Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

The Pirates of Barataria Bay

On the coast of Louisiana, westward from the delta of the Mississippi, there lies a strange country, in which sea and land seem struggling for dominion, neither being victor in the endless contest. It is a low, flat, moist land, where countless water-courses intertwine into a complex network; while nearer the sea are a multitude of bays, stretching far inland, and largely shut off from the salt sea waves by barriers of long, narrow islands. Some of these islands are low stretches of white sand, flung up by the restless waters which ever wash to and fro. Others are of rich earth, brought down by lazy water-ways from the fertile north and deposited at the river outlets. Tall marsh grasses grow profusely here, and hide alike water and land. Everywhere are slow-moving, half-sleeping bayous, winding and twisting interminably, and encircling multitudes of islands, which lie hidden behind a dense growth of rushes and reeds, twelve feet high.

It was through this region, neither water nor land, that the hapless Evangeline, the heroine of Longfellow's famous poem, was rowed, seeking her lover in these flooded wilds, and not dreaming that he lay behind one of those reedy barrens, almost within touch, yet as unseen as if leagues of land separated them.

One of the bays of this liquid coast, some sixty miles south of New Orleans, is a large sheet of water, with a narrow island partly shutting it off from the Gulf. This is known as Grande Terre, and west of it is another island known as Grande Isle. Between these two long land gates is a broad, deep channel which serves as entrance to the bay. On the western side lies a host of smaller islands, the passes between them made by the bayous which straggle down through the land. Northward the bay stretches sixteen miles inland, and then breaks up into a medley of bayous and small lakes, cutting far into the land, and yielding an easy passage to the level of the Mississippi, opposite New Orleans.

Such is Barataria Bay, once the famous haunt of the buccaneers. It seems made by nature as a lurking-place for smugglers and pirates, and that is the purpose to which it was long devoted. The passages inland served admirably for the disposal of ill-gotten goods. For years the pirates of Barataria Bay defied the authorities, making the Gulf the scene of their exploits and finding a secret and ready market for their wares in New Orleans.

The pirate leaders were two daring Frenchmen, Pierre and Jean Lafitte, who came from Bordeaux some time after 1800 and settled in New Orleans. They were educated men, who had seen much of the world and spoke several languages fluently. Pierre, having served in the French army, became a skilled fencing-master. Jean set up a blacksmith shop, his slaves doing the work. Such was the creditable way in which these worthies began their new-world career.

Their occupation changed in 1808, in which year the slave-trade was brought to an end by act of Congress. There was also passed an Embargo Act, which forbade trade with foreign countries. Here was a double opportunity for men who placed gain above law. The Lafittes at once took advantage of it, smuggling negroes and British goods, bringing their illicit wares inland by way of the bayous of the coastal plain and readily disposing of them as honest goods.

Not long after this time the British cruisers broke up the pirate hordes which had long infested the West Indies. Their haunts were taken and they had to flee. Some of them became smugglers, landing their goods on Amelia Island, on the coast of Florida. Others sought the bays of Louisiana, where they kept up their old trade.

The Lafittes now found it to their advantage to handle the goods of these buccaneers, in which they posed as honest merchants. Later on they made piracy their trade, the whole fleet of the rovers coming under their control. Throwing off the cloak of honesty, they openly defied the laws. Prize goods and negroes were introduced into New Orleans with little effort at secrecy, and were sold in disregard of the law and the customs. It was well known that the Baratarian rovers were pirates, but the weak efforts to dislodge them failed and the government was openly despised.

Making Barataria Bay their head-quarters and harbor of refuge, the pirates fortified Grande Terre, and built on it their dwellings and store-houses. On Grande Isle farms were cultivated and orange groves planted. On another island, named the Temple, they held auctions for the sale of their plunder, the purchasers smuggling it up the bayous and introducing it under cover of night into New Orleans, where there was nothing to show its source, though suspicion was rife. Such was Barataria until the war with England began, and such it continued through this war till 1814, the Lafittes and their pirate followers flourishing in their desperate trade.

