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NOLA Lore: Jean Lafitte, the Pirate of New Orleans



Each week, J.A. Lloyd will take readers through the secret and sometimes unexamined legends, myths, and folklore of New Orleans past. This week, learn about the swashbuckling adventures of Jean Lafitte. 

 

His life was a bold and daring one. His existence appears more at home in fiction and fantasy because his story is far too adventurous to occur in reality. A businessman and a diplomat, a secret agent and a war hero. A smuggler and a voyager at heart. He held steadfast to the claim of being a privateer until the day he died, but the truth is he was one of the last great pirates belonging to the Gulf of Mexico. True to his nature, his intriguing life did meet an end at sea, yet it is rumored that his spirit still lives here in New Orleans. He is Jean Lafitte—the French-American pirate.

 

Much of Jean Lafitte’s early years remain a mystery patched together with hearsay, speculations, and mismatched puzzle pieces. It is believed that he hailed from France or one of its territories and history’s best guess places his date of birth sometime around the mid-to-late 1700s. Accounts vary, but it is assumed that he arrived in American and settled in Louisiana as a child along with his brothers and mother, who had married a merchant of New Orleans.

 

Learning the ropes from their stepfather, as the boys grew into young men Jean and his brother Pierre entered into the import and export business of international trade. They became quite successful in their undertakings and set up their commercial base in what is now known as Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar on Bourbon Street. Due to their success, it wasn’t long before the Lafitte name gained recognition within the city. Their trade was amongst the few that remained unwavering when other merchants spiraled down a treacherous road toward financial ruin. Nevertheless, as tensions rose with foreign nations during the early 1800s and with the US trade industry headed for disaster as a result, Jean Lafitte decided that he would need to get a bit more creative with his business if he were to elude the plight of the ill-fated merchant.

 

Sadly, disaster did befall many merchants during the early years of the US. In 1807, American ships were banned from entering and trading in foreign ports due to the Embargo Act set forth by the US government in response to mounting conflict with Britain and France. Before the law was enacted, the US attempted to remain neutral while Britain and France were at war. Unfortunately, neutrality didn’t work out so well for the Americans when both France and Britain passed laws prohibiting trade between neutral parties and the opposing country. Initially, it was France who fired the first shots, making it illegal for any neutral party to trade with Britain. Britain shortly followed suit and outlawed neutral dealing with France. The US, who tried (and failed) to stay out of the conflict, got caught in the middle of the dispute.
 

Things deteriorated further for America when both France and Britain began seizing American ships in order to halt trade with the conflicting country. After countless ships and men had been captured, the US eventually decided it was tired of receiving the short end of the bargain. After tensions continued to escalate, particularly with Britain, Thomas Jefferson decided to hit France and Britain where it would hurt the worst; he ceased foreign trade in an attempt to deliver a blow to their economies. While this spelled out catastrophe for US merchants and the American economy it meant big business for smugglers. Only a true pirate could take advantage of such a weighty situation; Jean Lafitte was that pirate.

 

Although the US was doing no legal trading with other countries, Jean Lafitte used the Embargo Act as a major business opportunity and began smuggling illegal goods into the US. The trade was lucrative, very lucrative. With the help of his brother and a crowd of displaced merchants, Jean founded a profitable illegal port in Barataria in order to conduct his affairs away from the watchful eyes of the US Navy. His brother, Pierre, handled the logistics in the city while Jean conducted the naval operations and preyed on foreign ships sailing the Gulf. After capturing and plundering the ships, Lafitte and his band of pirates made their profit by selling the looted goods on the mainland.

 

Business was booming for Lafitte’s colony in Barataria Bay within just a few short years. While the US had little interest in Barataria at the time, Britain certainly kept an eye on the colony. The British were well aware that the bay was an important port of entry to New Orleans and it was a port they desperately wanted to secure during the War of 1812. In order to gain the upper hand over the US, the British offered Jean a captain’s position in their royal navy along with $30,000 in exchange for his loyalty. Like a true pirate, Jean pretended to accept the offer, then behind Britain’s back turned around and offered his ships, cannons, and manpower in defense of New Orleans. The Governor scoffed the offer and ordered the U.S Army to destroy the Barataria Bay colony. The colony did sustain damage, yet Lafitte, his men, and his smuggling business remained standing. After the failed efforts to dismantle the colony Jean Lafitte continued to proclaim allegiance to the US.

 

By this time, Andrew Jackson had taken over the war efforts and Lafitte once again offered to defend New Orleans against the British. Jackson accepted the proposal, sending Lafitte and his men into battle. Jean and his company, who came to be known as the Baratarians, later received a pardon from President James Madison for their exceptional services in the Battle of New Orleans. Thanks to his war efforts, Jean Lafitte had become a free man absolved of all his misconducts.   

 

Receiving a full pardon for his crimes and being hailed a war hero wasn’t enough to keep Jean from the siren’s call of piracy. By 1817, Lafitte had returned to his pillaging ways. He had left Louisiana and relocated to Galveston, Texas, establishing a commune near the bay so that he could continue to plunder ships traveling the Gulf. His time in Galveston was short lived and just a few years after establishing the settlement, Jean returned to the sea. He continued his life of sailing and piracy until his death during battle in the waters near Honduras in the 1820s. The pirate captain was buried at sea.

 

In spite of Jean Lafitte’s burial at sea, many say that his spirit returned to New Orleans and haunts Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar. The stone and exposed brick French style building lives on Bourbon Street nestled between Dumaine and Saint Philip Street. It’s charming and unassuming from the outside, still there lives a belief that the spirit of Jean Lafitte resides within the structure’s walls.

 

A spot of particular high activity is located on the first floor of the pub near the fireplace. It is believed that Jean once used the fireplace to store his more valuable plunder; particularly, gold. Some even say that treasure is still buried beneath the fireplace itself. Many reports express an uneasy and disruptive atmosphere surrounding the area. Workers have said to feel sudden cold spots when near the zone of activity. Patrons have reported the feeling of being touched or brushed against when sitting next to the hearth. Yet, the most unsettling accounts belong to those who claim to see red eyes staring at them from behind the grate of the fireplace. The eyes, people say, are watchful and guarded. It is theorized that the eyes belong to the pirate legend that has long since left his treasure behind.

 

In addition to watchful eyes, there are countless claims that Lafitte’s spirit materializes often within the bar. It is said that he can be found in dark corners watching the crowd with a scowl on his face as if annoyed by the patrons. Moreover, near the back of the bar where the piano sits, people often report the strong smell of a cigar and, in brief glances, have seen Jean sitting at a table near the piano with a drink in hand.

 

Rather Jean Lafitte’s spirit lives at sea or near his rumored buried treasure is not for certain. In the face of vibrant and lively stories surrounding Jean’s life and death, one thing remains a fact: the pirate’s legend lives on.  

 

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

Published Daily