Jean Lafitte

 

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The History of Texas: Jean Lafitte

(Previous Section: Mexican Revolution)

Jean Lafitte, it appears, was the eldest of three brothers, natives of Bordeaux in France. At an early age he ran away from home, and joined a British vessel-of-war. His father pursued him, and brought him back. He absconded the second time, and joined the British frigate Fox. Here, after serving for some time, he deserted, and went to live with a French family at Deptford. He did not remain long in this family, but, finding quarters in a vessel for South America, he took passage, and went to Carthagena, and afterward to Santa Martha, which last-named place he for a time made his home. Here he managed to fit out a privateer, with which he often visited the coasts of the United States, particularly Charleston. But, having killed a rival in an affair of the heart, he left that port, and frequented the West India seas. In the year 1807, the United States laid an embargo upon foreign commerce, which offered great temptation to persons of easy virtue to engage in illicit trade. New Orleans afforded a good market; while the various bays, lakes, and bayous, about the mouth of the Mississippi, furnished a secure retreat and means of smuggling.

The island of Grand Terre, situated about sixty miles from the delta of the Mississippi, stands in the entrance of a lake behind it, which connects by a narrow pass on each side of the island with the gulf of Mexico. The surface of the island is undulating, and covered with a small growth of wood, and its waters abound in turtle and fish. Previous to its occupation by the buccaneers, it was uninhabited, but frequented by fishermen. About the year 1810 or 1811, it was selected as the rendezvous of individuals of various nations, who, driven from their homes by the wars which for so many years had ravaged Europe and America, had engaged in a clandestine and lawless trade.  From the nature of this traffic, the island soon obtained, by general consent, the name of Barataria. Though there were many leaders engaged in this business, and connected by no other tie than that of plunder, yet Jean Lafitte, from the superiority of his privateers, his prudence in their management, and the completeness of his arrangements, soon acquired over the other chieftains of Barataria an authority and power nearly absolute. His two brothers, Pierre and Henri, or Antoine, were located at New Orleans, and acted as his factors in disposing of his prizes, and in furnishing him with supplies. So adroitly did Jean manage this business, that, though his brothers were often brought within the clutches of the law, he always escaped. In addition to his other advantages, he had interested in this business many of the principal merchants and traders in and about New Orleans. Thus, in a year or two, the honest and fair traders of that city were greatly injured, and the public morals so corrupted, that the state of Louisiana was well-nigh disgraced.

To correct this state of things, Governor Claiborne, on the 15th of March, 1813, issued a proclamation, commanding the Baratarians to disperse. Failing in this, the governor then offered a reward of five hundred dollars for the head of Jean Lafitte. The daring freebooter replied by an offer of fifteen thousand dollars for the head of his excellency! The latter, seeing his authority thus set at defiance, sent a company of militia to Barataria, to break up the establishment. Unfortunately, it was commanded by one of Lafitte's old captains. Lafitte surrounded them, loaded them with presents, and sent them home. All these steps being reported to President Madison, Commodore Patterson, of the United States navy, was ordered, early in 1814, to destroy the establishment.

Accordingly, on the 11th of June, 1814, the commodore left New Orleans, accompanied by Colonel Ross and seventy-one picked men of the 44th regiment, United States infantry. He took with him the schooner Caroline and the United States gunboats at the Balize. On the morning of the 16th he reached Barataria. The town consisted of about forty houses, of different sizes, badly constructed, and thatched with palmetto. The vessels of the freebooters consisted of six fine schooners and one felucca, as cruisers, and one armed schooner, under Carthagenian colors. The rovers came out to meet the commodore, and formed their vessels into line of battle, having mounted on them twenty pieces of cannon, and exhibiting a force of eight hundred or a thousand men. But when they saw the commodore determined, and still advancing, they abandoned the place and fled, concealing themselves in the numerous morasses of the surrounding country. The commodore returned to New Orleans on the 23d of June, bearing with him the vessels and spoil of Barataria.

