Wednesday, January 5, 2011

People: Beyond Barataria

Pierre Laffite is most often referred to, at least in general, as “stout”. The wanted poster issued after his escape from the Calobozo describes him as “5 foot 10 inches tall, strongly constituted [usually translated as stout], light complexion and eyes a little crossed”. The last is probably in reference to the residual effects of his stroke. It is interesting to note that, though “crossed” is the common translation of the original French the literal translation is “through”. Generally, Pierre was considered handsome but less refined and more rough-hewn than his younger brother. Jean was referred to as “the Gentleman Laffite” around the French Quarter to distinguish the siblings.

Regardless of appearance or health, when the year 1814 was coming to a close in New Orleans war was at the doorstep and the Laffite brothers were once again refugees. Despite the loss of their Baratarian stronghold to the U.S. Army and Navy, and the arrest warrants at the Cabildo with their names on them, Pierre and his kid brother Jean remained optimistic.

Probably via their association with Edward Livingston, the Laffites managed to get the ear of Andrew Jackson. Livingston, a lawyer from a prominent eastern family who had represented Laffite captains in the city’s maritime courts, was acting as a local aid to the General. There are many fanciful stories of how Jackson met the Laffites – including the absurd but continually retold tale of Jean approaching the General on the street and challenging him to a duel – but the Livingston connection is the most plausible. No one knows where they met or what was said but on or about December 22nd a deal was struck between Old Hickory and the heads of the Hellish Banditti.

Jackson gave the word, for by now the city was under martial law, and the Baratarians were released from jail with a promise of pardon on the condition that they serve their country against the British. Pierre offered his services to the General as a guide, bringing up him and his brother’s legendary knowledge of local bayous and backwaters. Jean was dispatched to Rigolets for gun flints and then to Donaldsonville to retrieve cannon. Over 400 of the Laffites’ men – largely sailors and artillerists, both in short supply – signed up with Jackson. 7,500 flints were retrieved and between seven and fifteen cannon were supplied, predominantly for use on Patterson’s ships Louisiana and Carolina.

Most historians discount the contribution of Pierre and Jean Laffite during the Battle of New Orleans. While in the early 20th century it was common for writers to laud the brothers for fighting against the enemy, it has become fashionable to dismiss them as absent all together. Where that idea came from is still a mystery to me. Pierre was certainly with General John Coffee and Lieutenant Pierre Jugeat in the swamp at the far end of the line while Jean was across the river exhorting raw recruits from Kentucky and elsewhere. Though it is true that Beluche and Youx captained the devastating guns of Battery Number 3, implying the Laffite brothers couldn’t be troubled to dirty their hands when the fighting started is a pitiful travesty of history.

The battle, though virtually ended with the deaths of Generals Packenham and Gibbs, wasn’t over until Jackson said it was over. Men were kept at the line on Rodriguez Canal for nearly the entire month of January, watching as the British evacuated their positions under cover of night. Jackson finally relented in February but it was only through sheer force of will – a trait anyone who has lived in New Orleans will surely recognize – that the populace of the city got him to lift martial law, allowing life to return to normal. Fetes were mounted and Pierre and his brother were popular, exotic guests at some of these gatherings. The social elite got a kick out of rubbing elbows with notorious corsairs. It was on one such evening that Pierre, offended that General Coffee did not recognize him, growled: “I am Laffite, Monsieur; Laffite the pirate.” Coffee, Lieutenant Jugeat’s memoire tells us, suddenly remembered Pierre.

President Madison pardoned the Baratarians, erasing even Pierre and Jean’s murder accusations, and the brothers turned to a brief stint of honest dealing. Jean went east to try and meet with the President himself, hoping to recoup losses from the raid on Barataria. Pierre stayed in New Orleans, working the same angle there. Almost simultaneously while they were apart, the brothers made deals with separate envoys to spy for Spain. The money was good and, for two men who had no qualms about lying and did it extremely well, the work was easy. They would play both ends against the middle and continue privateering for Spain’s rebellious South American colonies while feeding Spain as little actual information as possible. What could go wrong?

While Jean went on a scouting trip in the disputed Arkansas territory, ostensibly to count American settlers and report back to the Spanish Governor in Havana, Pierre began researching ports around the Gulf hoping to quickly establish a new Barataria. He hit on Galveztown, now Galveston in Texas, which was then an unclaimed, virtually unsettled port well out of the reach of both Spain and the U.S. The added bonus was that the Laffites’ old associate Louis Aury was already in the process of setting up a privateering operation there.

Jean was dispatched upon his return from Washington D.C. and he immediately began recruiting Aury’s captains away from him. Aury, never much of a leader especially in comparison to Laffite, was not at all popular in port. Before long Jean was in charge but when a fever overtook him he had to return to New Orleans. Pierre arrived in Galveztown and took charge, recruiting yet more men with the supplies – especially liquor – he brought with him. Unfortunately Pierre was not at all used to roughing it; he wrote his brother complaining of renewed fits of trembling and a nasty rash that sounds suspiciously like scabies. Pierre clearly wanted to go home.

By 1819 Aury was gone and the Laffites were back to the old grind: Jean held sway in Galveztown in a handsome house with all the amenities, including an unnamed but remarkably beautiful quadroon with whom he may or may not have shared a placage. Pierre was back in New Orleans with Louison and their brood, now up to seven children, running the sales end with slaves a particularly hot commodity. Spain was by now fairly certain that the Laffites’ were full of it and the U.S., who was close to a final treaty with Spain that would cede Florida to them, wanted Galveztown shut down to appease their new ally. All this came to head in September of 1819 when a brutal hurricane destroyed the port all together.

