Texas’ Grand Lady

Elissa is a pricey lady, but Galvestonians claim her as their own and nothing stands in Slide08the way when it comes to preserving this beauty. Built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland, at the beginning of the age of steam, she is one of the last of her kind—a three-masted, square-rigged barque—measuring 205 feet from her stern to the tip of her jibboom.

After years of traveling the world, by 1961 she had been reduced to smuggling cigarettes between Italy and Yugoslavia. Peter Throckmorton, a marine archeologist, was aware that the Galveston Historical Foundation wanted a sailing vessel to display as a visual link between the city’s thriving 19th-century port and its major businesses lining The Strand. Throckmorton spotted the much-altered old barque in a Greek scrapyard.  Once aboard, Throckmorton discovered a plaque identifying the Elissa. More investigation revealed the dilapidated hulk as the oldest ship registered with Lloyds of London and its log showed two visits to Galveston.

She first arrived in Galveston on December 26, 1883, with one passenger and a cargo of bananas. The following January 25 she left port loaded with cotton, bound for Liverpool, England.

Her next visit occurred on September 8, 1886, when she arrived from Paysandú, Uruguay, probably carrying a cargo of hardwood or sugar. She sailed for Pensacola, Florida, on September 26 carrying only her ballast.

Over the years, the Elissa knew at least seven owners and carried names such as Fjeld, while berthed in Norway; Gustaf, while sailing out of Norway; and even Christophoros when purchased by Greeks. Each new name reflected the identity of her owners and brought physical changes such as losing some of her grand sails, acquiring her first engine in 1918, and having her bow snubbed in 1936.

Even after Throckmorton discovered the Elissa, the Galveston Historical Foundation did not purchase her until 1975 for $40,000. Despite the GHF sending a restoration team to Greece to make her seaworthy, and replacing twenty-five percent of the hull and removing tons of rust and rotten wood, the Elissa had to be towed across the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston.

As she made the journey across the Atlantic, the Elissa became the first object to be granted placement on the National Register of Historic Places while still outside the bounds of the United States.

No blueprints existed to guide the restoration, but the new owners realized she must be made seaworthy to attract the support needed to complete the enormous task. Experts arrived from Europe, Africa, and all over the United States to direct a corps of volunteers who descended on the fine old ship, varnishing the woodwork and going aloft to “tar” the rigging to keep it from rotting.

On July 4, 1982, with the restoration completed at a cost of $3.6 million, Texas had its “Tall Ship.” The Elissa sailed the Gulf of Mexico and began receiving a long list of awards for its restoration and for its volunteer program. The most prestigious accolade came in 1984 from the National Trust—the Preservation Honor Award.

In 1985 Elissa made her first voyage as a restored sailing ship to Corpus Christi.  The following year she sailed to New York harbor for the Statue of Liberty celebration and tall ship parade where she held the honor of being the oldest of the event’s Class A vessels.

Over the years, the Elissa represented Texas from Brownsville to Pensacola and received designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Anchored at Pier 21, her home is the Texas Seaport Museum where the story of her restoration is displayed alongside accounts of Galveston’s seaborne commerce and immigration. Elissa reigned as one of Galveston’s premier tourist attractions until January 2011, when a trip to dry dock for regular maintenance revealed corrosion penetrating spots in her hull. Apparently, Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused far worse damage than inspectors recognized. After repairs to her hull and replacement of the wood deck, repairs estimated at $3.1 million, Elissa returned to her place in Texas history.

Today, Elissa is being readied for the Tall Ship Challenge, a series of races and festivals hosted by three Gulf ports––Galveston, New Orleans, and Pensacola. The events begin in Galveston on April 5 with a Parade of Sail, which is already sold out. Over the next three days, Galveston Bay Sails and Harbor Twilight Sails will be open to the public. Finally, on Monday, April 9, Elissa will lift her sails to begin the race across the Gulf to New Orleans. The grand lady is a survivor, and she will represent Texas pride.


