JEAN LAFITTE ~ The Pirate King of New Orleans

Jean Lafitte ~ The Pirate King

JEAN LAFITTE (1778 DEC 27 - 1823 FEB 5) ~ Jean Lafitte was a notorious pirate and privateer who operated from the coast of Louisiana and throughout the Gulf of Mexico between the years 1805 and 1823, his name was legend even in his day. Now, 200 years later, Jean Lafitte remains among the most enigmatic figures in American history, to include Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. 

He has been called "The King of Barataria," "The Gentleman Pirate," "The Terror of the Gulf" & "The Hero of New Orleans." At three separate times, U.S. presidents have condemned, exonerated and again condemned his actions. He is known for his piracy in the Gulf of Mexico and lauded for his heroism in the Battle of New Orleans.

He was Jean Lafitte...The Pirate King!
Entrepreneur and astute diplomat, he took an island-full of bloodied seafarers, rovers and fishermen and turned them into an organization of buccaneers, smugglers and wholesalers. From the ships, they plundered off the Caribbean Coast and in the Atlantic he and his "crew of a thousand men" kept a constant cargo of black-marketed and very necessary provisions moving through the Mississippi Delta to help feed and clothe a part of the nation that the government overlooked. As a result, he won the praise of the local rich and poor alike.
He respected the American constitution for freedom and hoped that what he called his "Kingdom by the Sea" might someday meld into like ideals. He prohibited his men from attacking American ships, naming death the penalty for violation of this rule.  His ships sailed under letters of marque from Cartagena, a republic of Columbia fighting for its independence from Spain. (A letter of marque allowed privateers to legally plunder ships of the country at war with the country who issued the letter of marque.  Pirates attacked any ship without this legal document). 
Jean Lafitte's Kingdom of Barataria
Jean Lafitte's ~ Kingdom of Barataria ~ Island of Grand Terre' Louisiana

His self-made kingdom, from the Gulf of Mexico through the villages and plantations to and including New Orleans, was a part of an untamed wilderness that came as part of the package called the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This delta was a new and lusty territory, overgrown with willows and wildlife. Within its miles and miles of marshlands a man could get lost and wander until he maddened and died of starvation. Unlike anything the government knew; the topography, coupled by its habitation of misunderstood Creoles (Half French & Half Spanish) and Cajuns (French Acadians), confused and perplexed Washington decision makers.

Much more, overcome with other, deepening international problems, the nation abandoned this wetland with its foreign cultures to fend for itself. Therefore, to facilitate a struggling New Orleans from economic collapse, Jean Lafitte created one of the country’s first and most successful retail outlets, boldly advertising on billboards and posters throughout New Orleans.

Known as America’s first great Laissez Faire entrepreneur, Jean Lafitte always provided the finest merchandise such as clothing, coffee, liquor, tobacco, spices and trinkets, all sold at discount prices, avoiding high tariffs, to the grateful citizens of New Orleans. In short, Jean Lafitte's piratical methods, despite their negative connotation, proved to be a survival factor for what was to become a major American city and State of Louisiana.

And then came a new territorial governor, William C.C. Claiborne, who decided that it was not conventional to let, what he thought was an outsider, let alone a notorious pirate, become a part of the blossoming American texture. Harassment and imprisonment followed, even destruction of Jean Lafitte's Valhalla on Grande Terre’. But the governor and the rest of burgeoning America were to learn that Jean Lafitte's importance to this new territory meant much more to him than his own personal prosperity. When men were needed to keep New Orleans and the entire Mississippi River from enemy hands, Jean Lafitte, despite the chastisement and near ruination he faced from American mediators stepped forward to defend them.

Many stories have been told of Jean Lafitte. Some considered him a rapacious rogue, a man of unmitigated violence. Others, many of whom were young women, regarded him as a charming person. He was seductive, perhaps deceptive, but always elegantly gracious.

He was well-read, 'graceful and elegant in manners, well-dressed, very cultured gentleman for his young age who spoke four languages (English, French, Spanish and Italian) fluently and could discuss the venues of politics and policies of New Orleans better than members of its founding families.

With his obviously French accent and decorum, Jean Lafitte melded well into the Creole and Cajun cultures, cultures he obviously knew as a native. And yet this was the man who was often described in very different terms as the 'Gentleman Pirate' or the 'ferocious' head of 'desperadoes.'

Most physical descriptions of Jean Lafitte seem to agree that he was tall, with light skin, and he had large dark eyes. He was clean shaven except for a beard extending part-way down his cheeks. Jean Lafitte was first seen sporting a mustache when he returned to New Orleans from a survey expedition of the Mississippi River, during the winter of 1816. Additional others said he was "remarkably handsome" with Gallic features and possessed a "brilliancy of teeth". "When he walked the streets of the city, he exhibited an aire of gentlemanly self-confidence".

Oil painting of Jean Lafitte circa 1817 ~ Founder of Lafitte Trading Company

JEAN LAFITTE (1778-1823) 

Exclusive and rare oil painting of The Pirate King, Jean Lafitte, posing outside his infamous Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street ~ New Orleans, circa 1816. All rights reserved © Lafitte Trading Company® 

However, his temper was ferocious, and most accounts support that; a man who could be kind and serene but turn panther-like when pushed. When a small group of armed and boisterous Baratarians gathered outside his home threatening mutiny, Jean Lafitte appeared on the porch, pistol in hand, and shot their leader at point-blank range. The mutiny ended.

He devised laws to protect the men and their women from lawless rampages.  Retribution was swift: cast adrift for molesting a woman, hanged for murdering a Baratarian.  Any man that went against Jean Lafitte's orders were dealt with accordingly. Hangings were his favorite disciplinary action.  Bodies of men who had been hanged were left dangling for weeks, as a reminder that Jean Lafitte was in charge.

But this need for violence to maintain order was rare. To lead, he depended on and honed his innate flexibility; he knew how to adjust to the moment — to be the gentleman, the rascal, the radical, entrepreneur, the patron of the arts, the lover or the pirate to fit the situation at hand.

Women loved Jean Lafitte. That he was aware of his seductive qualities is evidenced in the manner by which he sought and won female company. A regular at the formal balls in town, usually a guest of some rich merchant or landowner, he tantalized the belles in the room with his courtly demeanor and fine-cut figure, which he primped in the finest cloths and silks of the day. He waltzed as well as the high society crowd.

It is said he preferred the company of the quadroons, dark-eyed beauties one-quarter African-American who in Southern society were demanded by wealthy men as mistresses. Jean Lafitte had several and would provide for them well-furnished apartments in town. One of these women whom he visited regularly was Catherine Villard, whose sister Marie Villard lived with and gave children to Jean Lafitte's brother Pierre.

In no other field of activity is early New Orleans more identified with than that of dueling. Both Creoles and Americans practiced the sport to avenge their name or sometimes merely to impress their women. Insulted by a statement made by a congressman, Governor Claiborne was once compelled to cross swords, as were many other members of the gentry. Two popular dueling spots were the gardens behind the St. Louis Cathedral after Mass on Sundays or under the weeping willows of a park near Bayou St. John outside of town.

One frequent practitioner was Jean Lafitte, adding the term swashbuckler to his romantic image. Jean Lafitte excelled in the art of the rapier and never lost a bout, although he was "called out" many times by men testing his skill. One evening, legend has it that, while dining with his lady at what later became the famous restaurant Courtyard of Two Sisters, he fought three separate unrelated duels beneath the magnificent oak that centered the open air inn. Unscathed and unflustered, he finally sat down to eat his dinner.

But...pirate, thief, swordsman, businessman or savior, Jean Lafitte's legend has grown exponentially over the last two centuries. Complex in nature, shrouded in mystery, and often painted in splashes of color, he lives on in the role of auspicious hero.

Lafitte or Laffite? Jean Laffite spelled his last name with two f’s and one t, "Laffite"but English language documents of the time used "Lafitte". This has become the common spelling in the United States, including places named after him. 

Pictured above is a very rare, authentic signature of Jean Laffite

Who was Jean Lafitte (Laffite) and Where was he really born?

The infamous pirate Jean Laffite was born, Jean Henri Laffite, on December 27, 1778, in the home (located on Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans) of his maternal grandparents, Henri Roche dit Belaire (Master Cobbler) and Catherine (Catalina) Laurendine Roche, and baptized January 17, 1779, Saint Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. Jean Henri Laffite was the son of Jean Louis Laffite, native of Bayonne, France, and Elizabeth Ysabel Roche, native of New Orleans. Jean Louis Laffite married his second (2nd) wife, Elizabeth Ysabel Roche on September 15, 1777, Saint Louis Cathedral, New Orleans.

Historical note: The Louisiana Territory was under Spanish rule from 1763 through March 1803. All legal documents and church records were written in Spanish during this time period, therefore, Jean Henri Laffite is written as Juan Enrique Lafito on his baptismal entry into the Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Volume 3, 1772-1783 p.172, SLC B9, 42.

Scholars, authors, historians, and Laffite researchers have consistently misidentified his father, Jean Louis Laffite for Jean Lafitte, Jr. (Cadet) who was an officer in the New Orleans militia and not related to Jean Laffite the pirate. However, both men served under Governor Bernardo de Galvez during the American Revolution and can be found listed on the New Orleans Militia Roster.

