Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte

Infobox Pirate
name = Jean Baptiste Lafitte
lived = circa 1776 – circa 1826

caption = Late 19th century artist's conception of Jean Laffite
nickname =
type = Pirate
placeofbirth = possibly France or Saint-Domingue
placeofdeath = possibly Yucatan, the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Illinois, or Leon, Nicaragua, or Sao Miguel, Azores
allegiance =
serviceyears =
base of operations = Barataria Bay
rank = Captain
commands = The "Republican"
battles = Battle of New Orleans
wealth =
laterwork =

Jean Lafitte (ca. 1776 - ca. 1826) was a privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century. He often spelled his name Jean Laffite. Lafitte is believed to have been born either in France or the French colony of Saint-Domingue. By 1805 he operated a warehouse in New Orleans to help disperse the goods smuggled by his brother Pierre Lafitte. After the United States government passed the Embargo Act of 1807 the Lafittes moved their operations to an island in Barataria Bay. By 1810, their new port was very successful.


As a privateer and pirate, Jean Lafitte lived much of his life outside the law, and a number of details about his life are obscure. In one document, Lafitte claims to have been born in Bordeaux, France in 1780. He and his brother Pierre alternately claimed to have been born in Bayonne, while other documents of the time place his birthplace as St. Malo or Brest. However, as Lafitte's biographer Jack C. Ramsay states, "this was a convenient time to be a native of France, a claim that provided protection from the enforcement of American law."Ramsay (1996), p. 10.] Further contemporary accounts claim that Lafitte was born in Orduna, Spain or even Westchester, New York. Ramsay speculates that Lafitte was actually born in the French territory Saint-Dominique (now Haiti).

It was not uncommon in the late 18th century for the adult children of the French landowners in Saint-Dominique to resettle in the Mississippi River delta, also owned by France. Families with the surname Lafitte are mentioned in Louisiana documents dating as early as 1765.Ramsay (1996), p. 12.] According to Ramsay, Lafitte, his elder brother Pierre, and his widowed mother journeyed from Saint-Dominique to New Orleans, Louisiana in the 1780s. Approximately 1784, his mother married Pedro Aubry, a New Orleans merchant; Jean stayed with his mother while Pierre was raised by extended family elsewhere in Louisiana.Ramsay (1996), p. 13.]


As a young man, Lafitte likely spent a great deal of time exploring the wetland and bayou country south of New Orleans. In later years he was described as having "a more accurate knowledge of every inlet from the Gulf than any other man". His elder brother became a privateer, probably operating from Saint-Domingue, which frequently issued letters of marque. Lafitte likely helped his brother to disperse the merchandise. By 1805, he was thought to be running a warehouse in New Orleans and possibly a store on Royal Street.Ramsay (1996), p. 21.]

Grande Isle.] Louisiana had become a United States territory in 1804. In January 1808 the government began to enforce the Embargo Act of 1807, which barred American ships from docking at any foreign port. This was problematic for New Orleans merchants.Ramsay (1996), p. 22.] In response, the Lafitte brothers began to look for another port from which they could smuggle goods to local merchants. They established themselves on the small and sparsely populated island Baratria, in Barataria Bay. The bay was located beyond a narrow passage between the barrier islands of Grande Terre and Grande Isle.Ramsay (1996), p. 23.] Barataria was far from the U.S. naval base and ships could easily smuggle in goods without being noticed by customs officials. After being unloaded, the merchandise would be reloaded onto pirogues or barges for transport through the bayous to New Orleans.Ramsay (1996), p. 27.]

Pierre established himself in New Orleans and served as a silent partner, looking after their interests in the city. Jean Lafitte spent the majority of his time in Barataria managing the daily hands-on business of outfitting privateers and arranging the smuggling of stolen goods. By 1810, the island had become a booming port.Ramsay (1996), p. 28.] Seamen flocked to the island, working on the docks or at the warehouses until they were chosen as crew for one of the privateers.Ramsay (1996), p. 29.]