Don Martin De Leon, Empresario

Soon after winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico began issuing empresarial grants, contracts allowing men to bring settlers into Mexico’s northernmost state of Texas.  Ironically, of approximately thirty empresarial grants issued between 1821 and 1832, only one went to a Mexican.  Don Martín De León and his wife Doña Patricia De León were wealthy descendants of

Don Martin De Leon

Don Martin De Leon

aristocratic Spanish families who had immigrated to New Spain in 1750.  De León received his empresarial grant in April 1824 to settle forty-one Mexican families “of good moral character” on the lower Guadalupe River.  He had been in Texas since 1805, operating ranches along and south of the Nueces River and driving huge herds of cattle to market in New Orleans.

Map of Texas Colonies

Map of Texas Colonies

De León’s grant lay southwest of Stephen F. Austin’s, the first and most successful of the colonies.  De León named his settlement Guadalupe Victoria, after the first president of the Republic of Mexico.  The first twelve families arrived by October and the others, delayed by drought and floods in Northern Mexico, arrived the next spring.  Each family received a town lot, one league (4,228 acres) of land for grazing, and a labor (177 acres) for farming.  Upon completion of the colonization the empresario received five leagues.

One of De León’s sons-in-law platted the town and the empresario designated the main street “La Calle de los Diez Amigos” (The Street of Ten Friends) for the ten homes of citizens who were charged with the welfare of the town from 1824 to 1828.  Three of the ten friends were his sons-in-law and two were his sons.  From 1828 to 1835 alcaldes (mayors) governed the colony.  De León served as the first alcalde followed by two of his relatives.  Not all the colonists were Mexicans; sixteen families, primarily Irish immigrants, also settled in the colony.  A devout Catholic, De León brought in priests from La Bahía (present Goliad), Nacogdoches, and San Antonio until the founding in late 1824 of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  The colonists built a school and a fort, organized a militia, and started a courier service with the neighboring Austin colony.

Victoria quickly became a cultural center as the family maintained contact with friends who were kings, emperors, and both military and political leaders in the United States.  The children and grandchildren were sent to schools in the major cities of Europe and the business of the colony was considered among the most substantial.  Cattle, horses, and mules were the primary business and the family corralled wild Longhorns and mustangs by the thousands.10friends650x335

De León’s five-league ranch, which spread along Garcitas Creek in present southeastern Victoria County, probably included the land where the Frenchman La Salle built Fort St. Louis in 1685.  Many claim DeLeón’s cattle brand, which he had registered in 1807, was the first in Texas.  It consisted of a connected E and J meaning “Espiritu de Jesús, the brand used by Jesuits for hundreds of years and adopted by the De León family in Spain.

De Leon Cattle Brand

De Leon Cattle Brand

From the beginning of his colony, De León, a wealthy and cultured man, looked with disdain at the Americans in surrounding colonies.  His attitude and the preferential treatment he received as a Mexican citizen added to tensions among the neighboring settlements.  The boundaries of his colony were not clearly drawn and in disputes with other colonies, the Mexican courts usually sided with De León.  The ensuing squabbles led to hatred and mistrust between De León and Green DeWitt whose colony at Gonzales lay just to the north.  And De León tried unsuccessfully to have the government annul the grant for an Irish colony to the south.

De León died at age 68 in the 1833 cholera epidemic, leaving his wife and ten children an estate of about a half million dollars.  His sons completed the settlement, which made the De León and the Austin colonies the only two in Texas to fulfill their empresarial agreement.

The family members were strong Federalists and as troubles brewed with the Centralists government under the Mexican Dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the De Leóns sided with the Texans who supported independence.  The De León’s took part in all the plans for the revolution; they served in the army or helped in other ways to aid the Texas cause.  They contributed so substantially to the war that when Gen. José de Urrea occupied Victoria after the massacre at Goliad, the De Leóns were arrested as traitors.

Despite their contributions, after Texas won independence, Anglo-Americans began coming into Texas looking for land and charging the De Leóns as Mexican sympathizers.  After the murder of one son and the severe injury of another, the family, one of the wealthiest in Texas, left all behind and fled to safety in New Orleans. Three years later, the oldest son Don Fernando De León returned to Victoria and spent the remainder of his life in unsuccessful litigation for the return of the family’s property.

In 1972 a Texas historical marker was placed in Victoria’s Evergreen Cemetery honoring the De León family.  Attendees at the dedication included Patricia De León, great-granddaughter of the empresario, and Dr. Ricardo Victoria, great-grandson of President Guadalupe Victoria for whom the town is named.

