Buccaneers and Pirates of our Coasts - F. R. Stockton

The Pirate Of The Gulf

At the beginning of this century there was a very able and, indeed, talented man living on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, who has been set down in the historical records of the times as a very important pirate, and who is described in story and in tradition as a gallant and romantic freebooter of the sea. This man was Jean Lafitte, widely known as "The Pirate of the Gulf," and yet who was, in fact, so little of a pirate, that it may be doubted whether or not he deserves a place in these stories of American pirates.

Lafitte was a French blacksmith, and, while still a young man, he came with his two brothers to New Orleans, and set up a shop in Bourbon Street, where he did a good business in horseshoeing and in other branches of his trade. But he had a soul which soared high above his anvil and his bellows, and perceiving an opportunity to take up a very profitable occupation, he gave up blacksmithing, and with his two brothers as partners became a superintendent of privateering and a general manager of semi-legalized piracy. The business opportunity which came to the watchful and clear-sighted Lafitte may be briefly described.

In the early years of this century the Gulf of Mexico was the scene of operations of small vessels calling themselves privateers, but in fact pirates. War had broken out between England and Spain, on the one side, and France on the other, and consequently the first-named nations were very glad to commission privateers to prey upon the commerce of France. There were also privateers who had been sent out by some of the Central American republics who had thrown off the Spanish yoke, and these, considering Spanish vessels as their proper booty, were very much inclined to look upon English vessels in the same light, as the English and Spanish were allies. And when a few French privateers came also upon the scene, they helped to make the business of legitimate capture of merchantmen, during the time of war, a very complicated affair.

But upon one point these privateers, who so often acted as pirates, because they had not the spare time in which to work out difficult problems of nationality, were all agreed: when they had loaded their ships with booty, they must sail to some place where it would be safe to dispose of it. So, in course of time, the bay of Barrataria, about forty miles south of New Orleans and very well situated for an illegal settlement, was chosen as a privateers' port, and a large and flourishing colony soon grew up at the head of the bay, to which came privateers of every nationality to dispose of their cargoes.

Of course there was no one in the comparatively desolate country about Barrataria who could buy the valuable goods which were brought into that port, but the great object of the owners of this merchandise was to smuggle it up to New Orleans and dispose of it. But there could be no legitimate traffic of this sort, for the United States at the very beginning of the century was at peace with England, France, and Spain, and therefore could not receive into any of her ports, goods which had been captured from the ships of these nations. Consequently the plunder of the privateering pirates of Barrataria was brought up to New Orleans in all sorts of secret and underhand fashions, and sold to merchants in that city, without the custom house having anything to do with the importations.

Now this was great business; Jean Lafitte had a great business mind, and therefore it was not long after his arrival at Barrataria before he was the head man in the colony, and director-in-chief of all its operations. Thus, by becoming a prominent figure in a piratical circle, he came to be considered a pirate, and as such came down to us in the pages of history.

But, in fact, Lafitte never committed an act of piracy in his life; he was a blacksmith, and knew no more about sailing a ship or even the smallest kind of a boat than he knew about the proper construction of a sonnet. He did not even try, like the celebrated Bonnet, to find other people who would navigate a vessel for him, for he had no taste for the ocean wave, and all that he had to do he did upon firm, dry land. It is said of him that he was never at sea but twice in his life: once when he came from France, and once when he left this country, and on neither occasion did he sail under the "Jolly Roger," as the pirate flag was sometimes called. For these reasons it seems scarcely right to call Lafitte a pirate, but as he has been so generally considered in that light, we will admit him into the bad company, the stories of whose lives we are now telling.

The energy and business abilities of Jean Lafitte soon made themselves felt not only in Barrataria, but in New Orleans. The privateers found that he managed their affairs with much discretion and considerable fairness, and, while they were willing to depend upon him, they were obliged to obey him.

On the other hand, the trade of New Orleans was very much influenced by the great quantities of goods which under Lafitte's directions were smuggled into the city. Many merchants and shopkeepers who possessed no consciences to speak of were glad to buy these smuggled goods for very little money and to sell them at low prices and large profits, but the respectable business men, who were obliged to pay market prices for their goods, were greatly disturbed by the large quantities of merchandise which were continually smuggled into New Orleans and sold at rates with which they could not compete.

It was toward the end of our war with England, which began in 1812, that the government of the United States, urged to speedy action by the increasing complaints of the law-abiding merchants of New Orleans, determined to send out a small naval force and entirely break up the illegitimate rendezvous at Barrataria.

