Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans

Barataria Destroyed

"I am the stray sheep wishing to return to the sheepfold."

Jean Lafitte

After the exeunt of the British entourage from his island, Jean Lafitte penned two communiqués one to Governor Claiborne and another to a personal friend, John Blanque, a Creole member of the Louisiana State Legislature warning of the British bargain and ensuring them of his allegiance to the United States.

To Claiborne, he wrote: "This point of Louisiana, which I occupy, is of great importance in the present crisis. I tender my services to defend it; the only reward I ask is that a stop be put to the proscription against me and my adherents...If you were thoroughly acquainted with the nature of my offenses, I should appear to you much less guilty and still worthy to discharge the duties of a good citizen." In promising his loyalty to the country, he also avowed to leave it "instantly" should Claiborne not accept his assistance.

The letter to Blanque described the terms of the British offer in more detail. As he did with Claiborne, he again underscored his zeal to fight for the United States, which he considered his adopted country. To this correspondence, he attached the documents given him by the British. "In short, sir," he communicated, "I make you the depository of the secret on which perhaps depends the tranquillity of our country."

Both letters were delivered the following morning by a member of his colony via pirogue through the fastest route through the swamps. While Lafitte waited for an answer, he gathered his men together to explain his latest actions. He truly believed, he told them, that his offer for help would be accepted. And he urged them to load their muskets, sharpen their cutlasses, and prepare to fight for America. They have found, he told them, a country to fight for at last. The pirates, ever the ones for a good fight, hurrahed.

In the meantime, Claiborne's pleas to Washington for more defense-power were answered through official channels. A small fleet under the command of Commodore Daniel Patterson sailed into New Orleans in early Fall, and a body of troops led by Army Colonel J.Y. Ross appeared to repair and reinforce some of the already-existing forts along the Mississippi up from which the British were expected to sail.

When he received Lafitte's letter, and after counseling with Blanque on his opinion of the Lafitte proposal, Claiborne called together members of his defense council for advice. (Even though legislator Blanque vouched for Lafitte's sincerity, Claiborne remained reticent.) This group included, among others, Naval Commodore Patterson, Col. Ross of the Regular Army, Major General Jacques Villieres, the senior officer representing the New Orleans Militia, and Customs Collector Dubourg. In question were two items: 1) the authenticity of the Briitsh documents presented by Lafitte and 2) the sense of dealing with a known pirate.

The biased outcome of the committee's central players is deliberated on by Lyle Saxon in Lafitte the Pirate. "Both Patterson and Ross voted no. Villiere voted a vehement yes (saying) that he believed the letters were genuine, and that Lafitte and his men were needed in case of invasion; but he was outvoted. Collector Dubourg...was particularly insistent hat this pirates' stronghold, or smugglers' retreat, be done away with at once...Patterson and Ross were anxious to attack the stronghold at Barataria,...There were rich prizes to be had there."

Within days, Claiborne's answer to Jean Lafitte's offer for assistance left New Orleans. It came in the form of three barges crammed with men and ammunition, six gunboats and the warship Carolina a flotilla more than adequate to devastate Grande Terre. When the vessels sailed into the Gulf on the morning of September 16, and within range of the island's guns, Lafitte nor his men expected trouble. Seeing the American flag flying over the masts, many of the colony rushed to the beaches waving and cheering.

The Carolina opened fire. And the gunboats opened fire. And the mortars on the barges opened fire.

Lafitte could not believe his senses. Even as the walls of his home fell around him under cannon blast, he wondered how this mistake could have been made. From what was left of his porch, stunned, he watched his men scramble from the white sands of the shore, many of them never making it alive to the safety of the swamps. He watched as the skeleton of the watch tower broke asunder before cannon ball, the bell that he never though would be used as a warning against America clanging on the ground below. He watched as the barges of blue tunics beached and, with torch in hand, fan out from hut to hut lighting the dry palmetto thatch. His legs, smarter than his brain at the moment, carried him toward the swamp but he kept looking back at what he just could not believe. Only one thing remained constant: to this very moment, he had never fired on an American ship.

Except for a few smaller boats that had made their way to safety, most of the thirteen vessels currently docked in Baratarian port were captured by the American troops. Of the hundreds of men on the island that morning, most made their way to safety in the recesses of the marshes. Fifty of them were apprehended, including Dominique Youx. Destruction and looting of the island went on for days.

Claiborne was disappointed that Lafitte was not among the prisoners. Still, he viewed the campaign as a rousing success. His long-time enemy had been broken. His treasure troves estimatedly $50,000 worth of contraband were emptied, his ships were taken, his legions were scattered. By all appearances, Jean Lafitte would never be heard from again.

Maspero's Warehouse where Lafitte kept contraband (E.H. Suydam)
Maspero's Warehouse where Lafitte
kept contraband (E.H. Suydam)

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