Governor William C.C. Claiborne took a leave of absence in September 1810, leaving Thomas B. Robertson as acting governor. Robertson was incensed by Lafitte's operation, labeling the men on the island "brigands who infest our coast and overrun our country".Ramsay (1996), p. 30.] The citizens of New Orleans did not share Robertson's hostility, but were grateful to the Lafittes for providing them with luxuries the embargo would have otherwise prevented. When Claiborne returned to office he remained relatively quiet on the subject; not until March 1813 did he finally denounce Lafitte.Ramsay (1996), p. 32]

Lafitte was unhappy with the length of time it took to get goods from the port to the merchants; navigating the swamps could take a full week. In 1812, Lafitte and his men began holding auctions at the Temple, a memorial mound halfway between Grande Terre and New Orleans.

War of 1812

Along with his 'crew of a thousand men' (the number he commanded was actually quite small, but, due to the loose confederation which he and his brother ran, the number of men engaged in their affairs was substantial), Lafitte sometimes receives credit for helping defend Louisiana from the British in the War of 1812, with his nautical raids along the Gulf of Mexico.

He claimed to command more than 3,000 men and provided them as troops for the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, greatly assisting Andrew Jackson in repulsing the British attack. The actual number he commanded was more likely a few dozen, although since they specialized in artillery their effect was substantial. Lafitte reportedly conducted his operations in the historic New Orleans French Quarter. General Jackson was informed of Lafitte's gallant exploits at the Battle of New Orleans by Colonel Ellis P. Bean, who then recruited Lafitte to support the Mexican Republican movement.

In the early 19th Century, a price of $500 was placed on Jean Lafitte's head by the Louisiana Governor, William C. C. Claiborne. In response, Jean Lafitte put a $5,000 bounty on the Governor. Neither collected the offered rewards.


After being run out of New Orleans around 1817, Lafitte relocated to the island of Galveston, Texas establishing another "kingdom" he named "Campeche". In Galveston, Lafitte either purchased or set his claim to a lavishly furnished mansion used by French pirate Louis-Michel Aury, which he named "Maison Rouge". The building's upper level was converted into a fortress where a cannon commanding Galveston harbor was placed. Around 1820, Lafitte reportedly married Madeline Regaud, possibly the widow or daughter of a French colonist who had died during an ill-fated expedition to Galveston. In 1821, the schooner USS "Enterprise" was sent to Galveston to remove Lafitte from the Gulf after one of the pirate's captains attacked an American merchant ship. Lafitte agreed to leave the island without a fight, and in 1821 or 1822 departed on his flagship, the "Pride", burning his fortress and settlements and reportedly taking immense amounts of treasure with him. All that remains of Maison Rouge is the foundation, located at 1417 Avenue A near the Galveston wharf. When Laffite left Galveston Island in 1820 he made Jao de la Porta, a Jewish Texan merchant, a full-time trader. []

While the Lafitte brothers were engaged in running the Galveston operation, one client they worked with considerably in the slave smuggling trade was James Bowie. The Lafittes were selling slaves at a dollar a pound, and Bowie would buy them at the Lafittes' rate, then get around the American laws against slave trading by reporting his purchased slaves as having been found in the possession of smugglers. The law at the time allowed Bowie to collect a fee on the "recovered" slaves, and he would then re-buy the slaves (essentially a "slave laundering" act) and then resell them to prospective buyers.

The Lafittes were also engaged in espionage, and were, in effect, double agents.Fact|date=September 2008 The notion of their loyalty to the United States, while much evoked by their own publicity, was highly dubious. The Lafittes (Pierre, in particular) spied for Spain through agents in Cuba and in Louisiana. While often providing solid material, the Lafittes in fact played both sides, American and Spanish, and always with an eye to securing their own interests. No doubt the charm of Pierre and his reputation as a man in the know figured heavily in the weight he was given by his immediate handlers, although he was never trusted by the higher-up of the Spanish interests. Of particular interest it should be noted that while running the island of Galveston for personal benefit, Pierre Lafitte tried to induce Spain to assault the island. This would have enhanced his standing with Spain while causing minimal real losses to the Lafitte operations.