This expedition so crippled the freebooters, that they could only operate afterward with great secrecy. The war between the United States and Great Britain prevented further attempts against them. They were, however, approached by the British in a different manner. On the 3d of September, 1814, Captain Lockyer, commander of his majesty's man-of-war Sophia, put in to the shore at Barataria, and offered Lafitte the rank of post-captain in the British navy, the command of a frigate, and thirty thousand pounds sterling, to join his majesty's forces. Lafitte asked two weeks' time to consider the proposal, giving the captain some hope, however, that he would accept it.

The next day, Lafitte enclosed the written propositions to Governor Claiborne, writing him also a polite letter, tendering his services to the United States, on condition that he and his adherents should be protected from further interruption. The offer was accepted; and Lafitte and his men, stationed at the guns near the levee, on the 8th of January, 1815, did such service as to call forth a general pardon from the president of the United States.

The vigilance of the government, and the promises of Lafitte, prevented him from re-establishing himself at Barataria. After a visit to Washington city, in which he squandered his wealth with princely profusion, he endeavored to establish his headquarters at Port-au-Prince, but failed. While he was wandering over the gulf of Mexico with his adherents, Aury sailed from Galveston on the expedition against Soto la Marina; and, in a few days afterward, the island was occupied by the buccaneers of Lafitte.

The number of his followers on the island was about forty persons. On the 15th of April, 1817, the captains and owners of vessels then present, consisting of Louis Itourribarria, Louis Derieux, A. Pironneau, John Ducoing, Rousselin, Rd. Espagnol, and Bartholomew Lafon— seven in all, Lafitte not choosing to have his name used—met on board the schooner Carmelita, for the purpose of taking the necessary oath of fidelity to the Mexican republic. Derieux, as commandant, was duly sworn by Itourribarria; the others were severally sworn by Derieux. Having reduced this proceeding to writing, they signed it, and filed it as an evidence of the existence of a government at Galveston.

By the 20th of the month, other sailing-craft had come in; and, after due notice given, all the captains and owners of vessels assembled on board the schooner Jupiter, and proceeded to choose officers, and lay down such rules of government as they required. Derieux was confirmed as military commandant, Pironneau was appointed adjutant commandant, Ducoing judge of admiralty, Rousselin administrator of the revenue, Espagnol secretary of the public treasury, and Jean Jannet marine commandant of the place.

The laws established by the buccaneers consisted of regulations concerning the mode of distributing the gains of their profession, and the payment of the officers' salaries.

This new government had not the odor of legitimacy which attached to that of Aury. The latter was duly appointed by Manuel Herrera, commissioner from the Mexican republicans to the United States; and Herrera certainly received his appointment from President  Morelos. Whether with or without the sanction of Aury, the Lafitte government stipulated for the payment of all the old debts of Aury's administration, provided the creditors were not non-residents. This clause had the happy effect of withdrawing from Aury's banners such of his followers as held claims against the old government.

The extent of Lafitte's authority as a cruiser will appear from a statement of his connection with Colonel Ellis P. Bean. In the latter part of 1814, Bean was dispatched by General Morelos, the then president of the revolutionary party in Mexico, on a mission to the United States, to procure aid for the patriot cause. At the port of Nautla, Bean found one of Lafitte's vessels, Captain Dominic master, and, informing him of his business, was taken on board, and landed at Barataria. Here Bean saw Lafitte, and imparted to him the object of his mission. The buccaneer-chief conducted him by a near way to New Orleans; and, upon an invitation from General Jackson, with whom Bean was an old acquaintance, the latter took command of one of the guns at the levee on the 8th of January, and fought by the side of Lafitte in that battle. It was from Colonel Bean that General Jackson received a detailed account of the conduct of the Baratarians on that day. Lafitte, being pardoned, and hoping for more honorable employment through the agency of Colonel Bean, furnished a fine schooner to transport the latter, and the munitions he had procured, back to Nautla. There is no doubt but that Bean gave Lafitte a commission to cruise against the enemies of the Mexican republican party; but, whether this commission was given before or after the battle of New Orleans, is uncertain. We are also informed, from Colonel Bean's letters, that this appointment was afterward confirmed by the republican authority in Mexico.

[Next Section of Texas History: Mexican Independence]

 

 

 

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