Once again the end was in sight, but the drama of the raid on Barataria was side-stepped. Jean managed to put off a U.S. Navy force led by Lieutenant Lawrence Kearney in the frigate Enterprise and bought some time to pack up and save his ships. Pierre, back in New Orleans, quickly booked passage east to begin recruiting more men and with luck purchase a ship. He was in Charleston, South Carolina under the alias of “Mr. Francisco” by October of 1820. The plan was for the brothers to meet at tiny Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan peninsula and start an entirely new operation.

Pierre arrived at Mujeres in March of 1821 and Jean prepared to return to sea. He would take up the role of privateer – and at least for a time pirate – once again. Pierre, meanwhile, stayed on Mujeres with a group of compatriots who began building what shelter they could. Pierre would probably have liked a more civilized arrangement; he brought a companion named Lucia Allen with him from Charleston. While Marie Louise was in New Orleans giving birth to her and Pierre’s eighth child – a daughter named Marie Joseph – Pierre was impregnating Lucia Allen at Mujeres.

Jean, though he had promised to keep to short runs, did not return. Pierre had no way of knowing that his brother had been wounded, captured and was being held in a Spanish dungeon at Porto Principe, Cuba. Income, or at least supplies, were needed regardless and Pierre began leading quick raids on local farms. In October of 1821, despite a fever, chills and a wracking cough, Pierre was out on one such raid off Cancun when he and his men were surprised by Spanish authorities. They managed to escape, but Pierre may have been wounded. Making it back to Mujeres but fearing he was being followed, Pierre hurried Lucia – also ill and pregnant – into a fishing boat at night. They landed at the mainland village of Zilam de Bravo the following evening.

Pierre never recovered from his illness and possible wound. Lucia nursed him at the home of a local fisherman until on or about November 9, 1821 when he succumbed to his fever. He was aged somewhere between 46 and 51. The locals buried him at the village cemetery, which is now underwater. Lucia most probably died in childbirth that December, leaving behind a daughter that someone in the village allegedly adopted. Jean Laffite managed to track down his brother’s grave in March or April of 1822 after escaping from prison in February. Losing the brother who was closer to him than any other soul must certainly have been devastating, overwhelming. Jean returned to sea and was buried there in February of 1823, dead of wounds suffered in a firefight aboard his privateer General Santander.

Though it appears that all Pierre’s male children died before having children of their own, we know his daughters Rose, Catherine Coralie and Adele at least married and had a number of children. The memory of father and grandfather was gone, though, by the time he became great-grandfather. As Davis quotes toward the end of his book, when Alexandrine Farr was asked what her mother Rose Laffite told her of her grandfather Pierre, she answered: “… my mother often spoke to me of Bayou Barataria.”

But even then a legend was growing, taking form, reshaping who Pierre Laffite and his brother Jean really were. Some of the stories are ludicrous, some intense, some funny, some passionate and some are even inspiring. Regardless of what you believe, don’t forget. Once, a long time ago, there were men like Laffite the pirate.

Header: Isla Mujeres today


Charles L. Wallace said...

Ah, interesting! Thank you, Pauline. Such a sad ending for both brothers.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles and thankee. Sadder still is that there are people who continue to cling to the idea that Jean Laffite secretly retired to Iowa and became a corn farmer. Seriously? I mean, after a life like that? I can't even live anywhere landlocked; imagine how horrendous that would be for either of the Laffite brothers. In that story, Pierre just fades away into the shadowy myth of memory. As if two relatives who shared this much would just go their seperate ways. Grrrr!

Sorry; short rant. Just the thought of is all frosts me.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! As you and I have discussed more than once, the Laffite brothers were two of the first succesful organized crime bosses in this country... Long before the mob or the mafia. I don't think that their lives could really have ended any other way.

That they were also Patriots and heroes of the battle of New Orleans just adds to the story. Like so many larger than life figures of history, they were not "good" or "evil", just people.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! You're right, of course. Given all their double dealing and some of the types they were involved with, it's surprising they lived as long as they did.

I didn't even have room to get into the whole "associates/filibuster" thing that came together after the War of 1812 was over, either. Racketeering at its finest, now with more arms dealing!

Anyway, again, you are correct. Just a couple of smart, smooth operators doing the best they could, and you have to admit, better than most.

Ozarklorian said...

Hi, I really get bugged about the whole question of whether or not Jackson would have won without the aid of the Laffites and Baratarians, because to my mind, there has never been a question. Without the Laffites, there would have been no flints for those guns on the American side, plus the Baratarians in jail at New Orleans would not have been released to man those batteries and other areas at Chalmette. No Dominique and Beluche at Battery No.3 and 4. No way for the Tennessee sharpshooters to shoot their guns without those French flints. Arrgh. One thing I do agree on, though, is Pierre did get royally neglected when it came to recognition. Thankfully Davis' "Pirates Laffite" did finally give him the proper credits he deserved.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Ozarklorian and thankee for the awesome rant! Well said on all counts.

More on the Baratarian contribution to the victory at New Orleans today (including Dr. de Grummond's insightful takes on same). Stay tuned :)