Map Legend:  De Leon’s Colony — Blue

Austin’s Colony — Yellow

DeWitt’s Colony — Orange

Irish Colonies — Green

The Texas Navy

The Republic of Texas existed from March 2, 1836 until February 19, 1846 and during most of that time it boasted its own navy with a history as colorful as its government.  As Texas settlers, unhappy with the Mexican government, prepared to go to war for independence from Mexico, officials of the interim government realized ships would be needed to keep Mexico from blockading the Texas coast and to keep supplies coming from New Orleans to support the army. Historians estimate that three-fourths of the troops, supplies, and money needed for the rebellion came via shipboard from the port at New Orleans.

The provisional government in November 1835 passed a bill providing for the purchase of four schooners and they issued letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to defend the Texas coast until the navy ships could be put into service. On January 5, 1836, the Texas Navy became a reality with the purchase of a former privateer rechristened the Liberty. The Invincible, a Texas-Navyschooner built originally for the slave trade, was commissioned a few days later and the Independence, a former United States revenue cutter, which had been used to enforce customs regulations and catch smugglers, became the third purchase.  Finally, the Brutus completed the Texas naval fleet.  Immediately, the little band of ships sailing the Gulf of Mexico kept General Santa Anna’s army from receiving supplies, forcing it to forage for food as it marched across Texas. The ships also captured Mexican fishing vessels, sending their supplies to the volunteer Texas army.

The Independence

The Independence

After Texas won independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, the Liberty escorted the ship carrying the injured General Sam Houston for medical treatment in New Orleans.  That’s when the navy experienced its first setback—the Liberty remained in New Orleans for repairs and when the new Republic of Texas could not pay its bill, the Liberty was sold.  Similarly, the following September the Brutus and the Invincible were in New York for repairs and when the city’s customs collector realized the Republic of Texas could not pay the bill, the gentleman paid the tab himself.  Meantime, Mexico refused to ratify the treaty that General Santa Anna signed after his army’s defeat at San Jacinto and despite not having the military strength to launch a full attack on Texas, Mexico continued to make threatening forays along the coast.  The schooner Independence captured several small ships off the Mexican coast and after undergoing repairs in New Orleans in April 1837, started back to Galveston when it was forced to surrender after a four-hour gun battle with two Mexican ships.

With the loss of half its fleet, the secretary of the Texas navy and its commodore decided that the men needed a cruise to inspire confidence.  President Houston believed Texas needed the ships to patrol the coast, not go on a cruise raiding Mexican towns.  Nevertheless, the cruise took place and when the Invincible returned to Galveston it drew such a deep draft that it could not cross the bar into the harbor.  As it sat at anchor waiting for high tide to allow it to proceed, two Mexican ships attacked.  The Brutus, which has managed to enter the harbor, sailed out to help in the fight and ran aground on a sandbar.  After a daylong battle, the Invincible attempted to enter the harbor, went aground and was destroyed.  The Brutus, last of the ships of the Texas Navy, was lost the following October in a storm at sea.

Although the Republic of Texas had no active navy from September 1837 until March 1839, Mexico was too preoccupied with problems at home to take advantage of the unprotected coastline,

Schooner San Antonio

Schooner San Antonio

which gave Texas time to purchase six ships at a cost of $280,000.  In March 1839 a steam packet was purchased and renamed the Zavala, the first ship in the second Texas Navy, followed by the San Jacinto, the San Antonio, the San Bernard, the brig Wharton, the sloop-of-war Austin, and the Archer completed the second fleet.

Brig Wharton

Brig Wharton

Political differences existed from the beginning of the republic between President Houston and Vice President Mirabeau B. Lamar and came dramatically to the surface in December 1838 when Lamar became the second president of the Republic of Texas. Whereas Sam Houston wanted Texas to use its ships to protect the coast and insure the republic’s increased industry and commerce, Mirabeau B. Lamar encouraged the navy to pursue an aggressive policy of raids to keep Mexico busy defending its coastline.

During Lamar’s three years as president he initiated a friendly relationship with the Yucatán that had declared itself independent from Mexico.  In December 1841, just as Sam Houston was returning for a second term as president, Lamar sent the Austin, San Bernard, and the San Antonio to the Yucatán for defense against Mexico.  Immediately after Houston’s inauguration, he ordered the fleet to return.