We might go on to tell a gruesome story of fearful deeds by these bandits of the sea; of vessels plundered and scuttled, and sailors made to wall the plank of death; of rich spoil won by ruthless murder, and wild orgies on the shores of Grande Terre. But of all this there is little record, and the lives of these pirates yield us none of the scenes of picturesque wickedness and wholesale murder which embellish the stories of Blackbeard, Morgan, and other sea-rovers of old. Yet the career of the Lafittes has an historical interest which makes it worth the telling.

It was not until 1814, during the height of the war with England, that the easy-going Creoles of New Orleans grew indignant enough at the bold defiance of law by the Lafittes to make a vigorous effort to stop it. It was high time, for the buccaneers had grown so bold as to fire on the revenue officers of the government. Determined to bear this disgrace no longer, Pierre Lafitte was seized in the streets of New Orleans, and with one of his captains, named Dominique Yon, was locked up in the calaboosa.

This step was followed by a proclamation from Governor Claiborne, offering five hundred dollars for the arrest of Jean Lafitte, the acting pirate chief. Lafitte insolently retorted by offering five thousand dollars for the head of the governor. This impudent defiance aroused Claiborne to more decisive action. A force of militia was called out and sent overland to Barataria, with orders to capture and destroy the settlement of the buccaneers and seize all the pirates they could lay hands on.

The governor did not know the men with whom he had to deal. Their spies kept them fully informed of all his movements. Southward trudged the citizen soldiers, tracking their oozy way through the water-soaked land. All was silent and seemingly deserted. They were near their goal, and not a man had been seen. But suddenly a boatswain's whistle sounded, and from a dozen secret passages armed men swarmed out upon them, and in a few minutes had them surrounded and under their guns. Resistance was hopeless, and they were obliged to surrender at discretion. The grim pirates stood ready to slaughter them all if a hand were raised in self-defence, and Lafitte, stepping forward, invited them to join his men, promising them an easy life and excellent pay. Their captain sturdily refused.

"Very well," said Lafitte, with disdainful generosity. "You can go or stay as you please. Yonder is the road you came by. You are free to follow it back. But if you are wise you will in future keep out of reach of the Jolly Rovers of the Gulf."

We are not sure if these were Lafitte's exact words, but at any rate the captain and his men were set free and trudged back again, glad enough to get off with whole skins. Soon after that the war, which had lingered so long in the North, showed signs of making its way to the South. A British fleet appeared in the Gulf in the early autumn of 1814, and made an attack on Mobile. In September a war-vessel from this fleet appeared off Barataria Bay, fired on one of the pirate craft, and dropped anchor some six miles out. Soon a pinnace, bearing a white flag, put off from its side and was rowed shoreward. It was met by a vessel which had put off from Grande Terre.

"I am Captain Lockyer, of the Sophia," said the British officer. "I wish to see Captain Lafitte. "

"I am he," came a voice from the pirate bark.

"Then this is for you," and Captain Lockyer handed Lafitte a bulky package.

"Will you come ashore while I examine this?" asked Lafitte, courteously. "I offer you such humble entertainment as we poor mariners can afford."

"I shall be glad to be your guest," answered the officer.

Lafitte now led the way ashore, welcomed the visitors to his island domain, and proceeded to open and examine the package brought him. It contained four documents, their general purport being to threaten the pirates with utter destruction if they continued to prey on the commerce of England and Spain, and to offer Lafitte, if he would aid the British cause, the rank of captain in the service of Great Britain, with a large sum of money and full protection for person and property.

The letters read, Lafitte left the room, saying that he wished time to consider before he could answer. But hardly had he gone when some of his men rushed in, seized Captain Lockyer and his men, and locked them up as prisoners. They were held captive all night, doubtless in deep anxiety, for pirates are scarcely safe hosts, but in the morning Lafitte appeared with profuse apologies, declaring loudly that his men had acted without his knowledge or consent, and leading the way to their boat. Lockyer was likely glad enough to find himself on the Gulf waters again, despite the pirate's excuses. Two hours later Lafitte sent him word that he would accept his offer, but that he must have two weeks to get his affairs in order. With this answer, the Sophia  lifted anchor, spread sails, and glided away.

