggling. Jean continued to operate the business in his brother’s absence.

Jean knew the waters of Barataria Bay much better than the British Navy. He found it great fun to lure their war ships into shallow waters and watch as they would run aground.

Lafitte was convinced that the Americans would win the war and he allied himself with the American Navy. In this case he helped them get through the bay and the bayous. He told them that he and his brother were lost sheep and wanted to return to the flock and be Americans. Within two days, Pierre Lafitte “escaped” from prison.

Jean Lafitte was always on the shady side of the law.

However, the United States needed his help to secure the lower bayous of Louisiana. So along with the promise of a full pardon for his piracy and the release of his brother, Lafitte became a privateer for the American Navy and he helped defend New Orleans from the British.

On Dec. 23, 1812, the British reached the Mississippi River. Lafitte could see that the American line was too short. This would make it possible for the British to encircle the American ships. Lafitte proposed that the line be extended over to a nearby swamp. This was done immediately and prevented the British from getting any closer and taking over the city of New Orleans.

However, the American Navy felt that Lafitte was over doing his pirate actions. In 1821, the war ship, USS Enterprise, was sent to capture Lafitte after one of the captains he hired attacked an American merchant ship. Angry with the American Navy, Lafitte left his island in Barataria Bay, sailing away on his flagship, Pride. Before he left he burnt down his fortress and the settlement. He then took an immense amount of treasure with him.

Later, the American government challenged Lafitte’s commission as a privateer. After fighting back and forth, Lafitte admitted that he did not have a valid commission and his ships were sailing as pirate vessels.

When this happened, about half of his crew did not want to sail under the pirate flag. Lafitte then gave them his largest ship, the General Victoria. That night the crewmen loyal to Lafitte boarded the General Victoria and destroyed its masts and spars, crippling the ship. They then allowed the crewmen to leave unharmed.

Lafitte and his men continued to take Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico, often returning to the safety of the barrier islands just off of the New Orleans shore.

In November 1821, Laffite’s ship was ambushed and he was taken prisoner and jailed. On Feb. 13, 1822, Lafitte escaped. Over the next few months, he establish a base on the Cuban shoreline. In April of 1822, Lafitte was again captured after taking his first American ship. The American Navy turned him over to the local Cuban authorities who promptly released him.

Lafitte applied once again for a commission to be a privateer and he received it. Now for the first time in a long time, Lafitte could legally capture Spanish ships.

Lafitte made the news in November of 1822, when he escorted an American schooner through the pirate strewn waters and provided the Navy with extra cannon balls and food. Once again he was a friend.