In the meantime, the only mutiny in the Texas Navy occurred in New Orleans on February 11, 1842.  The schooner San Antonio was in port to be refitted.  Apparently concerned the sailors and marines would desert, the officers confined the men to the ship and went ashore.  The men got drunk on liquor that was smuggled aboard and Sergeant Seymour Oswalt led a mutiny in which a lieutenant was killed.  Eventually the men were brought to trial; three were flogged; four were hanged from the yardarm of the Austin; and Oswalt escaped from jail.

Mirabeau Lamar had appointed Edwin Ward Moore, a ten-year veteran of the United States Navy, commodore of the second Texas Navy and Moore was as determined to defend the Yucatán as Lamar.  Moore had constant problems financing the repair of his ships and because paydays did not come regularly, he had trouble recruiting enough men.  The Zavala had been allowed to rot and was eventually sold for scrap.  Houston, determined to reduce spending in his second term, withheld funds allocated by Congress for the navy.  Moore raised almost $35,000 to repair his ships and when it became clear he could not raise enough money in New Orleans to refit the ships, Houston ordered him back to Galveston.  Hearing of renewed Mexican troubles on the Yucatán, Moore arranged to supply Texas ships to Yucatán for $8,000 a month.  He sent the San Antonio to the Yucatán but it was lost at sea.  Just when the Austin and the Wharton were ready to sail from New Orleans, commissioners arrived with orders from Houston instructing Moore to sell the fleet immediately for whatever price he could get.  Further, Houston suspended Moore from command and told him to return immediately to Texas.  Moore convinced the commissioners to allow him to take the vessels back to Texas and as he embarked on the trip, he got word that Yucatán was about to surrender to Santa Anna. Commodore Moore headed for the Yucatán.  The resulting battles against the much larger Mexican vessels did not produce a victory, but it broke the blockade of Campeche and allowed Texas ships to get supplies to the forces fighting the Yucatán land battle.  After a week the Mexican force sailed away, Yucatán was not retaken, and Moore believed Texas was spared the invasion that would have followed if Mexico had captured the Yucatán.

A very angry President Sam Houston claimed Moore’s cruise was illegal and charged him as a pirate, a murderer, a mutineer and an embezzler.  When Moore reached Galveston on July 14, 1843, he was welcomed by a harbor full of boats loaded with cheering people. Houston discharged Moore dishonorably from the Texas Navy for disobedience of orders, fraud, piracy, desertion, and murder.  Moore insisted on a court martial and was acquitted of all the charges except disobedience.  The following year he was cleared of disobedience.

The political battles had not ended.  Texas had attracted volunteers to fight in its War for Independence by passing a bounty act on November 24, 1835, promising 640 acres for two years of military service.  Veterans of the Texas Navy did not get a single acre of almost ten million acres that were distributed as bounties.  President Sam Houston vetoed a resolution on January 6, 1842, that would have allowed navy veterans to receive a bounty claiming they were an “unnecessary extravagance.”  He added, “Generally, the seaman has no interest (except a transitory one) on shore.” An effort to reintroduce the bill and pass it over Houston’s veto met no success.

The Texas Navy had come to an end.  The Republic of Texas was negotiating with the United States to join the Union.  As part of annexation, the Austin, Wharton, Archer, and San Bernard became part of the United States fleet.  Their officers hoped to be included in the transfer, but US naval officers were against the plan and the Texas ships were declared unfit for service.

The Texas Navy was forgotten until 1958 when Governor Price Daniel established a Third Texas Navy.  In October 1970 Governor Preston Smith reestablished the headquarters for the Third Texas Navy at its original base in Galveston.  The new organization serves as a commemorative nonprofit, chartered by the State of Texas to assure the survival of Texas naval history.

Sally Skull: Legend in her Lifetime

Chroniclers say the tiny, hook-nosed, blue-eyed Sally Skull rode a horse like a man, cursed like a sailor, shot like an Indian, and spoke Spanish like a Mexican.  Stories abound of her five husbands–she may have killed one or two, and number five may have killed her.