All this was a bit of diplomatic by-play on the part of Jean Lafitte. He had no notion of joining the British cause. The Sophia  had not long disappeared when he sent the papers to New Orleans, asking only one favor in return, the release of his brother Pierre. This the authorities seem to have granted in their own way, for in the next morning's papers was an offer of one thousand dollars reward for the capture of Pierre Lafitte, who had, probably with their connivance, broken jail during the night.

Jean Lafitte now offered Governor Claiborne his services in the war with the British. He was no pirate, he said. That was a base libel. His ships were legitimate privateers, bearing letters of marque from Venezuela in the war of that country with Spain. He was ready and anxious to transfer his allegiance to the United States.

His sudden change of tone had its sufficient reason. It is probable that Lafitte was well aware of a serious danger just then impending, far more threatening than the militia raid which had been so easily defeated. A naval expedition was ready to set out against him. It consisted of three barges of troops under Commander Patterson of the American navy. These were joined at the Balize by six gunboats and a schooner, and proceeded against the piratical stronghold.

On the 16th of September the small fleet came within sight of Grande Terre, drew up in line of battle, and started for the entrance to Barataria Bay. Within this the pirate fleet, ten vessels in all, was in line to receive them. Soon there was trouble for the assailants. Shoal water stopped the schooner, and the two larger gunboats ran aground. But their men swarmed into boats and rowed on in the wake of the other vessels, which quickly made their way through the pass and began a vigorous attack on its defenders.

Now the war was all afoot, and we should be glad to tell of a gallant and nobly contested battle, in which the sea-rovers showed desperate courage and reddened the sea with their blood. There might be inserted here a battle-piece worthy of the Drakes and Morgans of old, if the facts only bore us out. Instead of that, however, we are forced to say that the pirates proved sheer caitiffs when matched against honest men, and the battle was a barren farce.

Commander Patterson and his men dashed bravely on, and in a very short time two of the pirate vessels were briskly burning, a third had run aground, and the others were captured. Many of the pirates had fled; the others were taken. The battle over, the buildings on Grande Terre and Grande Isle were destroyed and the piratical lurking-place utterly broken up. This done, the fleet sailed in triumph for New Orleans, bringing with them the captured craft and the prisoners who had been taken. But among the captives was neither of the Lafittes. They had not stood to their guns, but had escaped with the other fugitives into the secret places of the bay.

Thus ends the history of Barataria Bay as a haunt of pirates. Since that day only honest craft have entered its sheltered waters. But the Lafittes were not yet at the end of their career, or at least one of them, for of Pierre Lafitte we hear very little after this time. Two months after their flight the famous British assault was made on New Orleans. General Jackson hurried to its defence and called armed men to his aid from all quarters, caring little who they were so they were ready to fight.

Among those who answered the summons was Jean Lafitte. He called on Old Hickory and told him that he had a body of trained artillerymen under his command, tried and capable men, and would like to take a hand in defence of the city. Jackson, who had not long before spoken of the Lafittes as "hellish banditti," was very glad now to accept their aid. We read of his politely alluding to them as "these gentlemen," and he gave into their charge the siege-guns in several of the forts.

These guns were skilfully handled and vigorously served, the Baratarians fighting far more bravely in defence of the city than they had done in defence of their ships. They lent important aid in the defeat of Packenham and his army, and after the battle Jackson commended them warmly for their gallant conduct, praising the Lafittes also for "the same courage and fidelity."

A few words more and we have done. Of the pirates, two only made any future mark. Dominique Yon, the captain who had shared imprisonment with Pierre Lafitte, now settled down to quiet city life, became a leader in ward politics, and grew into something of a local hero, fighting in the precincts instead of on the deck.

Jean Lafitte, however, went back to his old trade. From New Orleans he made his way to Texas, then a province of Mexico, and soon we hear of him at his buccaneering work. For a time he figured as governor of Galveston. Then, for some years, he commanded a fleet that wore the thin guise of Columbian privateers. After that he threw off all disguise and became an open pirate, and as late as 1822 his name was the terror of the Gulf. Soon afterward a fleet of the United States swept those waters and cleared it of all piratical craft. Jean Lafitte then vanished from view, and no one knows whether he died fighting for the black flag or ended his life quietly on land.