Jean Lafitte 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 were most likely businessmen in New Orleans or independent privateers before becoming associated with the smuggling and piracy.
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, including slaves. It was around this time that the Lafitte brothers engaged in smuggling and piracy. Merchants and planters were eager to buy the goods and slaves Lafitte smuggled into south Louisiana.
By 1812 Lafitte was the leader of the Baratarians with headquarters on Grand Terre, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico near Grand Isle. Lafitte may have had as many as 1000 people working for him, including free men of color and runaway slaves. 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.
Throughout Barataria, Lafitte built warehouses to store goods and pens to hold slaves. Merchants and planters came to Barataria for auctions, which Lafitte held outside New Orleans to avoid the law. His knowledge of the swamps helped him to make quick getaways. Several times customs officials and soldiers tried to capture Lafitte in the swamps, but they were usually captured, wounded, or killed by the Baratarians. In 1812, several Baratarians including both Pierre and Jean Lafitte were captured but escaped. In the summer of 1814, Pierre was arrested and jailed in New Orleans, but he escaped from jail under mysterious circumstances in September.
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 first and the U.S. Army and Navy went ahead with a planned attack on Lafitte’s base at Grand Terre.
Although General Andrew Jackson, commander of the American troops, originally described Lafitte as a “hellish banditti,” he finally accepted Lafitte’s help because of the ammunition, cannoneers, and knowledge of the area Lafitte could supply. The expert cannon fire of Jackson’s troops, including Lafitte’s Baratarians, contributed to the American victories during the New Orleans campaign that culminated with the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. Most of these battles took place at or near Chalmette Plantation, now Chalmette Battlefield and part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
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 Bartarians 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.