Wednesday, November 23, 2011
History: Laffite in Jest
It has been official known to me that, on the 14th of last month a quantity of smuggled goods, seized by Walter Gilbert, an officer of the revenue of the United States, were forcibly taken from him in open day, at no great distance from the city of New Orleans, by a party of armed men under the orders of a certain John Lafitte, who fired upon and grievously wounded one of the assistants of the said Walter Gilbert; and although process has issued for the apprehension of him, the said John Lafitte, yet such is the countenance and protection afforded him, or the terror excited by the threats of himself and his associates, that the same remains unexecuted…
I offer a reward of $500 U.S. to any person delivering the said John Lafitte to the sheriff of the Parish of Orleans… so that the said John Lafitte may be brought to justice.
That first, very long sentence that eventually turns into a paragraph fairly seethes with the Governor’s frustration at his own between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place situation with regard to the matter.
On the one had, Claiborne is confronted by angry Americans like New Orleans Naval Station Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson and Army Colonel George Ross who supported the position that U.S. laws regarding smuggling should reign supreme in Louisiana. In their view, men like the Laffites – and in particular those two brothers who ran their den of pirates in Barataria like a legal business – were nothing but criminals and should as soon be hanged and spoken to.
On the other hand, however, Claiborne has his own opinions and those of his family to deal with. Having been in New Orleans as territorial governor since 1803, the former Virginian and favorite of Thomas Jefferson has gone native, so to speak. He has married local Creole girls, not once but twice, and his current wife Susanna Bosche is cousin to one of Laffite’s own privateers, Renato Beluche. Claiborne knows that the Creole sees smuggling as necessary to open commerce, no more hurtful to his economy than Kentucky produce or French champagne, the latter of which he would not have without smuggling.
Clearly, the breaking point for Claiborne was the attack on revenue agent Walker Gilbert, whose name like Laffite’s is misspelled in the proclamation, and his men. At last, the Governor must appeal to his own people to help him reel in the desperado Laffite who has been wanted – at least on paper – for over a year.
But what of “the said John Lafitte”? What was his reaction to this challenge by a man that he had met personally, at least in passing?
While the details are sketchy, one fact is clear: the morning of November 25 saw another proclamation tacked up around the Crescent City. This one offered $1,000, this time in silver, for Governor Claiborne brought to Cat Island off Barataria Bay; no questions asked. What is rarely noted is that a small memorandum was affixed below the bold signature: Laffite. This clearly read that the King of Barataria posted his notice “as a bagatelle (French for trifle)” and he was “only jesting & desired that no one would do violence to his Excellency.”
As William C. Davis notes in The Pirates Laffite, word of this bravado got around pretty quickly. Letters were sent home about it by those visiting from the East and foreign locales. Within a week the reward offered by Laffite had doubled; by the time Lyle Saxon wrote Lafitte the Pirate in the 1930s, the cash value had climbed to $5,000.
The question that remains is whether or not Laffite, be it Pierre or Jean or both, was actually responsible for the bounty on the Governor. The two most reliable modern sources on the brothers differ in their opinions. Jack C. Ramsay, Jr., in Jean Laffite Prince of Pirates states “… it is unlikely it originated from [Laffite].” Davis, on the other hand, called the posting “Laffite’s own response” and says it points up “… the combination of bravado and impish humor in his personality.” In this case, Davis is specifically referring to Jean.
And that’s the way I like to imagine it going down. Jean Laffite, with a twinkle in his dark eye, offering a bounty on the Governor of Louisiana, but only as a jest; a little bagatelle.
Header: William C.C. Claiborne as Governor of the Territory of Orleans via Wikipedia