The Pirates of Texas: The Legend of Jean Lafitte

Pirates have captured the imaginations of entire generations. The word is almost synonymous with thieves, pillagers, rogues, and scalawags. Soldiers, volunteers, and even patriots are words that would never come to mind when describing a pirate, yet these are the words used to describe Jean Lafitte and his men, the Batarians, notorious pirates of Louisiana and Texas, and heroes of the War of 1812.

Etching of Jean Lafitte, by Frank Triplett, 1895 | Published in “Conquering the wilderness; or, New pictorial history of the life and times of the pioneer heroes and heroines of America, a full account of the romantic deeds, lofty achievements” | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Little is known of Lafitte’s life before he became an outlaw. Multiple tales of his origins exist, some originating from Lafitte himself. It is believed that he and his twin brother Pierre were born and raised in the village of Bajes, a small country lying on the border of France in 1782.1 Other historians believe he could have grown up in Spain, or one of the French territories as well.

Lafitte grew up the youngest of three boys and raised by his grandmother. He is believed to have gone to school in the Caribbean, and trained in military lifestyle while residing in St. Christopher Island.2 He is said to have been tall, handsome, well mannered, literate, and fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and English. He is also believed to have been from Jewish descent, having credited his Jewish grandmother for one of his victories in a personal memoir.

No one knows what his life was like prior to his journey to the Americas, or his exact motivation for his pilgrimage. One common belief is that at one time he served in the French army under none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Others say he came from a long line of French aristocrats who fled the country amidst the French Revolution after his parents were executed. It is also believed that he originated from Spain and left to escape religious persecution during a time when the country was strictly enforcing the Catholic faith, and exiling or killing Jewish citizens.3

The true story of Jean Lafitte began after moving to New Orleans in the year 1800 with his brother Pierre, prior to fleeing Santa Domingo, Haiti while fleeing from a slave rebellion. The Lafitte brothers made port in the city and opened up a blacksmith shop, which soon served as the cover front of their smuggling operation. Pierre was a merchant and handled the goods that Jean brought back to the mainland. It was Jean Lafitte who took to the seas leading his men as they pillaged and plundered countless ships, stealing cargo to be sold through the black market.4

“The Lafitte Brothers in Dominique You’s Bar” | John Wesley Jarvis | 1821, Louisiana State Museum | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In no time at all the Lafitte brothers had formed a vast and complex smuggling network of pirates and operatives. They soon began operating out of their new headquarters on Grand Terre Island, a mere fifty miles away from New Orleans, where they housed over fifty ships with anywhere from five to ten thousand men, given the name Batistas after Bataria, which resided so closely to their hideout.

Jean Lafitte never referred to himself as a pirate, always insisting he was a privateer, even though he did not actually possess a privateer’s licence. He firmly believed that his only crime was that of smuggling, and he was viewed by many almost as a hero. Due to the ban on exports at the time, resources were scarce, and were taxed heavily. Lafitte offered the resources he stole to citizens at discounted prices, clothes, tools, and food to people at discounted prices, making clothes, tools, and food easier for them to acquire. Many times law enforcement were willing to turn a blind eye towards him and his operation. Lafitte also dealt in the slave trade, since new laws put in place had made the selling and transporting of slaves increasingly difficult.5

Lafitte evaded arrest many times. Only once, in 1812, were he, his brother, and several of his men captured and arrested. This was merely a temporary defeat, however, for they each escaped shortly after the bail was posted.6

While he was plundering the coasts of New Orleans, the rest of the country was engulfed in the War of 1812. British forces approached Lafitte to make him an offer. In exchange for his aid in attacking New Orleans, the British were prepared to offer him $30,000 and a pardon for all of his crimes, as well as making him a captain in the Royal navy. Lafitte refused and reported this offer to the Governor of New Orleans. This act was met with treachery, however, as the navy soon came down on Grand Terre Island. Believing they came in good faith, Lafitte did not order his men to take up defense positions. Lafitte’s empire came crashing down as the navy destroyed his base, confiscated his loot, and had his men arrested and charged with piracy. Only Lafitte and a few of his men were able to escape by hiding in the bayou, where they remained for nearly two months.7

Lafitte offered his assistance to the United States once again, this time to General Andrew Jackson. Jackson at first was somewhat reluctant to trust the famous pirate, but knew he needed his resources and knowledge of the terrain. Jackson commanded an army of soldiers, pirates, and privateers against British forces. One of the most famous battles during this time was the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson led his army of only four thousand men against the British whose ranks were more than double that of Jackson’s. Not only did Jackson succeed in repelling the British, but they caused 2,500 deaths, all while suffering only six casualties and seven injuries. The war ended shortly afterwards. While Jackson was accredited for the victory against the British, he acknowledged he owed many thanks to Jean Lafitte who had earned his respect. In return for his service, Jackson pardoned Lafitte and his men of all crimes after the war.8 While many Batarians used this new chance at life to seek an honest living, Lafitte quickly fell back into his old ways.

