I told the first mate it was Baratarian Week here at Triple P and then confessed my desire to do a post about Pierre Laffite, the famous Jean’s older, scruffier, stouter brother (or half-brother). He looked at me and, with his usual sarcastic intonation, asked “Just who was Pierre Laffite?” Snappy comebacks aside, that really is a good question. While there are details we know and details we don’t, today and tomorrow I will try to piece together the enormous life of an often forgotten man who once defiantly referred to himself as “Laffite the pirate!” Or at least the high points, anyway.
Both of these posts rely heavily on William C. Davis’ biography and history The Pirates Laffite. Davis’ research is particularly good, even though not everyone agrees with it. All the same, given the alternatives, there’s not much here to quibble with. Especially when compared to other “biographies” of only Jean that mention Pierre in the off-handed way that a book about Marilyn Monroe might mention her housewife half-sister. Pierre was, in fact, a full partner and leader in all the Laffite operations. Today, though, he and his brother have virtually merged into one individual in the popular imagination.
Pierre Laffite was apparently born some time between 1770 and 1775 in a small village in Bordeaux, France in the area known as the Gironde. Pierre’s mother died in 1775, possibly giving birth to him, and his father remarried not long after. In 1780, or possibly 1782, this second wife would give birth to another son, Jean Laffite. Pierre Laffite pere was in the merchant business and it is relatively safe to say that business suffered – in fact probably collapsed – due to the Revolution. Perhaps because of this downturn in family fortunes, Pierre Laffite was in Sainte Domingue (the future Haiti) by 1802. When the wheels came off that cart with the slave revolution, Pierre – like so many other French whites and free people of color – became a refugee.
Records from March of 1803 indicate Pierre bought land with a house and outbuildings on it in New Orleans at Rues Royal and Dumaine. He paid a considerable sum according to the documents; 8,000 silver pesos. But Pierre was borrowing heavily from friends and merchants at this time. It seems, however, that by the time William C.C. Claiborne showed up to claim Louisiana for the U.S. in December, Pierre was in business for himself.
While the records are sketchy – as always in and around New Orleans – Pierre did a lot of travelling over the course of the next few years. There were frequent visits to Point Coupee and Baton Rouge as well as Donaldsonville and Napoleonville. By now Pierre is linked to a New Orleans quadroon named Marie Louise Villars or Villard and by 1805 she is certainly his established companion. “Mistress”, though a word used often by Davis and other writers to refer to such relationships, is incorrect. Louise (or, affectionately, Louison) was a free woman “of color” who had either one grandparent or one great-grandparent who was black. She was in a relationship with Pierre known as placage or placement (still a viable form of “marriage” in Haiti today) wherein all children would be given Pierre’s name and all property would be held in Louise’s name but no formal ceremony would (or could) bind the couple. Louise travelled with Pierre as well as keeping his house on Royal; they both lived for a period of months in Pensacola.
Exactly what “business” Pierre was in is debatable. Certainly the sale of slaves was involved. A notable lawsuit brought against Pierre by a woman named Marie Zabeth or Elizabeth points this out. Zabeth sued Pierre for selling her as a slave, stating that she was a free woman and had been sold against her will. Zabeth won the suit and Pierre was ordered to return her value to the buyer, which he did not do. Thus began a paper trail of documentation showing Pierre owed people money all over the south.
The establishment of relationships with sea captains in and around New Orleans was certainly part of Pierre’s pursuits so that by the time Jean Laffite, who himself was probably at sea, appears in the city around 1807 the groundwork is laid for a privateering port in Barataria Bay. The Laffite brothers were smart enough to see that running a smuggling operation was a much less hazardous occupation than commanding a privateer at sea. Probably using a good deal of Pierre’s business acumen and Jean’s good name in the sailing community, they set up at Grande Terre Island south of New Orleans. Here they relied on friends in the privateering business: Dominique Youx, Renato Beluche, Louis Aury and Vicente Gambi on the water and Jean Blanque and other merchants in the city. Word of mouth spread, and by 1810 the refugee brothers were running a very profitable operation with Jean keeping things in order on the island and Pierre doing business in the city.
A frightening setback came in the form of a stroke that debilitated Pierre almost entirely for some months in 1810. Jean stepped in and ran the brothers’ entire operation while Pierre, watched over by his growing family which now included two daughters, two sons (the eldest, Eugene, was Pierre’s by a previous relationship), and Louise’s younger sister, Catherine or Catiche, recuperated. Meanwhile, Renato Beluche and Dominique Youx had joined the Cartagenan Navy and Beluche was supplying Laffite with letters of marque from the city in Grand Columbia. Things were running smoothly when Pierre again stepped up to manage the brothers’ affairs in the city, although he would always be troubled with fits of trembling and right sided weakness including a droopy, nearly closed eye.
The U.S. government made things difficult, however, what with their insistence on tariffs and taxes. Since the brothers were providing goods – some of which were technically contraband due to import laws – at the lowest possible prices by dodging the revenue collectors, U.S. merchants in New Orleans began to protest. First Commodore David Porter and then his successors Shaw and Patterson started targeting the smuggling pirogues that crept through the bayous to and from the city. All this came to a head when a revenue inspector named Stout was shot and killed by smugglers in January of 1814. Someone in Stout’s party recognized Pierre Laffite and word got back to now Commodore Patterson and U.S. Governor Claiborne. An arrest warrant for murder was issued against both Pierre and Jean and the bell finally began to toll for the Baratarians.
In July the unthinkable occurred. Pierre was arrested and held at the Calabozo in a three by five foot cell chained at ankles and neck. His physical condition deteriorated while a grand jury empanelled and was led by an old Laffite enemy: Paul Lanusse. Jean frantically tried to free his brother but his own arrest was imminent if he entered New Orleans (no one – not even the U.S. military – dared to try to take him at Grande Terre). As summer turned to fall, Pierre’s misery increased and the War of 1812 came to Louisiana.
The British approached Jean Laffite at Grande Terre in September of 1814 asking for his help to invade New Orleans. Jean sidestepped their request but saw a way to free his brother in it: he would trade his loyalty to the U.S. for Pierre’s freedom. The ploy failed – no one but Governor Claiborne even believed Britain had approached Laffite – but Pierre was none the less mysteriously freed by “other prisoners” late in September. Pierre made it back to Grande Terre with the news that Commodore Patterson was planning to raid Barataria. While Pierre recovered from his ordeal, the brothers tried to do damage control by again writing Claiborne who took their correspondence to General Andrew Jackson himself. Jackson would have none of Barataria’s “hellish banditti” and Patterson, along with Colonel George Ross, destroyed Grande Terre and took several prominent Captains – Dominique Youx among them – prisoner on September 16th.
The dream, it seemed, was dead. Pierre and Jean were in hiding, probably in Donaldsonville or Napoleonville where they still had a large number of friends. The Baratarian “banditti” were in chains in the Calobozo or scattered throughout south eastern Louisiana and the British were ready to invade New Orleans. Jackson was dreadfully short on men and especially arms. As December of 1814 passed arduously by, it seemed that even the Treaty of Ghent, whose ridiculous clauses made ratification by Congress impossible, couldn’t save the fledgling U.S. from the might of Britain.
It’s overwhelming really, and that – in all fairness – is not the half of it. But that is enough for today. Tomorrow: the Battle of New Orleans, Galveston, Isla Mujeres, spies for Spain and the final chapter.
Header: Jean and Pierre Laffite with Dominique Youx c 1812