Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans

Out of Nowhere

"Life is made up of marble and mud."

Nathaniel Hawthorne

These central elements are known about Jean Lafitte's earliest years of industry in New Orleans: that between 1803 and 1814 he owned and operated a vast ring of smugglers who transported, under his direction, merchandise of all kinds to the city from his stronghold on Grande Terre, an island in Barataria Bay at the mouth of the Mississippi River; these goods were sold to both retailers in quantity and to independent consumers either at a number of markets within the city or at various designated spots south of it; his older brother Pierre served as his able-bodied chief lieutenant, ensuring timely deliveries to clients; both brothers also provided slaves to cotton and sugar cane planters along the Mississippi at prices greatly reduced below those charged by appointed government "flesh traders"; and that Jean, more the charmer, was often seen in the company of the territorial gentry who considered him not a criminal but a businessman.

But, where Jean (and Pierre) Lafitte were born and when as well as many other personal facts, continue to remain a mystery almost 200 years later. "We know some of the deeds they performed," says Robert Tallant in The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans. "We know all the important ones. We know many details of their character. Yet we do not really know...where they came from before they appeared in New Orleans."

Testimonies from those who knew Jean Lafitte and who have recorded what he himself said about his background all differ. Most tend to agree he was born between 1778-1780. As to his place of origin, depending upon the source, the Lafittes were natives of either France, Spain, St. Dominique, Haiti, or elsewhere. He had told some associates that he had fought with Napoleon's army; others that he was the son of French aristocrats who died on the guillotine; yet others that he was a refugee from Spanish rule in the Caribbean isles. All these variations point to a man who, for reasons of his own, seemed to purposely create and sustain a mystique.

The nearest that one might come to determining Lafitte's history would be by examining the credence of those variables that have come to light. For instance, as pertaining to his birthplace, there are a few identified documents existing today that state, in his own hand, a homeland; they range from Bayonne, Brest, Marseilles and St. Malo in France; Orduna in Spain, and, says Ramsay, "one curious work, published in 1825, (which) gave Westchester, New York, as Jean's place of birth".

All of these, while possible, are not probable when considering one very important fact: his ability to design and navigate, by instinct, several channels of transportation through the miles and miles of brain-boggling marshland and bayous which comprise the Southern Mississippi Delta. This indicates that he did not stem from some exotic land far off, but probably grew up in the French-heavy bayou country of southern Louisiana. People who have spent years in the region have claimed they would not venture too far into the puzzlework of cypress and moss lest they never find their way home. And yet Lafitte had, according to testimony on file, "a more accurate knowledge of every inlet from the Gulf than any other man". So widespread was he identified with this knowledge that when England decided to attack New Orleans in 1814, and hunted for a source to lead its army through the tricky swamps to the "back door of New Orleans," all roads of investigation led to Lafitte's name.

Lafitte Brothers' Blacksmith Shop by E.H. Suydam
Lafitte Brothers' Blacksmith Shop by
E.H. Suydam

Ramsay believes that, "During his youth, Jean visited the wetlands of New Orleans, explored the bayous, the inlets, the waterways and the illusionary islands. He knew the area's isolation, its potential..."

Lafitte's presence in town first became apparent around 1803 when he and brother Pierre opened a blacksmith forge on the Rue de St. Phillippe. (The smithy was, as it turned out, merely a cover, which served as a depot where the brothers Lafitte took orders for goods recently "confiscated" from ships at sea.) For men who were supposed to have been new to a city, they too-quickly learned its unique, stylish habits and customs, too-quickly understood its sometimes curious laws, too-quickly learned the angles, and too-quickly ingratiated themselves with the local merchandise retailers and bankers, as well as the aristocracy. In the latter company, the Lafittes, especially Jean, found pleasant and fitting company. He was a well-read, well-dressed, very cultured gentleman for his young age (he was purportedly only 24 in 1803) who spoke four languages (English, French, Italian and Spanish) fluently and could discuss the venues of politics and policies of New Orleans better than members of its founding families. With his obviously French accent and decorum, Jean Lafitte melded well into the Creole and Acadian cultures cultures he obviously knew as a native.

Even the surname Lafitte mandates some investigation. The name was and is common in French-speaking areas of the world. Of the variance of places Jean Lafitte hinted as a location of ancestry, perhaps the one that has a semblance of truth was the French-controlled St. Dominique, from where, records indicate, Lafitte families did migrate to Louisiana in the latter half of the 1700s. On those records are the surnames Lafitte, Lafette. La Fite and other similarities. However, confusing the issue more so is the fact that Jean habitually signed his name spelled Laffite (two Fs, one T). Author Stanley Clisby Arthur in Old New Orleans points to several bills of sale extant today that support this. This particular version is novel and, therefore, almost his own invention probably employed to protect his real familial name. But, because the spelling he chose was overlooked by historians, and he is known in the books by the more orthodox Lafitte, this report will not break the tradition.