Jean Henri Laffite's father, Jean Louis Laffite, was a ship captain who died on August 1, 1782, aboard the privateer ship “EL POSTILION” during a hurricane in route from Port Royal (Jamaica) to Cape Francois (Haiti). His body was never recovered. He is listed in the Spanish Census of 1778 as Juan (Jean) Lafitte, Ship Captain, son-in-law of Henri Roche, residing on Rue Royal in the French Quarter. Jean Louis Laffite was a native of Bayonne, France and the son of Louis Henri Laffite and Marguerite Ardi Laffite.

Excerpt from Succession of Catherine Roche

Pictured above is an excerpt taken from the Succession of Catherine (Catalina) Laurendine Roche, dated September 11, 1782, identifing her daughter, Elizabeth Roche as the widow of Jean (Juan) Laffite. 

Jean Lafitte, Jr. (Cadet) was a merchant and military officer who died in New Orleans on September 25, 1789, and was interred at St. Peter Cemetery, New Orleans. Jean Lafitte, Jr. (Cadet) was married to Louise Langlois and had five 5 children: Feleciana, Celeste, Francisco, Victoria, and Jacques. He is listed in the Spanish Census of 1778 as Lieutenant Juan (Jean) Lafitte, Second Company (Militia) residing on Rue Chartres in the French Quarter. Jean Lafitte, Jr. (Cadet) was a native of Damon, Bishophonie of Dae, France and the son of Jean Lafitte, Sr., and Jeane Goze Lafitte.

Note: The St. Peter Cemetery served as the City of New Orleans’ primary burial ground through most of the Colonial era, from 1724 until 1789, when it was officially replaced by St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The Cemetery was one of the city’s first formal burial grounds, occupying the entirety of the city block bounded by N. Rampart, St. Peter, Burgundy, and Toulouse Streets. However, the St. Peter Cemetery no longer exists due to the fact the land was expropriated by the Spanish who built buildings on top of it.

Signature of Jean Lafitte, Jr., Cadet
Pictured above is the signature of Jean Lafitte, Jr. Cadet. He spelled Lafitte with one f and two t's and always included "Cadet" at the end his signatures.

Was Dominique You (Youx) the brother of Jean and Pierre Laffite?

Contrary to the spurious Journal of Jean Laffite, Dominique You WAS NOT the brother of Jean and Pierre Laffite (Note: Pierre Laffite was born in Bayonne, France in 1770 and was the older half-brother of Jean Laffite). According to information he provided the masonic lodge in New Orleans, he was born in Cette (now spelled Sète) in Languedoc, France in 1775. He served as an artilleryman in the French Revolutionary Army. In 1802, he accompanied General Charles Leclerc's expedition to quell Toussaint Louverture's Haitian Revolution.

Following the failure of this expedition, Dominique You managed to reach Louisiana and joined up with Jean and Pierre Laffite as a privateer. He became the captain of the schooners Le Pandoure and Le Tigre. He was nicknamed "Captain Dominique" by French Creoles and "Captain Jonas" by the Americans.

According to history, he had a reputation for being very bold and daring. His men fought in the battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, and were mentioned in General Andrew Jackson's general order of January 21st as, "Having shown uncommon gallantry and skill in the field". He settled quietly in New Orleans where he became a politician and supporter of General Jackson.

Dominique died on November 30,1815 and was given full military honors at his funeral. His grave is located in St. Louis Cemetery #2 in New Orleans. On his grave reads, "Intrepid warrior on land and sea. In a hundred combats showed his valor. This new Bayard without reproach or fear could have witnessed the ending of the world without trembling."

Grave of Dominique You ~ St. Louis Cemetery #2, New Orleans

Grave of Dominique You ~ St. Louis Cemetery #2, New Orleans, Louisiana

Childhood Home of the pirate Jean Laffite

After the death of her husband in 1782, Elizabeth Ysabel Roche Laffite married Jean Pierre Nicholas Bruno Aubry on October 28, 1784, Saint Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. On March 12, 1785, Henri Roche dit Belaire sold the family home on Royal Street to his son in law, Jean Pierre Nicholas Bruno Aubry. Jean Henri Laffite was six (6) years old at the time of this sale, however he had resided at this location since his birth on December 27, 1778.

610-614 Royal Street is the childhood home of the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte

610-614 Royal Street was the location of the Childhood Home of the infamous pirate Jean Laffite. The original structure was lost in the Great Fires of 1788 & 1794. Jean Laffite was ten (10) years old in 1788 & sixteen (16) years old in 1794.