A rogue by some accounts, a hero by others, Jean Lafitte remains one of the most colorful and enigmatic characters in American history. Though known as a pirate, Lafitte (also known as Laffite) saw himself as a privateer, doing his part to help the economy of the young United States.
It is believed he was born 1780 and 1782. Rumored locations of his birth vary from Bayonne, Bordeaux, and St. Maloes in France to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His exact date of death is unknown, but most reports indicate around 1826. However, there is supposedly a memoir published by his grandson that disputes this as a rumor started by Lafitte himself, who moved North and eventually settled in St. Louis and died in 1854.
Around 1809 he is said to have owned a blacksmith shop with his brother in New Orleans, which was used to smuggle slaves and goods and may have been the precursor to his pirate undertakings. As a pirate, Lafitte's territory stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the City of New Orleans. At several times throughout his career he reportedly commanded as many as 1,000 men. Lafitte formed an army and lived at Barataria, the kingdom he created at Barataria Bay, a group of three islands where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. There, Lafitte and his soldiers stood guard over the gulf, waiting to strike any ships thought to hold valuables. There are disputing reports that he would rob any ship, but many reports are of him taking mercy on American ships and refusing to rob them. After plundering the ships, Lafitte sold the goods at local markets, keeping supplies moving through an area largely ignored by the federal government. He then sold the goods at discount prices in local markets, helping the troubled area to survive. The citizens were grateful, and Lafitte often mixed with the local aristocracy and high society.
Lafitte's reign lasted until 1812, when New Orleans was threatened by British invasion in the War of 1812. To get to New Orleans, the British would have to come through the Gulf of Mexico, an area controlled by Lafitte. William Charles Cole Claiborne, governor of Louisiana, feared Lafitte might aid the British, and had Lafitte arrested for illegal trading and piracy. Lafitte evaded the authorities for several months. Then, in September 1814, a British fleet was spotted in the Gulf of Mexico, headed toward New Orleans. The British sought Lafitte's help, but Lafitte instead warned the governor and offered to help fend off the British.
Still distrustful of Lafitte, the government raided Barataria, destroying it and taking many of Lafitte's men prisoner. When Gen. Andrew Jackson later came to New Orleans to command the city's defense, Lafitte again offered his help. Jackson accepted, and Lafitte lent his men to the effort, helping to stave off British attack. Hailed as a hero, Lafitte was pardoned by President Madison in February of 1815, but his hero status was short-lived. When Lafitte asked the government to return the property it took during the raid on Barataria, he was denied, on the grounds that he was still a pirate when the property was confiscated. Soon, people wondered why he wanted the property, and rumors began circulating that he planned to return to his pirating ways.
Shunned, Lafitte left New Orleans in 1817, settling on Galveston Island, Texas, which was owned by Spain. He built another kingdom, "Campeche," and served as a privateer for Mexico, who was fighting for independence from Spain and asked Lafitte to attack Spanish ships. It is also rumored that he worked as an agent in the Spanish secret service which would contradict his attack of Spanish ships. For a while, Lafitte enjoyed a life similar to his life in New Orleans, until President Madison ordered Lafitte off the island. Lafitte's piracy had again caught up to him. Most historians believe Lafitte left the island in 1821 or 1822, and was never heard from again. However, if the story of his grandson publishing his memoir is true, he may have actually died in St. Louis i 1854.
Presently, the name and legend of Jean Lafitte has provided boundless business opportunities and there are everything from restaurants named for him to swamp and fishing tours. Although pardoned and condemned by U.S. presidents, the government has reserved a permanent place for Lafitte in American history. The Jean Lafitte National Historic Park & Preserve consists of six physically separate sites in Southeastern Louisiana, which, “seeks to illustrate the influence of environment and history on the development of a unique regional culture.”