Sally grew up early, and she grew up tough.  Born in 1817 as Sarah Jane Newman, her family moved to Texas in 1821 and settled in the northernmost part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony.  Besides the constant threat in her childhood of Indians stealing the family’s horses and corn, Sally watched as an Indian stuck his foot under the cabin front door to lift it off the hinges and her mother used an ax to chop off his toes.  At other times her mother put the children to bed and blew out the candles fearing Indians might shoot them through the cracks between the log walls of the cabin.  Finally, the family moved to Egypt, a settlement less prone to Indian attack.

Like many girls of that time, at age sixteen Sally married Jesse Robinson, a man twice her age who served as a volunteer in the famous Battle of San Jacinto and in several subsequent military campaigns.  When they divorced in 1843, he claimed she was a scold and “termagant” and committed adultery with someone she kept in the washhouse.  Sally said Robinson was excessively cruel.  They both fought for years over custody of their two children.

Sally married again on March 17, 1843, eleven days after the divorce, but not to the accused in the washhouse.  Despite three more unions, husband number two, George H. Scull, provided her famous name with a slight variation in the spelling.

After the Scull marriage, Sally sold her inherited property around Egypt and disappeared for about ten years.  She may have spent that time near her children who attended convents in New Orleans.  Those who knew Sally reported that she adored her children and always found other children delightful.  However, as her notoriety spread, mothers often chided their children to behave or Sally Skull would get them.

George Scull disappeared from the record by the early 1850s about the time Sally established a horse-trading business twenty miles west of Corpus Christi at the crossing of Banquete Creek and El Camino Real (the old road from Matamoros on the Rio Grande to Goliad and beyond). Several accounts place Sally at the great 1852 fair in Corpus Christi because she is remembered for shooting a man—in self-defense, of course.

Her reputation also spread over her lifestyle choices:  she often wore men’s pants, she rode her horse astride rather than side-saddle, and she buckled at her waist a wide belt anchoring two cap and ball revolvers.  Her only nod to feminine attire consisted of a slatted sunbonnet to protect her once-fair complexion.

She hired a few Mexican vaqueros that rode with her on horse-trading trips as far south as Mexico and along the Gulf coast all the way to New Orleans.  She purchased up to 150 horses at a time with gold carried in a nosebag around her neck or over her saddle horn.

Sally did not allow anyone to inspect or cut her herds, which may have fueled rumors that after she visited ranches, Indians drove off the best horses that appeared later in Sally’s herds.  Wives sometimes claimed she made eyes at their husbands while her vaqueros stayed busy running off their horses.

Several tales surround Sally’s loss of husband number three, John Doyle, who like George Scull simply disappeared from the scene.  Some accounts claim Doyle and Sally had a duel and her superior marksmanship won the day.  Others said that while in Corpus Christi for a fandango, which she loved attending, she did not wake quickly enough the following morning and Doyle poured a pitcher of water on her head.  She leaped from the bed not fully awake, drew her pistol, and became a widow. Another tale tells of her insisting that John Doyle and her vaqueros ride across a swollen river.  The rushing current swept away Doyle and his horse.  When the Mexicans asked if they should look for his body, she said, “I don’t give a damn about the body, but I sure would like the $40 in that money belt around it.”

In December 1855, Sally married Isaiah Wadkins and divorced him the following May for beating her, dragging her nearly two hundred yards, and living openly in adultery.  After she won the divorce, the Nueces County Grand Jury indicted Wadkins for adultery.

Sally’s number five was Christoph Horsdorff or “Horsetrough,” a moniker he earned for just sitting around and possibly for being almost twenty years her junior.

With the start of the Civil War Sally quit horse-trading, fitted out several mule train wagons, converted her Mexican vaqueros into teamsters, and began the highly dangerous and lucrative business of hauling Confederate cotton to Mexico.  The Union blockade of all the ports on the Gulf Coast made it necessary for the Confederacy to ship cotton to the mills in England through the neutral Mexican port of Baghdad at the mouth of the Rio Grande.  Hundreds of English ships waited for the precious cargo in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and medical supplies for the Confederate Army.  The old route to Matamoros that led through Banquete became known as the Cotton Road as ox-carts and mule-drawn wagon trains lumbered along its sandy route hauling thousands of bales of cotton from all over the South.

