Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans

The Bayous

"Audacity, more audacity, and always audacity!"

Georges Jacques Danton

The transportation system that Jean Lafitte designed through the near 40-miles of swamps and bayous to New Orleans attests to his enterprise and ingenuity. He produced a series of ingress routes through what is even today an otherwise impenetrable mass of jungle flora, fauna and pests. Its murky waters are floored by quicksand and undertows, walled by the low-hanging moss of cypress and tall marsh grass that blinds a traveler's path and from whose density a cottonmouth can strike at any given turn, and surrounded with alligators, lizards, mosquitoes, armadillos, rodents and a hundred other natural dangers to the human flesh

As beautiful as it can be deadly, the blue-green aura of this jungle could lead even the most confident man astray and make direction-keeping impossible, even with a compass. The sunlight rarely permeates; late afternoons and evenings, a wanderer could drift into a stupor lulled by its natural symphony of croaking frog, caterwaul of a dozen or so species of birds and the humming whirr of the wind that eddies and reverberates to play over and over again.

But, Lafitte knew the swamps, the marshes, the bayous; he knew what it could do to a man And he knew its benefits. The American soldiery, quartered in a number of small forts up and down the Mississippi River, most of them from other climates, would never be able to stop his commercial routes, let alone find him and his goods, in this ever-hot, ever-muggy prehistoric jungle.

According to journalist Mel Leavitt, Lafitte "organized a superb transportation system, widening waterways and digging canals. His gigantic barges, one-hundred-feet long, were hewn from raw cypress trunks and shuttled back and forth almost daily to New Orleans, loaded with men and merchandise".

Just below the city, the barges were unloaded and the supplies assigned to canoe-like boats called pirogues; in them they were hurried into New Orleans. The final routes on the trip were the Bayou St. John, the tiny lakes and other open waterways beyond the U.S. customs stations. On their banks, the freight was again unloaded, inventoried and placed on flatbeds and in tarpaulined wagons for delivery to the shop owners awaiting them. Through this process, avoiding the tariffs, Lafitte was able to monopolize the lion's share of trade commerce.

But, entrepreneurial Lafitte wasn't content. He believed not only in quality but in efficiency and expeditiousness. The trip by water, if the weather did not cooperate, could take as much as a week from Barataria to New Orleans. Delays could leave stores' shelves empty, medicines in want, the foodstuffs rotten; if the barge carried slaves, plantation harvests could face jeopardy.

To correct these misadventures to everyone's appeal, the clever Lafitte created one of this country's first and most successful retail outlets. Here, the wanting public could come to browse, to shop, to buy an endless contraband at exorbitantly reduced prices and take the treasures home in their conveyances that very afternoon.

Requiring a place accessible to the general public, Lafitte, after careful consideration with brother Pierre, chose an ideal spot. Within the bayous were "islands" or chenieres both large and small :girthed by dense oak; because of their elevation, they often caught the seashells that floated in from the Gulf and, to that extent, their ground was carpeted with these shells. The largest of these was a well-known, very reachable one, halfway between New Orleans and Barataria Bay, referred to as "The Temple." It derived its name from the fact that hundreds of years earlier local Indians used it as a sacrificial altar.

Boldly, Lafitte advertised his market days on billboards and posters set up throughout New Orleans:









And the public came. In droves. They partook of the sales, grabbing armloads- full of paraphernalia. Often, while their men loitered near the slave platforms to share the canisters of Cuban stogies and chewing snuff, wives balanced sun parasols over their heads while cradling imported fineries to their bosoms; the finer ladies brought a score of servants along to carry the day's purchases for them. Children enjoyed the sugar cane pralines and taffies boiled by the pirates' mistresses on site and given away free. Lafitte was always sure to be on hand himself to relate with the men and charm their females

An existing letter from a gentleman named A.L. Lacour reads: "The most respectable inhabitants of the state purchase smuggled goods from J. Lafitte in Barataria..."

Lafitte had become a household world. Everyone knew his name. Including Governor Claiborne, one of the few to chagrin it..