Later life

In early 1821, the U.S. Navy ran Lafitte out of Galveston, according to "French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld". While leaving, Lafitte burned his compound. Thus, despite the great heights to which Lafitte rose, began his decline. He left with three vessels, but two of them deserted him a few days later when he refused to attack a convoy of Spanish merchantmen. From that point on, Lafitte's power and influence reached a low ebb, and he became a petty pirate and thief. He established a base on Mujeres Island (Isla Mujeres) off the coast of Yucatán, but it was just a small collection of squalid huts.

Herbert Asbury recounts his death in "The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld." In 1826, Lafitte entered the little Indian village of Teljas, on the mainland, and died of fever after a few days' illness in a native hut. He was 47.


He married (but did not have any children with) Madeleine Ragaud. Jean is also known to have had one illegitimate child with Catherine Villars; descendants of Pierre Lafitte (born 1816) live in Louisiana to this day. Both Ragaud and Villars were quadroons, one-fourth black and three-fourths French.

He is said to have been a friend of both Andrew Jackson and Napoleon Bonaparte. Lafitte allegedly tried to help Napoleon escape exile, but fearing capture he fled back to Louisiana when Napoleon didn't arrive at Lafitte's boat in Bordeaux at the exact hour planned. Stories also circulated that Lafitte buried Napoleon's treasure somewhere and that it has not been found even to this day.

Lafitte's journal

The authenticity of the Lafitte "Journal" is hotly debated among Lafitte scholars, with some accepting the manuscript and others denouncing it as a forgery. The problem of authenticating the diary is confounded by the scarcity of genuine documents in Lafitte's handwriting for comparison. The most reliable genuine Lafitte documents are two short manuscripts from the library collection of Republic of Texas president Mirabeau B. Lamar, which are currently held by the Texas State Archives. Paper tests confirm that the "Journal" is written on paper from the 19th century, though no consensus exists about authenticity among the small number of handwriting experts who have studied the document. The original manuscript was purchased by Texas Governor Price Daniel in the 1970s and is on display at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty, Texas. Translated versions of the journal have been in print since the 1950s.


Lafitte claimed never to have plundered an American vessel, and though he engaged in the contraband slave trade, he is accounted a great romantic figure in Louisiana and Texas. The mystery surrounding Lafitte has only inflated the legends attached to his name. Lafitte was said to be a master mariner; according to one legend he was once caught in a tropical storm off the coast of North Galveston and steered his ship to safety by riding the storm surge over Galveston island and into the harbor.

Lafitte's lost treasure has acquired a lore of its own as it, like his death, was never accounted for. He reportedly maintained several stashes of plundered gold and jewelry in the vast system of marshes, swamps, and bayous located around Barrataria Bay. One such legend places the treasure somewhere on the property of Destrehan Plantation, and Lafitte's spirit walks the plantation on nights of full moons to guide someone to the treasure's location. Other rumors suggest that Lafitte's treasure sank with his ship, the "Pride," either near Galveston or in the Gulf of Mexico where some believe it went down during an 1826 hurricane. In the area of Galveston, it is commonly said that Lafitte buried his treasure on Galveston Island.

His legend was perpetuated in Cecil B. DeMille's classic film "The Buccaneer" and its 1958 remake, and even by a poem of Byron:

:He left a corsair’s name to other times, :Linked with one virtue, and a thousand crimes [cf. Lafitte Society's selected [ bibliography] .] .


A fishing village along Bayou Barataria in Louisiana bears his name, as does the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. The city of Lake Charles, Louisiana devotes an annual festival, Contraband Days, to him. Held during the first two weeks of May, the festival celebrates rumors of buried treasure in Lake Charles and Contraband Bayou. The festival features a band of actors portraying Lafitte and his pirates, who sail into the city's namesake lake and capture the city's mayor, forcing him to walk the plank. No such event is known to have occurred, although there are unsubstantiated legends that Lafitte hid treasure in the area of the lake.

Lafitte's life has been popular among writers and screenwriters. In 1829, novelist Charles Sealsfield made Lafitte the principal villain in his book "Tokeah; or, the White Rose". Authors including Poppy Z. Brite and Edgar Rice Burroughs have made him characters in their fictional works, and he plays a prominent role in Isabel Allende's novel "Zorro", where the real pirate and the fictional hero fall in love with the same woman, Juliana, in 19th century Louisiana. He has also appeared as a character in several comics, including "Swamp Thing" and "One Piece".

