Island organization helps us shed light on the myth and the man
More than 6 feet tall, wavy-haired, literate and wily, Jean Laffite, the romantic privateer of the Gulf Coast, was already a legend when he sailed into Galveston Bay 198 years ago.
A sailor, a smuggler, a spy, a commander of men and ships, and an undisputed hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Laffite at age 37 had two decades of adventurous living in his wake.
“Laffite is popularly called the most romantic figure in American history,” said R. Dale Olson, author of the scholarly essay, “French Pirates and Privateers in Texas.”
The mythical exploits of the dashing captain were circulating even before the 1826 publication of “The Memoirs of Laffite,” a small book reprinted many times in what would be considered a best-selling romance today.
By all accounts, “Laffite was elegant, fashionable, suave, highly intelligent and gentlemanly, though he was ferocious against enemies,” Olson said.
But what do we know of the real man apart from the powerful myth?
Olson and colleague Jeffrey P. Modzelewski are men with a serious intellectual interest in the study of the Texas privateers, and in knowing the historical facts about the real Laffite. They’re members of The Laffite Society in Galveston; Olson was one of the founders and Modzelewski is a past president. The mission of the organization is to educate and disseminate information about Laffite’s history, the chronological era and the places he lived.
For starters, there were two Laffites: Jean and his brother Pierre.
“Jean apparently had the looks, the personality and the charisma — he was attractive to both women and men — and thus he eclipsed his older brother in popularity,” Modzelewski said.
Both were a product of their times, as we all are to some degree, he said.
Born in the late 18th century of French parentage, the Laffites rose to prominence in the early 1800s, a slippery era of shifting political alliances with laws that were subject to wide interpretation.
“They were catapulted into historical superstardom because their lives coincided with an important epoch in world history,” Modzelewski said.
The United States, still a new nation, was beginning to emerge and expand while colonial powers such as Great Britain, France and Spain were losing their grip on empires.
As the century turned, Jean Laffite was living and working as a sailor in Santo Domingo, the French colony now known as Haiti.
Early in the 1800s he began living with his brother Pierre in New Orleans, where the two owned a blacksmith shop, possibly a front for their stolen goods.
In fact, both Laffites may have been living in New Orleans when the French colony joined the United States after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Around 1806, the Laffites had established a smugglers’ settlement, called Barataria, on Grand Terre Island in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles from New Orleans. They likely divided time between their headquarters and New Orleans. Business was good. The cargoes of captured ships were brought to Barataria and held until the goods could be sold at auction closer to New Orleans.
The Laffites gained expertise, manpower, weapons and knowledge of the bayous and waterways, which made it possible in 1815 for them to assist Americans in winning the Battle of New Orleans.
Their assistance may have been self serving, but there’s no question the brothers provided critical military support to Gen. Andrew Jackson, as the United States battled Great Britain for control of the Mississippi River at the close of the War of 1812.
Their service was so important to the American cause that U.S. President James Madison expunged all records of criminal activity of the Laffite brothers. They might have lived out their days as honored men in New Orleans, but they chose another path.
The group at Barataria continued to prey on trade ships, including vessels having friendly relationships with the United States, and finally the government asked, then ordered the Laffites to leave.
They arrived in Galveston in 1817 seeking a new base of operations.
Galveston was to be the closing chapter for Jean and Pierre. They both died within three years after the duo was forced to leave in 1820, again for their raids on shipping.
Most researchers and biographers believe that Jean Laffite was injured in a battle, and buried at sea, as reported in newspapers at the time. Pierre died off the coast of Mexico and is buried in a small village in the Yucatán. Both died in their early 40s.
Myth or Fact?
1. Laffite’s vast reserve of Spanish gold was buried on Galveston Island near “Three Trees” to mark his treasure trove.
This is probably the No. 1 myth about Laffite in Galveston. Experts agree that it’s highly unlikely that Laffite left any treasure on the island for several common sense reasons: When Laffite left Galveston in the spring of 1820, he couldn’t be certain it would be feasible to return. It’s doubtful that a man as intelligent as Laffite would leave behind valuables on a barrier island devoid of topographical landmarks and prone to being scrubbed clean periodically by tropical storms, Modzelewski said.
