Gulf Coast Pirate History
A Brief History by Vincent DeLuca
All the oceans of the world were home to pirates, at one time or another. From the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, to the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, men and women sailed “on the account”, to achieve wealth and fame in a lifestyle that promised total freedom.
The Gulf of Mexico had served as a major port for pirates and privateers alike, during the late 18th early 19th centuries. Almost two hundred years after the peak of the fabled “golden age of piracy”, classic piracy was becoming a scarcer practice. As major world powers exercising their growing naval might, and port cities became more law- abiding, piracy was becoming extremely dangerous, and even more risky than ever before. Port Royal, Jamaica, and Tortuga (now Haiti) were long since used as pirate safe- havens, and these were the places pirates went to spend or trade their stolen goods. During the 17th century, the British colonies of the New World welcomed piracy, since the colonies trade was hindered by British embargoes and high- taxes. It is even known that pirates once strolled about the cobble- stone streets of New York City, and many other port or coastal cities throughout the New World.
For the Gulf Coast, the 19th century provided no shortage of event’s welcoming piracy. To be more specific, privateering regained its popularity. Differing from piracy by way of legal permission, Privateers were valuable assets to countries warring with one another. Privateers would go out to hunt for enemy ships, would capture them, and would then divvy up the found goods with the authorities. The 19th century saw a small influx of privateering, as Mexico fought Spain for independence, and Gulf port cities sought their power. Galveston Island isn’t the only Gulf territory that had its share of pirates. Louisiana (more specifically the Barataria Bay and Grand Terre islands), was home to the notorious smugglers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, and their vast underground empire, and Florida saw much of this activity as well, being a Spanish colony. Regarded as the first crime bosses of America, the Lafitte brothers brought wealth and prosperity to New Orleans by way of smuggling illegal goods into the state, through its coast’s intricate systems of swamps and river channels. The Lafitte’s system ran all the way up the Mississippi, and Pierre Lafitte is even known to have traveled all over 19th century America, having allies in many places along the East Coast of America.
Jean Lafitte: Walking the Thin Line Between Criminal and Hero
With origins steeped in mystery and legend, Jean Lafitte is the name attributed most to Gulf Coast piracy. However, Jean was not the only pirate to sail the Gulf Coast waters; in fact, Jean Lafitte did not consider himself to be a pirate, and as far as history goes, he was more of a smuggler and organized crime leader, rather than the rambunctious, cut- throat pirate legend has made him out to be.
On the side of fact, it is not officially known where Jean Lafitte was born, but many writings on Lafitte suggest his birthplace to be France (other popular speculations are Haiti, Cuba, Spain, and even Africa). The first twenty or so years of Lafitte’s life are a mystery as well, though you can read countless stories and biographies claiming to sport “authentic” information about his birth- place and early life. The truth is that we don’t know very much FACTUAL information about Lafitte, other than what he has done here in the U.S, and even still, elements of those facts have been mixed with legend, making research on the Lafitte Brothers something of a great endeavor.
No matter what story you choose to believe, it is certain that by 1806, the Lafitte brothers were steeped in a successful illegal smuggling operation. After the Embargo Act of 1807 was passed, the brothers moved their operations to the Grand Terre islands, in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay. Bringing in goods that New Orleans residents would normally never see, Jean quickly became a popular figure on the streets of New Orleans, known to many as a gentleman, despite his dealings in illegal trade and smuggling. Despite being illegal, the smuggling operations helped turn New Orleans into the boom- town it was at the time, and people loved the Lafitte brothers for it. Also, the Lafitte brothers DID in fact commit acts of piracy, but only to obtain cargo that was considered illegal in the U.S. It is well known that Lafitte treated prisoners very well, and even returned captured ships to their owners, after cleaning them out of supplies. This was very different from the typical pirate behavior and activities we’ve come to know, and hence why Jean would actually become angered at being called a pirate.
By 1810, The Lafitte Brothers were enjoying great success from their illegal trade business, and even began to delve into slave trade, due to how profitable it was at the time. Things changed in 1814, when United States authorities, under Commodore Daniel Patterson, invaded The Barataria Bay to put an end to the Lafitte’s illegitimate business. However, invasion led by the British Army was imminent, and U.S officials realized that taking down the smuggling operation left Louisiana un- defended. The Lafitte brothers would soon receive a special request. In return for complete criminal pardon, the Lafitte brothers and their men would have to assist General Andrew Jackson’s men in repelling the British Invasion in 1815, a remnant attack of the brief War of 1812. This addition to Jackson’s forces solidified victory for the U.S and secured freedom for Lafitte and his men.
It was sometime in March of 1817 when Jean officially arrived in Galveston, Texas, to stay. Between 1816 and 1817, Lafitte was leading supply runs to Galveston from Louisiana, re- supplying the French Corsair Luis- Michel Aury, in his operations in aiding General Francisco Mina and the South American revolution against Spain. Lafitte took over the “Campeche” Operation (Aury used the name “Campeche” first, not Jean Lafitte) in Galveston in 1817, during Aury’s expedition to take over Soto La Marina, in Mexico. According to most credible forms of documentation, the Lafitte brothers were in agreement with Spain to act as spies against Mexican revolutionaries. Collectively known as “Number Thirteen”, Pierre would remain in New Orleans, while Jean would set up shop in Galveston, tasked with ousting Aury from the island. With Aury in Mexico, and his Campeche officers abandoning the island, Jean gained control over Galveston in as little as two weeks.
From 1817 to 1821, Lafitte ran the Campeche operation from Galveston’s shores, privateering Spanish shipping (which is contrary to the stories of him being a Spanish spy), engaging in slave trade, and building an operation very similar to his Barataria operation in the U.S. A series of unfortunate events in 1818 helped speed along the downfall of the Campeche operation. Aside from bringing negative attention to Galveston through his privateering activities, a battle with the Native Karankawa tribes rendered several fatalities, and a hurricane in September of that year sank four of his fleet’s ships. In 1821, one of Lafitte’s appointed ship captains conducted a raid on an American merchant ship. This action brought on the USS Enterprise to Galveston’s shores, with the mission to forcibly remove Lafitte from Galveston, if necessary. Putting up no struggle, Lafitte sailed out of Galveston in 1821, on his prized sloop “The Pride”, but not before burning down the Maison Rogue, and several other buildings created to accommodate Lafitte’s business and men.
He left behind several legends and tales as to what really happened to him after Galveston, though not a single one can be attributed to anything factual. There is only one thing we can be certain of regarding the end of Lafitte, which is the fact that he had to have passed away by 1830. In fact, newspapers in Cartenega and Colombia sported obituaries for Lafitte around 1824. So, was Jean Lafitte a criminal, or a hero? Was he a pirate, or a privateer? Was he French or Spanish? Mean or nice?These answers, like many others regarding Jean’s history, are almost certain to never be answered with truth or fact. Yet still, Jean Lafitte lives on strong to this day, through legend and stories, and now right here in Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast!