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July 3rd, 2013
Bartee Haile: Whatever happened to pirate “President” of Texas?

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

 

Jean Lafitte’s last rival left Galveston on Jul. 8, 1817 leaving the self-proclaimed “President” of Texas in complete control of the island.

Whether the famous pirate really made that preposterous claim after setting up shop on the Texas coast in the spring of 1817 is open to debate.  No matter, though, because it was an intricate blend of fact and fiction that made Lafitte immortal.

As a teenager, Jean Lafitte stowed away on a French ship bound for the West Indies.  The lad was put ashore at Santo Domingo and forced to fend for himself, a task he performed with a resourcefulness far beyond his years.  By the age of 20, he could point with pride to a pretty wife and his very own ship bought with the savings from backbreaking toil on a Caribbean plantation.

When a violent native uprising made Santo Domingo hazardous to the health of all Europeans, the couple put to sea.  Spain and France were at war, as usual, and Lafitte made the mistake of flying the flag of his homeland.  A Spanish warship spied the enemy colors, seized the vessel and deposited the Lafittes without provisions on a deserted island.

A passing American vessel saved the castaways from a fate worse than death, but the missus never recovered from the ordeal.  In spite of the best medical care New Orleans had to offer, she soon passed away.  The grief-stricken widower blamed Spain for his tragic loss and vowed revenge on an epic scale.
Securing a privateer commission from one of Spain’s many foes, Lafitte set out to even the score.  Spanish sailors anxiously squinted at the horizon for a sign of the young pirate, who at any moment might relieve them of their cargo and their lives.

The infamous Jean Lafitte

The infamous Jean Lafitte

Teaming up with his brother Pierre, the Lafittes parlayed high-seas hijacking and smuggling into a huge fortune.  With their staggering profits, they built an impregnable bastion on Grand Terre north of New Orleans.  The Lafittes’ force of several hundred cutthroats known as the Baratarians was more than a match for the authorities.

During the War of 1812, Lafitte offered the American side his impressive services on the eve of the Battle of New Orleans.  Gen. Andrew Jackson at first snubbed the unsavory character but changed his mind in the face of superior British forces.

In exchange for a pledge of a blanket pardon, Lafitte and the Baratarians fought like tigers in the victory which paved Jackson’s way to the White House.  But peace shortened Old Hickory’s memory, and the promised pardon was forgotten.

A disgusted Lafitte departed Louisiana in search of a new haven.  Haiti was his first choice, but the government declined to play host to a pirate horde.

Hearing Galveston was up for grabs, Lafitte set a course for the strip of sand off the Texas coast.  When a Mexican rebel leader returned to the island, he was shocked to find his hideaway occupied by the Baratarians, but he was more than happy to trade the refuge for his head.

Galveston, which was renamed Campeche, blossomed overnight into a pirate colony and contraband center.  Lafitte was back in business, and business was good.  The Frenchman and his legion of outcasts made money hand over sword and savored the pleasures of their ill-gotten gains beyond the reach of the hated Spaniards.

Political reality caused Lafitte to put American shipping off-limits.  So long as the raiders steered clear of its vessels, the U.S. government secretly cheered the looting and sinking of Spanish craft.

However, the freebooters lacked discipline, and the inevitable finally happened.  William Brown, an overeager American recruit, broke Lafitte’s cardinal rule by launching an unsuccessful attack against a U.S. ship.

Washington’s wrath was swift and decisive.  Backed by a war fleet anchored in the bay, a naval officer delivered the terse ultimatum.  Lafitte had two choices:  abandon Galveston or forfeit his life.  The next day, the sullen pirates put Campeche to the torch and left under the guns of the American armada.

Lafitte sailed into obscurity in 1821.  Several times the Spaniards boasted of killing their old nemesis, but their unsupported claims were dubious at best.

Of course, there is no shortage of stories concerning his ultimate fate.  Some historians believe Lafitte was killed off the coast of Honduras in 1823 in a sea battle with the Spaniards.  In a more bizarre tale, he rescues Napoleon from post-Waterloo exile and the pair spent their remaining years in the solitude of the back bayous of Louisiana.

Returning to private life after his one term as president of the Texas Republic, Mirabeau Lamar, something of a scholar in his own right, tried to unravel the Lafitte mystery.  He did not let the lack of hard evidence interfere with his conclusion that the phantom pirate was in all likelihood dead by 1843.

A hundred and ninety-two years after his Galveston exodus, no one knows for sure what happened to Jean Lafitte and chances are we never will.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box
152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net and invites you to visit his new web site at barteehaile.com.

 


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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