Lafitte's two brothers were in New Orleans acting as his agents, and one of them, Dominique, was arrested and thrown into prison, and Commodore Patterson, who was commanding at that station, was ordered to fit out an expedition as quickly as possible to sail down to Barrataria to destroy the ships found in the bay, to capture the town, and to confiscate and seize upon all goods which might be found in the place.

When Jean Lafitte heard of the vigorous methods which were about to be taken against him, his prospects must have been very gloomy ones, for of course he could not defend his little colony against a regular naval force, which, although its large vessels could not sail into the shallow bay, could send out boats with armed crews against which it would be foolish for him to contend. But just about this time a very strange thing happened.

A strong English naval force had taken possession of Pensacola, Florida, and as an attack upon New Orleans was contemplated, the British commander, knowing of Lafitte's colony at Barrataria, and believing that these hardy and reckless adventurers would be very valuable allies in the proposed movement upon the city, determined to send an ambassador to Lafitte to see what could be done in the way of forming an alliance with this powerful leader of semi-pirates and smugglers.

Accordingly, the sloop of war Sophia, commanded by Captain Lockyer, was sent to Barrataria to treat with Lafitte, and when this vessel arrived off the mouth of the harbor, which she could not enter, she began firing signal guns in order to attract the attention of the people of the colony. Naturally enough, the report of the Sophia's  guns created a great excitement in Barrataria, and all the people who happened to be at the settlement at that time crowded out upon the beach to see what they could see. But the war-vessel was too far away for them to distinguish her nationality, and Lafitte quickly made up his mind that the only thing for him to do was to row out to the mouth of the harbor and see what was the matter. Without doubt he feared that this was the United States vessel which had come to break up his settlement. But whether this was the case or not, he must go out and try the effect of fair words, for he had no desire whatever to defend his interests by hard blows.

Before Lafitte reached the vessel he was surprised to find it was a British man-of-war, not an American, and very soon he saw that a boat was coming from it and rowing toward him. This boat contained Captain Lockyer and two other officers, besides the men who rowed it; when the two boats met, the captain told who he was, and asked if Mr. Lafitte could be found in Barrataria, stating that he had an important document to deliver to him. The cautious Frenchman did not immediately admit that he was the man for whom the document was intended, but he said that Lafitte was at Barrataria, and as the two boats rowed together toward shore, he thought it would be as well to announce his position, and did so.

When the crowd of privateersmen saw the officers in British uniform landing upon their beach, they were not inclined to receive them kindly, for an attack had been made upon the place by a small British force some time before, and a good deal of damage had been done. But Lafitte quieted the angry feelings of his followers, conducted the officers to his own house, and treated them with great hospitality, which he was able to do in fine style, for his men brought into Barrataria luxuries from all parts of the world.

When Lafitte opened the package of papers which Captain Lockyer handed to him, he was very much surprised. Some of them were general proclamations announcing the intention of Great Britain if the people of Louisiana did not submit to her demands; but the most important document was one in which Colonel Nichols, commander-in-chief of the British forces in the Gulf, made an offer to Lafitte and his followers to become a part of the British navy, promising to give amnesty to all the inhabitants of Barrataria, to make their leader a captain in the navy, and to do a great many other good things, provided they would join his forces, and help him to attack the American seaports. In case, however, this offer should be refused, the Barratarians were assured that their place would speedily be attacked, their vessels destroyed, and all their possessions confiscated.

Lafitte was now in a state of great perplexity. He did not wish to become a British captain, for his knowledge of horseshoeing would be of no service to him in such a capacity; moreover, he had no love for the British, and his sympathies were all on the side of the United States in this war. But here he was with the British commander asking him to become an ally, and to take up arms against the United States, threatening at the same time to destroy him and his colony in case of refusal. On the other hand, there was the United States at that moment preparing an expedition for the purpose of breaking up the settlement at Barrataria, and to do everything which the British threatened to do, in case Lafitte did not agree to their proposals.

The chief of Barrataria might have made a poor show with a cutlass and a brace of pistols, but he was a long-headed and sagacious man, with a strong tendency to practical diplomacy. He was in a bad scrape, and he must act with decision and promptness, if he wanted to get out of it.

The first thing he did was to gain time by delaying his answer to the proposition brought by Captain Lockyer. He assured that officer that he must consult with his people and see what they would do, and that he must also get rid of some truculent members of the colony, who would never agree to act in concert with England, and that therefore he should not be able to give an answer to Colonel Nichols for two weeks. Captain Lockyer saw for himself that it would not be an easy matter to induce these independent and unruly fellows, many of whom already hated England, to enter into the British service. Therefore he thought it would be wise to allow Lafitte the time he asked for, and he sailed away, promising to return in fifteen days.

