Two centuries later, Jean Laffite still captures the imagination on island and beyond
Lou Graves MacBeth and her young playmates once amused themselves by exploring the ruins at 1417 Harborside Drive in Galveston that generations earlier had served as headquarters for one of Galveston’s earliest European-born residents: the notorious pirate and privateer Jean Laffite.
“We spent our whole summers playing in that relic,” MacBeth said. “There was nobody living in it and the windows were knocked out. Some kids had even set the steps on fire.”
The grown-up MacBeth is a co-founder and recent vice president of The Laffite Society, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to studying Laffite’s life and times — and the eerie spell this handsome and calculating pirate still casts over his long-ago adopted home.
Today, a chain-link fence and Texas historical marker signify the site of “Maison Rouge,” Laffite’s harborside stronghold. The concrete steps and crumbling walls on the property date to a subsequent building, but a nearby well, or pozo, noted on an early-1800s Spanish map still exists; Laffite likely drew water from that very one. This also makes the well “the oldest documented structure on Galveston Island,” MacBeth said.
In the early 19th century, Laffite and older brother Pierre built a successful operation plundering ships in the Gulf of Mexico and smuggling a variety of illicit goods — anything from luxury items to human cargo — from his base in the Louisiana swamps around Barataria Bay. His influence was such that Gen. Andrew Jackson enlisted Laffite and his men’s assistance in the Battle of New Orleans, the decisive battle in the War of 1812. His service earned him a presidential pardon, but whatever goodwill he accrued quickly evaporated.
Spain soon enlisted the brothers as spies in its struggle to maintain dominion over Mexico. While Pierre remained in New Orleans, Jean went to Galveston Island and quickly usurped French privateer Louis-Michel Aury as the man in charge. He christened the new settlement Campeche. Despite being that much farther from his primary markets in the southeastern United States, Laffite was able to rebuild enough business that Campeche’s population peaked at about 1,000. He reportedly lived lavishly, but in a backwater.
“They were camping in a lot of respects,” said Laffite scholar Ashley Oliphant, co-author of the 2020 book “Jean Laffite Revealed.” “Life had to have been hot in the summer, and hard, in that there was no infrastructure there. My guess is that it was pretty rough living.”
Back-to-back hurricanes walloped Campeche during Laffite’s rule. Relations with his followers and the local Karankawa tribe were mixed. Despite a few intermarriages, the abduction of one (or two) Karankawa women led to a skirmish known as the Battle of the Three Trees. But some scholars argue it wasn’t Laffite’s men at all but troops commanded by another early Anglo settler, Gen. James Long.
Either way, Laffite burned Campeche to the ground in 1821 after the U.S. Navy ran him off the island. Accounts of his fate after that differ. Oliphant and co-author Beth Yarbrough, who also is Oliphant’s mother, believe he wound up in Lincolnton, North Carolina, where he lived to a ripe old age. And somewhere along the way, abetted by Hollywood films like 1958’s “The Buccaneer” starring Yul Brynner as Laffite, he became the archetypal pirate.
As the last of his kind, his memory has lingered longer, Oliphant argues.
“He was also extraordinarily charismatic, and took that business model that everybody thought was dead and morphed it into something so totally unexpected,” she added.
Oliphant and Yarbrough saw heavy ongoing interest in Laffite on their recent book tour. Their Galveston stop in May found a “very interested, very engaged, very knowledgeable crowd,” Oliphant said. The authors plan to return to Galveston in November.
During their May visit, several people claimed to be among the pirate’s descendants. Others wanted to share theories about Laffite’s buried treasure, which Oliphant dismisses as unlikely.
“Pirates, I don’t think, buried their treasure and left it there,” she said. “If they did have to bury it, it was extraordinarily temporary, because they went to great risks to obtain it.”
Reminders of Laffite dot present-day Galveston, from subdivision names to longstanding LGBTQ bar Robert’s Lafitte. The site of the Battle of the Three Trees on Stewart Road is now Lafitte’s Grove. (The spelling of the pirate’s last name varies).
Jackie “Pippy” Moore, general manager of Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast, said Laffite’s story takes up a full two-thirds of The Strand tourist attraction’s content.
Once or twice a week, she has to convince a visitor that Laffite was indeed a real person and not a fictional character, she said.
“Throughout the years, there’s always been something about Galveston that made it special, and for a while, piracy was that thing,” she said.
Laffite’s legacy is problematic, at the very least. But time seems to have smoothed over many of the rough edges, leaving the memory of a dashing entrepreneur who operated with impunity — at least for a while — and helped put Galveston on the map. In the words of Lou MacBeth, “He’s our pirate.”