Who was Jean Lafitte?
Mystery and legend surround the life of Jean Lafi tte. Was he a pirate, a patriot, or both? Is his last name spelled “Lafi tte” or “Laffi te”? Even the date and place of his birth and death are unknown. He was probably born in the early 1780s in either France or the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti) in the Caribbean. By 1810 he was in Louisiana with his older brother Pierre. They might have been businessmen in New Orleans or independent privateers before becoming associated with the smugglers of Barataria.
Pirates, Smugglers, and Privateers
Lafitte always insisted that if he committed any crime, it was smuggling, and he blamed American laws for forcing him into illegal activities. In 1807 the United States outlawed trade with Great Britain and France because of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Merchants in New Orleans began to run out of goods to sell. Around the same time it became illegal to bring slaves from Africa into Louisiana; it later became illegal to import slaves into the rest of the United States. Louisiana planters had a hard time buying enough American-born slaves to work on their everexpanding sugar and cotton plantations. Merchants and planters were eager to buy the goods and slaves Lafitte smuggled into south Louisiana.
The men working for Lafitte were called Baratarians because the waterways they used for smuggling were located in an area called Barataria (the Barataria Preserve of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is located in this area). Barataria’s swamps and bayous stretched south of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. This area had been famous for smuggling even before privateers arrived in 1810 to use the deep water harbor of Barataria Bay.
The Pirate Turns Patriot
Lafitte’s image changed from pirate to patriot during the War of 1812. Britain and the United States declared war in June 1812, but until 1814, most of the fighting took place on the east coast or northern border of the United States. In September 1814, British military officials sought Lafitte’s help in their campaign to attack the U.S. from the Gulf of Mexico. Lafitte decided to warn American authorities and offered to help defend New Orleans in exchange for a pardon for his men. His warnings were not believed at fi rst and the U.S. Army and Navy went ahead with a planned attack on Lafitte’s base at Grand Terre.
What Happened to Jean Lafitte?
Thankful for their help with the American victory, in February 1815 President James Madison offered pardons to the Baratarians for any crimes committed against the United States. Many of the Baratarians settled in New Orleans or in the Barataria area and some of their descendants still live there today. Lafitte eventually returned to smuggling at Galveston Island in Spanish Texas until he was forced out by the U.S. Navy in 1820. His exact whereabouts after that are unknown. His life and death remain as mysterious as the swamps and bayous of Barataria.
Myths and Mysteries
As the years passed, Lafitte became a legendary figure in south Louisiana. Are the stories true?
Did the Lafittes own a blacksmith shop in New Orleans’ French Quarter?
An 1802 newspaper ad mentioned a blacksmith named Lafi tte, but no first name was given and the shop was not at the corner of Bourbon and St. Phillip streets where the business known as Jean Lafi tte’s Blacksmith Shop stands today. The story may have begun because Pierre Lafitte’s mistress owned a building on St. Phillip Street across from today’s Blacksmith Shop.
Did Lafitte always respect the American flag?
In the 1938 and 1958 films The Buccaneer, Lafitte claims he never attacked an American ship. Actually, his men attacked several American ships but apparently did not kill any crewmen, possibly because they did not fight back. Lafitte’s men did resist arrest by American federal agents and soldiers, wounding, murdering, and capturing several.
Did Lafitte write a memoir?
In the 1950s, a man claiming to be a descendant of Lafitte published “The Journal of Jean Laffite.” The journal was republished in the 1990s as “The Memoirs of Jean Laffite.” A major theme in the memoir/journal is Lafitte’s change of heart from slave trader to anti-slavery activist. The man also owned documents claiming Lafi tte lived until the 1850s and was buried in Alton, Illinois. Most historians doubt the authenticity of these claims but have not been able to disprove them.
Is Lafitte buried in the town of Lafitte, Louisiana?
This story first appeared in a local newspaper in the 1920s from an unnamed source and has no basis in fact. The story claimed that American Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones was the uncle of Jean Lafitte and Napoleon Bonaparte and that the two were cousins. After Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena by the English in 1815, the story says Lafitte put a double in his place and smuggled him into the United States, but that Napoleon died on the trip. Lafitte then was supposed to have buried Napoleon in the town of Lafitte’s Perrin Cemetery; later Jones and Lafitte himself supposedly were buried there. It is quite certain that Napoleon is buried in Paris and that Jones, who died in 1792, is buried at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Lafitte’s final resting place is unknown.
Why is a National Park Named for Jean Lafitte?
In 1966, Louisiana authorized a state park to be established at the present site of the Barataria Preserve. The park was named after Lafitte because of his smuggling operations in the area.
Last updated: September 22, 2020