The mention of Jean Lafitte stirs romantic images of a daring, adventurous fellow who charmed his way into New Orleans society by 1804 and flirted with the young women while he and his older brother Pierre ran a smuggling operation out of their blacksmith shop in the city.
In the early nineteenth century, countries lacking their own navy issued letters of marque, contracts with privateers who attacked enemy ships, robbed them, and returned a portion of the valuable cargo to the sponsoring country—the balance remained with the privateer and his crew. The Lafitte brothers mastered the privateers’ tactics and expanded their smuggling empire to a barrier island near the mouth of the Mississippi River, a vantage allowing them to skirt the high tariffs on imported goods at customhouses in New Orleans.
Local residents appreciated the charming, well-educated young man who spoke four languages (French, English, Spanish, and Italian), swaggered down the New Orleans streets, and operated a black-market business providing locals with furniture, clothing, utensils, jewelry, laces, silks, calicos, and fine spices at discount prices.
The United States did not have a navy large enough to stand up to Britain’s powerful force when it declared war on Britain in 1812, which prompted the U.S. to issue letters of marque to private owners of armed ships–privateers. Under this arrangement, New Orleans issued six letters of marque to privateers who worked primarily for Lafitte. The men readily shared booty they seized from British ships with New Orleans custom officials, but they kept the goods captured from ships flying other national flags. With the loss of customs revenue from Lafitte’s privateering, coupled with insufficient U.S. ships to act against Lafitte’s island empire, the government went to court. A series of arrests and releases followed.
With the British poised to attack New Orleans in early 1815, Lafitte tried to redeem himself with authorities by offering his services to General Andrew Jackson. At first Jackson refused Lafitte’s overture calling him “that hellish banditti,” but as it became clear the Americans stood to lose control of the mouth of the Mississippi River, Jackson welcomed the militia, the sailors, and the artillerymen under Lafitte’s command. Lafitte’s men fought like pirates, and after Jackson’s decisive defeat of the British, he praised Lafitte’s men for having “exhibited courage and fidelity.”
As their reputation grew, Spanish colonial officials recruited the Lafitte brothers to spy on Mexican Revolutionaries working to secure Mexican independence from Spain from their base of operation on Galveston Island.
Pierre Lafitte kept Spanish officials abreast of plans in New Orleans to overthrow the colonial government while Jean Lafitte went to Galveston in 1817 and immediately took control of the island from the Mexican revolutionaries.
Spying for Spain quickly took second fiddle to Jean Lafitte’s plans for a new smuggling base on Galveston island, which he named Campeche. Within a year the colony grew to nearly 200 and soon reached 1,000 men and a few women who took a loyalty oath to Jean Lafitte. They constructed a two-story headquarters on the bayside docks, surrounded it by a moat, painted it red, and named it Maison Rouge.
Lafitte ruled with an iron hand, lived on his ship, The Pride, and issued letters of marque from a non-existing country authorizing ships sailing from Campeche as privateers to attack vessels from all nations. The booty rolled in and Lafitte’s men quickly sold it on the black-market in New Orleans.
Although the United States passed a law in 1808 prohibiting the importation of slaves into any U.S. port, a giant loophole in the law allowed for slaves captured on slave ships to be turned over to custom officials who auctioned off the slaves with half the profits given to whomever turned in the slaves. Lafitte and his men took full advantage of the law, captured slave ships, and sold their valuable human cargo for one dollar a pound (average weight of 150 pounds). James Bowie and his brothers were among the buyers who came to the island. They marched their newly purchased chattel to customs officials in New Orleans who sold the slaves at auction and issued the reward for half the sale. Then, the Bowies bought the slaves a second time and resold them legally all over the South. Between 1818 and 1820 the Bowie brothers earned $65,000 in the slave trade.
During Lafitte’s occupation of the island, filibusterers such as Dr. James Long continued to make stops on Campeche seeking Lafitte’s support in their efforts to win Mexico and Texas independence from Spain. Each visitor received a gracious welcome, enjoyed the finest of foods and wines at the Maison Rouge lavishly furnished with elegant linens and silver—privateering booty. But, Lafitte did not commit himself to anything beyond his privateering business.
By 1821 the United States reached the end of its patience with Laffite whose men continued attacking U.S. ships. The U.S.S. Enterprise sailed to Campeche to evict the inhabitants. Given three months to evacuate, Lafitte burned all the structures on the island and without offering resistance sailed away on the Pride on May 7, 1821, and disappeared into the mists of legend.
Some say he buried his vast wealth all along the Texas coast, which prompted treasure hunters to shovel through every square inch of the barrier islands in search of booty. Some say his men, overhearing him pacing the floor and muttering, “I buried my treasure under the three trees,” rushed to the site of the three trees, and quickly exposed a long wooden box. Raising the lid, they stared into the face of Lafitte’s dead wife. The most recent tale surfaced in 1948 when John Laflin, claiming to be Lafitte’s great-grandson (historians know of only one child, a son who died of yellow fever at age twelve in New Orleans in 1832), produced a journal Laflin said had been written by Lafitte between 1845 and 1850. Eventually, paper and ink analysis confirmed its mid-19th century origin. It is displayed in the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center near Liberty, Texas.