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1873 portrait of Lafitte based on eyewitness accounts
Jean Lafitte (1776-1823?) was the last of the great pirates of the Gulf of Mexico ( He insisted throughout his life that he was a privateer, and would have challenged you to a duel if you called him a pirate to his face ) and was one of the leaders or bos of the community of privateers on Grand Terre. Jean was a handsome man by all accounts, of great personal charm and became a legend in his own time, after his patriotic actions in the Battle of New Orleans.
Registration for Pierre Lafitte's ship Goelette la Dilidente,a 136 ton schooner, captained by Jean Lafitte in 1813. Jean lists his age as 32 and his birthplace as Bordeaux. The la Dilidente had a crew of 84 and 12 14 pounder cannon .The Lafittes had a fleet of four ships in their privateering fleet by 1813, with the Dorada, Petit Milan ,the la Dilidente and the Sarpis.
Jean Lafitte purposely shrouded his activities in secrecy due to the nature of his business, and even the dates and places of his birth and death have been a matter of conjecture . There are also other Lafittes, which cloud the issue . A number of different birthplaces have been given for the Lafitte brothers ( Pierre, Jean and Henri) such as Port-au-Prince, then San Domingo,Bordeaux and Bayonne, France. The elder brother left the turmoil of revolutionary France and spent some time in Saint-Domingue.A violent slave uprising in Saint-Domingue forced Pierre to leave by 1803 for New Orleans , the same year Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to the United States .
Gentlemen of the era were expected to defend their honor with a duel. Lafitte is reported to have fought 2 duels by the time he was 21. According to another story , he fought three duels in the restaurant that would latter become the Court of two Sisters in the French Quarter.
The first twenty years of Jean's life are a mystery, but it is almost certain he spent some time at sea . As mentioned before, according to some sources, he was born in what is now Haiti,then San Domingo around 1782 where his father had a leather shop. His mother died while he was young, and was raised by his maternal grandmother . Her husband, who was murdered in the Inquisition in Spain, is said to have instilled a hatred for the Spanish in Lafitte. As a young teenager, he received schooling on the islands of St. Croix and Martinque, the to a military academy in St. Kitts where he learned seamanship, artillery and swordsmanship as well as participating in dueling when he returned to Haiti. He learned the privateering trade from his older brother, Alexander . At the age 18 of he is said to have married a woman from St. Croix who bore him 3 children, she later died during childbirth. The slave rebellion in Haiti drove the Lafittes from that island in 1804 to New Orleans .
As a privateer,Lafitte would probably of sail under the flag of the Cartagena Republic,
a city state which later join Columbia and not the skull and crossbones.
By 1805, he appears Jean operating a warehouse in New Orleans to help sell the goods smuggled by his brother Pierre and on Grand Terre, where the Lafittes made their privateering base, on the western tip of the island, facing Barataria Pass . The Lafittes grew rich from the sale of their privateered goods during the trade embargo before the War of 1812 and the British blockade. Grande Terre was six miles long and one to three miles wide . By 1809, it was well known that slaves fresh from Africa could be gotten at Grande Terre, which were kept in barracon, or slave barracks .Here they erected storehouses and a small brick fort . The last remains of the fort were destroyed by a hurricane in 1965
The reselling of slaves or 'black ivory' from captured slave ships was a profitable business for the Lafittes New Orleans and Galveston
Jean was reported to be tall for the time, an inch or two over six feet, with pale skin dark hair and hazel eyes and liked to dress in style . He could speak some English and Spanish, and was spoke Bordelaise French .New Orleans at this time was flooded with French refugees from Cuba,who had fled there from San Domingue. Cuba ordered the French to leave after Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother on the Spanish throne . Out of a population of about 25,000 at this time, fewer than 3,300 were English or American. The French population was generally anti-American and sympathetic to the illegal activities of the Lafitte brothers .The Lafittes were often seen at the Coquet's Ballroom on St.Phillip street, the Cafe des Refugies and the Hotel de la Marine while in New Orleans .The revenue from the lucrative slave trade allowed the Lafittes to buy a warehouse on Royal Street .
In 1811 there was a slave rebellion led by Charles Deslondes, a San Domingue slave in St.Charles Parish and marched upon New Orleans. The rebellion was stopped and many members of the rebellion were executes and their heads put on spikes as a warning . The rebellion put New Orleans into a panic and thereafter authorities took greater notice of the Lafitte slave smuggling activities .
The American governor of Louisiana,Gov Claiborne, angered by the privateer's disregard for custom laws, ordered an attack on Grand Terre on Sept 16, , destroying the Grand Terre base. The Gov also offered a reward of $300 for the capture of Lafitte, to which Lafitte responded by printing handbills offering a larger reward of $1,000 for the capture of the Gov if he were delivered to the Lafitte's new base of operations on Cat Island. At the bottom of the handbill, it was written that this was only in jest.
Reward offered for Pierre Lafitte in the Louisiana Courier, Sept.7, 1814
Will be paid to whoever arrests Pierre Laffite who last night broke from the parish prison and escaped. The said Lafitte is 5 feet 10 inches tall of robust nature,fine complexion and slightly cross-eyed.It is believed a more complete description is useless as he is well known in the city.
The said Lafitte took with him three negroes:Sam,formerly the property of Mr.Sewze,Ceasar, belonging to Mr.Lefebere, and Hamilcar belonging to Mr.Jarnand. the above reward will be given to whoever will deliver the said Lafitte to the undersigned who also will pay fifty dollars for each negreo.
signature of Jean Lafitte ( spelled Laffite in this case ) on a letter to President Madison
William C. Davis
Davis provides an excellent history of the Laffites and piracy on the gulf coast in general
Video of Jean Lafitte's hideout on Grand Terre Island awash on oil.
Listen to free audio book on Lafitte at
David Cordingly combed original documents and records to produce this authoritative account of piracy's "Golden Age." "Under the Black Flag" explodes many myths and replaces them with a truth that is more complex, and often bloodier, than fiction
Yul Brynner,Charlton Heston
Story of the resort Last Island that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1856