Having grown bored of the civilian life he had been given, Lafitte sought to reclaim the ships and supplies that had been taken from him by the British, but the request was refused by the United States government because they felt he had no right to any items that he had stolen. Outraged, he and his men set sail for new land. They eventually settled in Galveston Texas, an island belonging to Mexico, which was still under Spanish rule. Lafitte arrived in the midst of a revolution, an opportunity that he took full advantage of. Lafitte once again offered his services in exchange for permission to settle in Galveston, and the right to keep any ships and riches plundered from Spanish ships. In no time at all, Lafitte had once again established his criminal empire, and had even finally earned the privateering licence he had wanted for so long.3

“Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop” | March 8, 2017 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Just as his beginning was shrouded in mystery, so too was his end. No one knows for sure what fate befell him later in his life. Some say he changed his name to John Lafitte, married and lived the rest of his days in Illinois. Others believe that he relocated to the Yucatan Peninsula where he died a few years later of disease.5 Others say he joined Simon Bolivar in his war against the Spanish in South America, or even joined joined a band of pirates in the Caribbean. There are many tales of the pirate known as Jean Lafitte, and since much of his life has since been lost to time, they shall remain just that. Whether he was a handsome rogue, a war hero, or a thieving pirate and a criminal, Jean Lafitte will continue to live on in history.

  1. Terri Cook, “In the Footsteps of Lafitte,” American Road 11, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 80.
  2. War of 1812, 2007, s.v. “A Proud Nation Arrives at Peace.”
  3. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  4. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  5. War of 1812, 2007, s.v. “A Proud Nation Arrives at Peace.”
  6. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  7.  Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: War, 2008, s.v. “The War of 1812 (1812–1815).
  8. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “The United States and Privateers,” by Jennifer Stock.
  9. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  10. War of 1812, 2007, s.v. “A Proud Nation Arrives at Peace.”

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This Post Has 48 Comments

  1. Avatar

    When I think of pirates I always think of the Caribbean especially because of the movies… I would have never thought a “pirate” would’ve been involved in Texas and work with authorities to help in a war. very interesting story because I have never heard of Jean Lafitte or his brothers. amazing article that creates a mysterious sense to the Lafitte name since no one knows his true origins and no one knows how he actually lived out the rest of his life.

  2. Avatar

    When I think of Texas, for the most part, I think of cowboys but I would never have thought that there would have been pirates in Texas. This was a really interesting article to read and it also backed up its claims with sufficient evidence which made the article a bit more credible because I am sure it is hard for some people to believe that pirates in Texas were a thing. Overall I learned some stuff from this article and really enjoyed it.

  3. Avatar

    This topic was really interesting and well written. It not only told an interesting story but it also had a great progression. It was interesting to see the United States work with a pirate in order to win a war and it was interesting to see how Jean Lafitte responded to being pardoned. I am not sure if I would have gone back to breaking the law after getting a pardon but I can see how it could be boring. I am curious to what happened to him and hopefully, we can find the remaining part of his story.

  4. Avatar

    Nice article. Pirating is something has always captured the imagination. There are even movie franchises that romanticize the time period. Just look at The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or captain cook from Peter Pan. I did not know that I pirate ever plagued the coast of Texas and the other Gulf States. But this man stole goods and sold them back to the people for lower prices, and that is admirable.

  5. Avatar

    It has been so long since I have learned about Jean Lafitte. This is a very intriguing article. I remember when I heard of his name, I was so surprised that their were pirates in Texas. It was not something I would have ever thought would be here. It was interesting to read about how he would help people, and how he helped during the Battle of New Orleans.

  6. Avatar

    As someone from the Midwest, the threat of pirates and living in the same area that they lived has never crossed my mind. To add to that, I never saw Texas as a place that pirates were active, as there is a lot of coast, but not the kind that I would expect pirates to be active. Lafitte, even though not much is known about his early life, must have had a creative mind and saw the opportunity to take to the seas of a largely unguarded area. It is also interesting that he didn’t die at seas like most pirates.

  7. Avatar

    This topic was completely unknown to me, so discovering that Texas and pirates were relevant toward each other was odd yet intriguing. His mysterious background is what also made this article interesting. The author really gave detail in describing Jean Lafitte and his story. It’s crazy that although this was such a huge part of American History, I knew nothing about it. Overall, this article was very well written and informative.

  8. Avatar

    I’m gonna be honest whenever I think of the word pirate the second correlating word that comes to mind definitely is not Texas. To think we as texans actually had our own pirate is actually a bit farfetched to me despite all the historical evidence provided to us in this article. But nonetheless this was an enjoyable read and a very eye catching one too! Who would’ve guessed Texas had pirates too?

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