Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans


"Strike wherever we can reach the enemy, at sea and on land!"

Henry Clay

Several issues tempered the War of 1812. As is the case with most armed conflicts, the problems revolved around economy. The brunt of these were maritime- and territorial-related. During the first early years of the 19th Century, the United States and Great Britain argued over rights-of-way on the sea channels; these rifts led to both sides blockading commercial lanes, moves that injured the import and export trade of both nations. In retaliation to America's supply-severing efforts to the United Kingdom, England began attacking American ships and impressing their seamen into service as galley slaves. Equally important was a growing dissension over who America or England owned the trading routes north of the Great Lakes. Skirmishes erupted between British-Canada and the U.S. on the northern peninsular regions above the lakes. When Congress learned that British Tories were using regional Indians against American shippers and settlers, an alarm sounded. President James Madison declared war on June 18, 1812.

Almost immediately, British soldiers invaded the Illinois and Michigan territories; unprepared American forts at Michilimacinac, Detroit and Chekagou (Chicago) fell to overwhelming forces of British Redcoats and Indians. The Great Lakes were a scene of constant naval fire as British frigates and men-of-war invaded the country through the St. Lawrence Seaway and from Canada.

For many months, the general New Orleanian considered him or herself too remote to worry about what was happening up north and out east in Washington. Although Louisiana had become a state earlier that year, in February, the still-predominantly French cultures residing there continued to shun an American connection. In that same vein, the nation remained lethargic to what was happening down South.

Except for one important element. The British had strategically overtaken the Upper Mississippi Valley in an obvious first move to control that river and the western frontier itself. To finalize this maneuver, they would have to conquer the lower half of the continent-long river and an invasion from the south through the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans seemed almost imminent.

This gave Governor Claiborne official reason to now act, despite public opinion, against Jean and Pierre Lafitte and their "pirates" in Barataria Bay. He had been itching for a viable reason to snub in the faces of those who loved their rogue. For now he had more than the civic harmony of New Orleans at stake. To him, the presence of what he called "those banditti" roosting in the Gulf of Mexico was great cause for worry. Writes Robert Tallant in The Pirate Lafitte, "There were the Lafittes, in complete control of all the lands at the mouth of the Mississippi River. If the British tried to invade New Orleans that was the way they would come. The governor had reason to fear that the privateers he called them pirates might aid the British."

An arrest warrant was issued for Jean Lafitte. Because the reason for the warrant named as his crime "smuggling,' the responsibility to capture Lafitte fell into the hands of the U.S. Customs agents quartered on the banks of the Mississippi. Captain Andrew Holmes of the division was ordered to scour the bayous in hopes that he and his small band of dragoons might encounter the pirate during one of his many excursions to and from New Orleans.

Lafitte managed to evade them for months, laughing at their mission. The forty troopers under Capt. Holmes were forced to endure a summer of heat and pestilence in the jungle wetlands, naively following a succession of bad leads and often getting dizzily lost. Summer changed to fall and nothing occurred; somehow the elusive Lafitte and his vessels of contraband were still slipping through, like ghost ships, into New Orleans. Then it happened. Purely by chance, on a mid-November morning, their small boats stumbled into a hidden cove where Jean and Pierre Lafitte had just entered. Bowing to their pursuers' luck, the brothers surrendered without a fight and were brought back in irons to the city where they spent an evening in the Cabildo's jail.

.Bond was presented in the morning by the Lafittes' personal banker, Baptiste Sauvinet. Governor Claiborne's triumph was brief. On the appointed date of their trial at the city hall, a mere two weeks later, neither Lafitte appeared. Instead, they held an auction at The Temple.

The governor ranted. Over the subsequent months other troops were dispatched to the swamps, but came back empty-handed and hungry. And in the meantime Lafitte resumed his spontaneous visits to New Orleans, boldly walking the streets, conducting business and pleasure as usual. More irritating to the government representative was the fact that his very own citizens, the best of them, including personal friends, were seen fraternizing the outlaw at the public taverns, dining with him at the posh restaurants, laughing with him on the street corners. This had to stop!

A proclamation was issued, branding Jean Lafitte as a fugitive from the law. Claiborne pressed: Anyone caught doing business with him at The Temple, in town, on the islands of Barataria, or elsewhere would be equally held liable for committing a crime. Whether or not this incensed the public is not known, but citizen turnout at Lafitte's Temple market doubled.

The burlesque continued. In November, 1813, one group of revenue agents did come close to trapping Lafitte; musket fire was exchanged and the buccaneer escaped, leaving one administrator slightly wounded. But, Lafitte had fired against government officials and this prompted Claiborne's city council to disseminate a series of wanted posters: $500 FOR THE CAPTURE OF JEAN LAFITTE. Letters ablaze, these appeared in pedestrian places throughout the city. Claiborne hoped for a Judas goat to lead the rascal home. The money was offered, according to Robert Tallant, "for the capture of Jean Lafitte and his delivery to the sheriff of New Orleans or to any other sheriff in the State of Louisiana. It was rumored that he planned to put Jean Lafitte to death."

Citizens were treated to a belly roll, however, compliments of their favorite corsair. In the brisk dawn of a November morning, not long after the wanted posters were distributed, passersby noticed all of them gone and replaced by another. This one read, $1,500 REWARD FOR THE CAPTURE OF GOVERNOR CLAIBORNE TO BE DELIVERED TO THE ISLAND OF BARATARIA. And it was signed, JEAN LAFITTE.

But this bit of whimsy was nothing, compared to the next. Urged by Claiborne, the region's Collector of Customs, Monsieur Dubourg, sent an envoy and a dozen armed soldiers to pay a visit to Barataria bearing a firm message from the U.S. government that until the proper taxes were forthwith paid on goods sold at The Temple, there would be no more sales taking place there. Days passed and the representatives didn't return. Claiborne was certain that Lafitte's men had killed them. But, soon the envoy and his protectors returned, bearing large smiles and larger bags of food and gifts as well as nothing but compliments about the gentleman pirate who had wined and dined them, and didn't seem a bad sort after all.

Yet, the epitome of antics waited in the wings. It came in early 1814. By this time, Lafitte had tired of having to hide out, having his bayous trespassed by militia, having his name blistered by Claiborne. He took the governor's distrust of his loyalty to America as great insult...after all, he, Jean Lafitte, who never attacked an American ship! So, he called on the last person anyone in New Orleans especially Claiborne would have expected him to go to for help, the city's district attorney, John Randolph Grymes, the man who was supposed to be spearheading the prosecution against him!

Grymes had known Lafitte for years and had always, despite Claiborne's opinions, respected each other. For $10,000 Lafitte offered Grymes, one of Louisiana's most powerful men, a job as his emissary to persuade the government of his undying loyalty to the United States and to recruit the components of the Constitution to their fullest extent to keep Claiborne off his back.

District Attorney Grymes resigned his position the following morning to take up Lafitte's case. New Orleans howled for months.

Then a cloud came over the city and the laughter stopped abruptly. For the first time, the factions united in concern, although they didn't realize it. News came and suddenly the severity of the conflict with England hit home. New Orleans could no longer avoid it. The nation's capital, Washington City, had fallen; the White House had been torched, the President was on the lam. Southern coastal waters brimmed with English vessels. And a fleet of the Lion of Britain had been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico, headed towards New Orleans.