The diplomatic Lafitte, having finished for a time his negotiations with the British, lost no time in communicating with the American authorities. He sent to Governor Claiborne, of Louisiana, all the documents he had received from Captain Lockyer, and wrote him a letter in which he told him everything that had happened, and thus gave to the United States the first authentic information of the proposed attack upon Mobile and New Orleans. He then told the Governor that he had no intention of fighting against the country he had adopted; that he was perfectly willing and anxious to aid her in every manner possible, and that he and his followers would gladly join the United States against the British, asking nothing in return except that all proceedings against Barrataria should be abandoned, that amnesty should be given to him and his men, that his brother should be released from prison, and that an act of oblivion should be passed by which the deeds of the smugglers of Barrataria should be condoned and forgotten.

Furthermore, he said that if the United States government did not accede to his proposition, he would immediately depart from Barrataria with all his men; for no matter what loss such a proceeding might prove to him he would not remain in a place where he might be forced to act against the United States. Lafitte also wrote to a member of the Louisiana Legislature, and his letters were well calculated to produce a very good effect in his favor.

The Governor immediately called a council, and submitted the papers and letters received from Lafitte. When these had been read, two points were considered by the council, the first being that the letters and proclamations from the British might be forgeries concocted by Lafitte for the purpose of averting the punishment which was threatened by the United States; and the second, whether or not it would be consistent with the dignity of the government to treat with this leader of pirates and smugglers.

The consultation resulted in a decision not to have anything to do with Lafitte in the way of negotiations, and to hurry forward the preparations which had been made for the destruction of the dangerous and injurious settlement at Barrataria. In consequence of this action of the council, Commodore Patterson sailed in a very few days down the Mississippi and attacked the pirate settlement at Barrataria with such effect that most of her ships were taken, many prisoners and much valuable merchandise captured, and the whole place utterly destroyed. Lafitte, with the greater part of his men, had fled to the woods, and so escaped capture.

Captain Lockyer at the appointed time arrived off the harbor of Barrataria and blazed away with his signal guns for forty-eight hours, but receiving no answer, and fearing to send a boat into the harbor, suspecting treachery on the part of Lafitte, he was obliged to depart in ignorance of what had happened.

When the papers and letters which had been sent to Governor Claiborne by Lafitte were made public, the people of Louisiana and the rest of the country did not at all agree with the Governor and his council in regard to their decision and their subsequent action, and Edward Livingston, a distinguished lawyer of New York, took the part of Lafitte and argued very strongly in favor of his loyalty and honesty in the affair.

Even when it was discovered that all the information which Lafitte had sent was perfectly correct, and that a formidable attack was about to be made upon New Orleans, General Jackson, who was in command in that part of the country, issued a very savage proclamation against the British method of making war, and among their wicked deeds he mentioned nothing which seemed to him to be worse than their endeavor to employ against the citizens of the United States the band of "hellish banditti" commanded by Jean Lafitte!

But public opinion was strongly in favor of the ex-pirate of the Gulf, and as things began to look more and more serious in regard to New Orleans, General Jackson was at last very glad, in spite of all that he had said, to accept the renewed offers of Lafitte and his men to assist in the defence of the city, and in consequence of his change of mind many of the former inhabitants of Barrataria fought in the battle of New Orleans and did good work. Their services were so valuable, in fact, that when the war closed President Madison issued a proclamation in which it was stated that the former inhabitants of Barrataria, in consequence of having abandoned their wicked ways of life, and having assisted in the defence of their country, were now granted full pardon for all the evil deeds they had previously committed.

Now Lafitte and his men were free and independent citizens of the United States; they could live where they pleased without fear of molestation, and could enter into any sort of legal business which suited their fancy, but this did not satisfy Lafitte. He had endeavored to take a prompt and honest stand on the side of his country; his offers had been treated with contempt and disbelief; he had been branded as a deceitful knave, and no disposition had been shown to act justly toward him until his services became so necessary to the government that it was obliged to accept them.

Consequently, Lafitte, accompanied by some of his old adherents, determined to leave a country where his loyalty had received such unsatisfactory recognition, and to begin life again in some other part of the American continent. Not long after the war he sailed out upon the Gulf of Mexico,—for what destination it is not known, but probably for some Central American port,—and as nothing was ever heard of him or his party, it is believed by many persons that they all perished in the great storm which arose soon after their departure. There were other persons, however, who stated that he reached Yucatan, where he died on dry land in 1826.

But the end of Lafitte is no more doubtful than his right to the title given to him by people of a romantic turn of mind, and other persons of a still more fanciful disposition might be willing to suppose that the Gulf of Mexico, indignant at the undeserved distinction which had come to him, had swallowed him up in order to put an end to his pretension to the title of "The Pirate of the Gulf."