Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Home Ports: Galvez Town

The place now known as Galveston was originally put on European maps for navigation by a Spanish sea captain named Galvez. For years the bay, its outer islands and the point to the northeast would simply be referred to by his name. It was not technically inhabited. The natives who fished the outer banks and the bay lived inland but Europeans and Americans knew the port and used it to careen and refit their ships or sit out storms. They may even have traded with the native population for food but they certainly did not refresh their water. There were no natural streams and, when wells were dug, the metallic water was next to undrinkable.

In 1816 a rather mercurial privateer named Louis Aury (see more on him over here) claimed the outer islands and the bay for the Congress of Mexico. His goal is to set up a privateering port, hand out commissions in the name of the fledgling state of Mexico and sell the goods brought in to local settlers and in the city of New Orleans. Aury - being Aury - has a hard time of it. He is wounded when his men mutiny and within the year he is casting about for a new location.

Enter Pierre and Jean Laffite. As we know from the post on Grande Terre, the brothers had their bustling Baratarian stronghold shut down by the U.S. Navy. Even though the Laffite boys have a presidential pardon in their hands for all their hard work at the Battle of New Orleans, they're not about to quit what they do best. Neither of the brothers is the type to settle down. First Jean, then Pierre, and then Jean again show up at what is now Galvez Town, sow descent among Aury's men and eventually wrest control from him in a quiet take over that Aury barely acknowledged.

Jean Laffite, a natural leader who wanted nothing so much in life as power, financed his new operation by spying for Spain. Both he and Pierre signed up with Spain ostensibly to help the Spanish crush the privateers of South and Central America. Instead, the Laffites took the money Spain gave them and built a new empire at Galvez Town, somehow managing to keep their contacts in New Orleans and Havana at arms' length. The brothers' giant balls are legendary for a reason.

Jean saw to the building of a small town on Galveston Island and began printing Mexican letters of marque. Who really needs to know that the Congress of Mexico has disbanded, after all? Supply lines to wealthy New Orleans opened up directly; word got out that the Laffites were back in business.

Before long all the usual suspects - Jannet, Lameson, Mitchell, Beluche, Youx and many more - were bringing their prizes into the snug bay at Galvez Town. The outer islands protected the bay from all but the most severe storms as well as the hostility of any navy. Only one ship at a time could cross the bar into the bay, and then only at high tide and with an experienced local pilot. Finally Galvez Town was a true frontier. The U.S. and Spain were in a kind of Cold War over the territory of Texas with neither of them wanting to blink first for fear of losing bordering grounds already gained (Mexico in the case of Spain; Louisiana in the case of the U.S.). The Laffites were free to do what they did best. Business boomed.

A veneer of the cosmopolitan fell over the frontier town that was Galveston. Jean Laffite lived in his Maison Rouge, a mansion of sorts painted red and on the highest ground. Here he sat down at table with linen, china, silver and crystal. He had - if Lieutenant Larry Kearny of the U.S. Navy is to be believed - a dazzling quadroon mistress in attendance. She spoke only French and, according to Kearney, was "...the most perfect model of the brunette" imaginable. Things were settled, even civilized, and for a time the money simply rolled in. Pretty good for a 40-something pirate, eh?

But nothing lasts and disaster seemed to stalk the Laffites even as success went before them. A major hurricane - said to have been a category 5 by modern reckoning - hit the island head on. Buildings and ships were destroyed. The roof of the Maison Rouge collapsed, killing a number of people who had taken refuge there. Laffite moved aboard his frigate at anchor in the bay and surveyed the damage with grave concern.

Before rebuilding could begin in earnest, Kearny showed up in command of USS Enterprise. He bore a message from the U.S. government: leave Galvez Town or be burned out and arrested. Jean Laffite, ever the cagey negotiator, wined and dined Kearney and his men while he mulled over his options. By now Pierre was in Galvez Town, too, and the brothers decided they did not want to butt heads with the U.S. Jean managed to get an extension from Kearny, but he agreed to give up a second empire without resistance.

In 1820, under cover of darkness, Jean, Pierre and two of their captains sailed out of Galveston Bay in three ships and never looked back. There would be one last home port for the brothers Laffite, but unfortunately their time was almost up.

Privateering continued in Galveston and a renaissance of such activity occurred when Texas declared itself an independent state and began issuing its own letters of marque later in the 1830s. The Laffites left a little patch of quasi-civilization in the middle of the frontier and to this day their "Little Big Easy" is a demi-NOLA of sorts. They proved that settlement and commerce were possible way out west, and the U.S. took that hook and ran with it.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! The fact that Galveston was devastated by hurricane Ike in 2008, three years after Katrina hit NOLA, seems to reflect how closely linked they still are... Thankee for another interesting post, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Yes, there is definately a cosmic connection if you will allow. And it all began with the Laffites...