University library is new home to Jean Laffite Chronicles
The Laffite Society in Galveston, acknowledged by the state as one of the most vibrant and active historical societies in Texas, is dedicated to studying and exploring the era of the pirate Jean Laffite who, for a short time in the early 1800s, made Galveston his headquarters.
Celebrating its 25th year, the society has donated its archive of papers, books, maps and all things Laffite to the Jack K. Williams Library at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where much of the collection has been digitized and is available for viewing online.
A quick search leads to the digitized collection of newsletters published by the society and, before them, a Laffite study group. The Laffite Chronicles are filled with research, stories, some speculation and plenty of intrigue about Jean Laffite and his brother Pierre, pirates and privateers who built a fortune as smugglers off New Orleans, became unlikely heroes during the Battle of New Orleans in 1812, then moved to Galveston to resurrect their smuggling trade.
Much of the society’s archived material was stored at a building on The Strand in downtown Galveston owned by Laffite researchers and society members Dale and Diane Olson, when Hurricane Ike hit Galveston in 2008 and swamped the first floor of their building.
“We’d been piling this stuff up for years,” Diane Olson said. “Many things were destroyed in Hurricane Ike.”
Diane Olson recalled chasing hired cleaners out into the street, yelling “No!” to them and retrieving boxes of Laffite Society items she then carefully dried and kept, she said.
The Laffite Society Collection now has a permanent home within the dry walls of the Jack K. Williams Library, thanks largely to Larry Porter and Ed Jamison, society members and both former presidents of the society.
On a recent November afternoon, Porter, the Olsons and society member Lou MacBeth gathered at the Olsons’ property on The Strand to talk about their work and the newly established archive.
“We expect it will continue to grow as society members donate their libraries,” MacBeth said.
A Galveston native, MacBeth became a Jean Laffite aficionado early in life, playing in the 1940s in a house built on the site where Laffite is believed to have built his home, Maison Rouge. That address is now 1417 Harborside Drive, property owned by the Olsons.
A small case of labeled relics, including utensils, bottles and pottery pieces, in the Olsons’ loft represents an archaeological dig at the Maison Rouge site that unearthed several pieces believed to date back to Laffite’s time on the island, roughly 1817 to 1821.
Among Jean Laffite legends, and there are many, is a belief that Laffite left treasure buried on Galveston Island or in a ship sunk off Galveston.
“We don’t really believe in the buried treasure,” Dale Olson said. “But some of our members do. The society has never taken a stand. You can believe what you want to believe.”
Society members, however, are far more than collectors of legend. Among them are serious amateur and professional researchers who continue to verify Laffite history based on documents and who persist in the search for evidence of his life, his notorious career and his death.
A key concern is what led the former pirate, then war hero — Laffite provided musket flints to Gen. Andrew Jackson enabling defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans — to come to Galveston and become a bad guy again.
In large part, that was because Galveston, in 1817, was not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. or any government, meaning Laffite could establish his own fort with chosen officers, exclusively under his leadership, Laffite historians attest. Capturing merchant vessels in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston and absconding with their currency and cargo was a lucrative business, unfettered by the eye of the law, at least for a short time.
Laffite worked with Jim Bowie capturing slave ships as well, then selling their “cargo” to smugglers who re-sold them at the Port of New Orleans, according to historians.
A hurricane in 1818 wiped out most built structures on the island, and Laffite’s reign in Galveston came to an end in 1821 when the U.S. government took an interest in the island and forced him off to Caribbean waters. As legend has it, Laffite burned Maison Rouge to the ground before leaving.
“We know that he left here and he and Pierre went to Isla Mujeres in the Yucatán,” Dale Olson said. “Jean was killed in battle on a ship off the coast of Honduras in 1822. Maybe.”
The archived Lafitte papers at Texas A&M University have given new vigor and reach to the society based in Galveston, members agreed.
“He was the last big name among the buccaneers and privateers, and the romance of Laffite continues,” MacBeth said. “The membership of our society is fluid and it’s progressive.
“All the Laffite scholars in the world, to our knowledge, are in our group.”
The Laffite Society meets the second Tuesday of every month at the Meridian Towers, 23rd Street at Seawall Boulevard. www.thelaffitesociety.com
Visit https://tamug-ir.tdl.org/handle/1969.3/28577 to view contents of the Laffite Society Collection at Texas A&M University.