COVER: During the War of 1812, Jean Lafitte and his buccaneers helped defend New Orleans against the British when Gen. Andrew Jackson promised a full pardon. After Jackson failed to deliver the pardon, Lafitte set up his headquarters at what is now called Galveston Island, purportedly declaring himself the “president of Texas.” CREDIT: “The Battle of New Orleans.” Engraving by H.B. Hall after W. Momberger. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION
This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
When his last rival worthy of the name fled Galveston for a healthier climate on Jul. 21, 1817, the self-proclaimed “President of Texas” consolidated complete control of the island.
Whether Jean Lafitte made that ludicrous claim after going into business on the strip of sand off the Texas coast in the spring of 1817 is highly questionable as are most stories told about the legendary pirate. Maybe the buccaneers that terrorized the Gulf of Mexico under his leadership called him “president” as an inside joke. But no matter because it was this blend of fact and fiction that in the end made Lafitte immortal.
While still in his teens, 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 own ship bought with the savings from back-breaking labor on a Caribbean plantation.
When a violent native uprising made Santo Domingo dangerous for 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 spotted the enemy colors, seized the vessel and dumped the Lafittes without provisions on a deserted island.
A passing American ship saved the castaways from a fate worse than death, but the love of Lafitte’s life 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 a grand scale.
Obtaining a privateer commission from one of Spain’s many foes, Lafitte set out to even the score. Seagoing Spaniards anxiously scanned the horizon for a sign of the young pirate, who at any moment might relieve them of their cargo and their lives.
Teaming up with his brother Pierre, the Lafittes parlayed high-seas hijacking and smuggling into a colossal fortune. With their enormous 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 outnumbered authorities.
William C.C. Claiborne, the stubborn governor of Louisiana, would not admit defeat and for years pursued the brothers Lafitte. The contest did, however, have its lighter moments such as the time Claiborne posted a reward of $500 for Jean’s capture, and the wanted man countered with a $15,000 bounty for the infuriated governor.
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 apparently 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 strategic island on the Texas coast. When a Mexican rebel leader returned to his hideaway, he was shocked to find it occupied by the Baratarians. But he was more than happy to trade the refuge for his head.
Galveston, renamed Campeche, blossomed overnight into a pirate colony and contraband center. Lafitte was back in business, and business was very 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 prompted Lafitte to put American shipping off-limits. So long as the raiders steered clear of its vessels, the U.S. government secretly applauded 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 a brusque ultimatum. Lafitte had two choices: abandon Galveston or forfeit his life. The next day, the sullen pirates put the torch to Campeche and left under the guns of the American armada.
Lafitte sailed off into obscurity in 1821. On several occasions the Spaniards boasted of killing their old nemesis, but their unsupported claims were dubious at best. Nearly two full centuries after his Galveston exodus, the fate of Jean Lafitte remains an unsolved mystery of the Lone Star past.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.