Jean Lafitte: The Last Pirate

Micah Pickering
Leesville Daily Leader
Jean Lafitte

The rich history and folklore of Louisiana is part of the state's charm and appeal to both residents and visitors. February marks the anniversary of the death of Jean Lafitte, a man who has one foot planted in legend and the other in history. While many historians contend that he died on Feb. 5th 1823, his exact date of death has yet to reach a historical consensus. 

Lafitte and his brother Pierre could simply be described as pirates. While not much is known about Lafitte's childhood and early upbringing, it is believed by some scholars that his family migrated from the French Colony of Saint Domingue to New Orleans in the 1780s.

He learned to be a privateer (a pirate contracted to work for a country during wartime) from his older brother Pierre. Jean would help Pierre sell the stolen goods in his youth, before eventually becoming a pirate himself.

Many of Lafitte’s biggest exploits in piracy come from his days smuggling goods through the small island of Barataria in the Barataria Bay. When the Embargo Act of 1807 was passed Jean and other merchants had trouble selling goods to other countries Caribbean colonies. 

Jean would organize pirate crews and smuggle the stolen goods in through the Barataria Bay. Pierre would assist him as a silent partner working in New Orleans. His island base was far away from the U.S. Navy’s reach and provided an easy route to move smuggled goods discreetly.

Using his ship The Dorada, a Spanish brigantine that he stole, Lafitte once captured a vessel that possessed over $9000 worth of merchandise. Lafitte's exploits caught the attention of acting Governor Thomas B. Robertson, who was not pleased with the lost revenue caused by piracy. 

The attitudes of the government would shift to Robertson’s view as the U.S. entered the War of 1812 and many politicians cited the lack of revenue as the reason to eradicate piracy off of Louisiana’s shores.

In 1814, the U.S. attacked Barataria retrieving eight ships, 20 cannons and goods worth over $500,000. 80 Baratarians were captured, but Jean Lafitte escaped. 

Lafitte’s place in the history books was firmly established when General Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans only to discover how limited its defenses were.  Lafitte met with Jackson in early December in 1814, and said that he would help Jackson defend against the British Navy if he and his fellow Baratarians were granted a full pardon. Jackson agreed and the United States stood victorious in the Battle of New Orleans.

The Baratarians were given a full pardon on February 6th 1815. 

After the War of 1812 Lafitte acted as a spy for Spain during the Mexican War of Independence. After that he continued as a pirate until his death on February 5th 1823 off of the coast of Honduras where his ship was attacked by heavily armed Spanish vessels that were thought to just be merchant ships.

Ironically, piracy was largely eradicated by the end of the decade.

Lafitte’s legacy lives on in both folklore and history. Festivals like the Louisiana Pirate Festival in Lake Charles celebrate Lafitte's larger than life reputation. There have been books, movies, documentaries, and museum exhibits dedicated to his legend and the truth behind it.