Lafitte's role in the War of 1812 was fictionalized in the 1938's "The Buccaneer", directed by Cecil B. DeMille, with Frederic March playing Lafitte. The movie was remade in 1958, this time directed by Anthony Quinn, DeMille's then-son-in-law. In the later version, Lafitte was portrayed by Yul Brynner. Jimmy Driftwood's song about the battle has Andrew Jackson enlisting Lafitte to help the Americans; the most well-known version of the song, by Johnny Horton, leaves out this and other historical references.

The eighth segment of composer Duke Ellington's late masterpiece, "New Orleans Suite" (1970), is titled "Aristocracy À La Jean Lafitte".

Lafitte was also a featured character in the computer game "Sid Meier's Pirates!".



*citation|last=Ramsay|first=Jack C.|title=Jean Laffite: Prince of Pirates|date=1996|location=Austin, TX|publisher=Eakin Press|isbn=9781571680297

ee also

*List of pirates

External links

On the life of Lafitte

* [ The Pirates Lafitte: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf]
* [ Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans] — full-length book at CrimeLibrary.Com
* [*.html Lafitte, the Louisiana Pirate and Patriot] — biography in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly
* [ Jean Lafitte] Chapter from Yoakum's History of Texas, 1855
* [ Searching for the Real Jean Lafitte]
* [ The Legacy of Jean Lafitte in southwest Louisiana]
* [ The Jewish pirate]
* [ Lafitte's activity in Texas and supposed treasure]
* [ French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld, by Herbert Asbury] Pages 154 - 171

Other sites

* [ Laffite Society]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Jean Lafitte — [Bayona(?), Francia, †1780(?) 1826(?), (según investigaciones genealógicas realizadas por supuestos descendientes de Lafitte[1] 1774 1858)], fue un militar de la Guerra Anglo Estadounidense de 1812 y corsario que operó en las costas del Golfo de… …   Wikipedia Español

  • Jean Lafitte — Jean Lafitte, LA U.S. town in Louisiana Population (2000): 2137 Housing Units (2000): 767 Land area (2000): 5.978276 sq. miles (15.483663 sq. km) Water area (2000): 0.282186 sq. miles (0.730858 sq. km) Total area (2000): 6.260462 sq. miles… …   StarDict's U.S. Gazetteer Places

  • Jean Lafitte, LA — U.S. town in Louisiana Population (2000): 2137 Housing Units (2000): 767 Land area (2000): 5.978276 sq. miles (15.483663 sq. km) Water area (2000): 0.282186 sq. miles (0.730858 sq. km) Total area (2000): 6.260462 sq. miles (16.214521 sq. km) FIPS …   StarDict's U.S. Gazetteer Places

  • Jean Lafitte — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Lafitte. Jean Lafitte Naissance 1774 Saint Seurin, près de Gradig …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Jean Lafitte — Dieser Artikel oder Abschnitt bedarf einer Überarbeitung. Näheres ist auf der Diskussionsseite So ist einiges unverständlich angegeben. Hilf mit, ihn zu verbessern, und entferne anschließend diese Markierung …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Jean Lafitte — Original name in latin Jean Lafitte Name in other language State code US Continent/City America/Chicago longitude 29.73604 latitude 90.12674 altitude 2 Population 1903 Date 2011 05 14 …   Cities with a population over 1000 database

  • Jean Lafitte — noun French pirate who aided the United States in the War of 1812 and received an official pardon for his crimes (1780 1826) • Syn: ↑Laffite, ↑Lafitte, ↑Jean Laffite • Instance Hypernyms: ↑pirate, ↑buccaneer, ↑sea robber, ↑sea rover …   Useful english dictionary

  • Jean Lafitte (Luisiana) — Jean Lafitte Pueblo de los Estados Unidos …   Wikipedia Español

  • Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve — IUCN Category V (Protected Landscape/Seascape) …   Wikipedia

  • Jean Lafitte, dernier des corsaires — Données clés Titre original Last of the Buccaneers Réalisation Lew Landers Scénario Robert E. Kent Acteurs principaux Paul Henreid Jack Oakie Karin Booth John Dehner …   Wikipédia en Français

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