A few court records after the Civil War document Sally’s final scrapes with the law: The Goliad District Court minutes show her indicted for perjury on May 4, 1866, and acquitted seven days later.  The court closed an eight-year-old case in 1867 that had been filed for an unknown reason against “Sarah Wadkins” (name of husband four) and another woman’s husband.  The final note on the record stated, “death of Defendant suggested.”

Some storytellers believe Horsdorff killed Sally after she was seen riding away from Banquete with him and he returned alone.  Later, a man claimed that he saw a boot sticking out of a shallow grave and discovered her murdered body.  No one was ever charged.

J. Frank Dobie, historian and folklorist, best described the illusive lady: “Sally Skull belonged to the days of the Texas Republic and afterward.  She was notorious for her husbands, her horse trading, freighting, and roughness.” 

And that’s the truth.

Houston’s Civil War Hero

A handsome, redheaded Irish saloonkeeper lead a group of forty-six Irish dockworkers in a Civil War battle that Jefferson Davis called the most amazing feat in military history.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Richard “Dick” Dowling, owner of three popular Houston saloons, joined the Davis Guards, and soon became the company’s first lieutenant.  After gaining a reputation for its artillery skills in the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which the Confederates regained control of the island, Dowling’s company was assigned to Fort Griffin, a nondescript post at the mouth of Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border.

Dick Dowling

The twenty-five-year-old Dowling showed leadership beyond his years by keeping his rowdy men occupied with artillery practice—firing the fort’s six cannons at colored stakes placed on both sides of a shell reef that ran down the middle of the pass dividing it into two channels.  The east side of the passage led along the Louisiana border and the west paralleled the earthen embankment of Fort Griffin.

Battle of Sabine Pass

On September 8, 1863, Dowling’s Company F watched a Union navy flotilla of four gunboats and 5,000 men approach the pass.  Waiting until the first two gunboats entered the parallel channels, the little band of forty-six Irishmen opened fire with all six cannons, striking the boiler and exploding the USS Sanchem on the Louisiana coast and then striking the steering cables of the USS Clifton on the Texas side of the pass.  With both channels blocked by disabled ships, the Union force sailed away.

USS Clifton on left, USS Sanchem on right

In less than one hour Dowling’s men captured both Union vessels, killed nineteen, wounded nine, and took 350 prisoners without suffering a single casualty.

Dick Dowling rose to the rank of major before the end of the war and he returned to Houston as its hero, hailed as the man who stopped federal forces from coming ashore and marching westward to capture Houston and Galveston.  Jefferson Davis presented a personal commendation, calling the Sabine Pass Battle the “Thermopylae of the Confederacy.”  The ladies of Houston presented Dowling’s unit with medals made from Mexican coins smoothed down and inscribed on one side with “Sabine Pass, 1863.”

Medal inscribed on Mexican Coin “Sabine Pass, Sept 8th 1863”

Dowling claimed genuine Irish roots.  Born in County Galway, Ireland in 1838, he moved with his parents and six siblings to New Orleans to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845.  Orphaned by the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic that took the lives of his parents and four siblings, Dowling finally made his way to Houston and within four years opened his first saloon.

By 1860, the mustached Irishman with a good sense of humor owned three saloons; the most popular, called “The Bank,” sat on the square with the Harris County Courthouse and became Houston’s social gathering place.  Dowling also immersed himself in Houston’s business community–investing in local property, helping set up Houston’s first gaslight company, and installing gaslights in his home and in “The Bank.”  He helped found Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company fire department and the city’s first streetcar company.

After the war, Dowling returned to his earlier business interests and expanded into real estate, oil and gas leases, and ownership of a steamboat.  Unfortunately the 1867 Yellow Fever Epidemic, which swept across Texas from the Gulf coast, ended Dowling’s life on September 23, 1867.

Survived by his wife Elizabeth Ann Odlum and two children Mary Ann and Felize “Richard” Sabine, Dowling was honored by the city of Houston’s first public monument, which stands today in Hermann Park.

Dowling Monument

Jean Lafitte, Gentleman Pirate

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.

Claimed as the Lafitte brothers’ blacksmith shop at 941 Bourbon Street, New Orleans.

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.

James Bowie

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.