Finally, Laffite was successful, in part, because he picked his battles. Ships carrying Spanish gold were heavily guarded and not a good target for Laffite. He’d be looking for ships carrying cargoes of food, slaves or merchandise that could be sold, traded or used for his community.
2. As the “Prince of the Pirates,” Laffite commanded up to 100 ships and 1,000 men during his reign in the Golden Age of Pirates.
Laffite may have been a prince of a fellow, but he would have vehemently denied that he was ever a pirate. His marauding was carried out, for the most part, under a letter of marque. This means that a country at war with another nation could officially authorize privateers to attack and plunder the ships of their enemies. We might call them mercenaries today. This was a common practice until it was banned in 1859. As for the numbers of ships and men, a better guess is up to seven ships, depending on what prizes he was able to capture at sea, and there may have been 150 men at Barataria Bay, and less at the Galveston headquarters.
“Given the type of men who would have composed the group, documenting much about them would prove impossible,” Modzelewski said. The Golden Age of Pirates — 1560 to 1730 — with cutthroats such as the infamous Blackbeard, Black Bart and Capt. Kidd, was long over before Laffite was born.
3. Laffite was a notorious ladies’ man who married twice and had a vast number of children, including descendants in New Orleans, Texas and the Caribbean islands.
Unclear. Laffite never married, nor had children, at least as far as scholars have been able to determine. However, Pierre Laffite did.
“We know of a woman now about 60 years old living in Tennessee who is believed to have a solid claim as a descendant of Pierre,” Modzelewski said.
4. Laffite established a luxurious lifestyle at his new home, the Maison Rouge, in the settlement called Campeche on Galveston Island.
Laffite did establish a new headquarters on Galveston Island, but calling this a luxury lifestyle is a stretch. The appearance of the original Maison Rouge is unknown, Olson said. But it has been described as a two-story blockhouse with a cannon. Its probable site was 1417 Ave. A. Construction of the fortress was probably overseen by architect Barthelemy Lafon, a close friend of Jean Laffite. He captained the ship, Carmelita, which brought materials to Galveston to build Laffite’s new headquarters. The small settlement on the eastern tip of the island was made up mostly of one-story frame buildings, according to Texas historian Henderson Yoakum. It held an arsenal and a dockyard for repairing vessels.
Apparently the little group did prosper for the first year but after a devastating hurricane struck in September 1818, the community never fully recovered.
5. After his departure from Galveston, Laffite gave up his life at sea to live a quiet life in Illinois.
It’s nice to imagine a pleasant ending for such a colorful character, but this myth is probably only wishful thinking. It’s based on information from a “found” journal supposedly written by the privateer but held by his descendants for a period of 107 years after his death. It was published by a vanity press in the 1950s by a less than reputable individual.
“For decades, this work became the unquestioned basis for the publication of other fictional works and was the source of deep divisions among Laffite historians,” Olson said.
The premise of “The Journal of Jean Laffite” is that Laffite left Galveston to move under a new name to Alton, Ill. According to the journal, he married, raised a family, traveled in Europe, became a benefactor of Karl Marx, and died from pneumonia in his 70s.
“The journal was published by a forger, a con man, and a devious character who called himself John Andrecheyne Lafitte and claimed to have been the great-grandson of Laffite,” Olson said.
Research in the past few years has all but established that the work bears absolutely no relationship to Jean and Pierre Laffite, Olson said.
“Evidence mounts that Jean died as many of us may have intuitively expected — at sea,” Olson writes.
The Washington Gazette reported on April 23, 1823, that the celebrated Laffite had been killed in action; other newspapers published similar accounts.
What’s in a name?
The Laffite brothers signed their names Laffite, using a variant of the common French spelling. Their surname is commonly rendered Lafitte in documents written in English; Spanish documents sometimes use Lafit or Lafita. The Laffite brothers of Barataria are occasionally confused with members of the Lafitte family who were colonial-period pioneers in the area around Natchitoches, La., according to historians.