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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Man of Mystery, the Pirate Jean Lafitte

By Rocky Wilson
Author of Sharene:
Death: A Prerequisite For Life

A Man of Mystery, the Pirate Jean Lafitte

Questions about the birth and death of the pirate Jean Lafitte may never know answers this side of heaven. Whether he was born in France, Spain, St. Dominique, or Haiti in about 1779--the best of guesses suggested by many historians--are just that: guesses.

Even the date and location of the pirate’s death are unknown; one theory saying he moved to the Yucatan Peninsula in 1821 and died of diseases there in 1826, and another saying he traveled extensively in Europe, lived in the Midwest states, and died in Akron, Ohio, in 1851.

What is known is that he had about forty New Orleans warehouses in the early 1800s, had from 3,000 to 5,000 followers who helped him plunder seafaring ships, and distributed smuggled goods and slaves to willing buyers.

Lafitte was known as a dashing, handsome ladies man who fluently spoke English, French, Italian, and Spanish, yet consciously told differing stories about his past to keep anyone from knowing where he and his two brothers came from, and what they planned to do next.

Louisiana Governor William Claiborne declared war on the privateer, even though Lafitte reportedly never attacked an American ship and was a strong U.S. ally during the War of 1812. Claiborne was mocked by Lafitte who walked the streets of New Orleans without fear, and even replaced reward signs for his capture with signs of his own offering three times the reward, or $1,500, to anyone bringing Governor Claiborne to his stronghold, the island of Barataria.

Interesting facts about Jean Lafitte include:
* Is thought to have migrated to Louisiana in about 1803, possibly from Santo Domingo

* 1807 owned 40 warehouses for distribution of hijacked supplies; slave pens; a hospital; residences; a fort with a cannon; and commanded up to 5,000 men

* 1812 after long search, Governor Claiborne captures Lafitte who’s working as ally on war effort, but soon Lafitte is out on bond

* 1814 British offer Lafitte money, land, pardon, captaincy in British army if he’ll fight against Americans; turns down offer, though Claiborne burns down his home

* After New Orleans warehouses are closed, opens new ones in Galveston, Texas

* No accurate count of how many ships were robbed by Lafitte and his men, though many were slave ships headed to Cuba

* At one point, Lafitte hires New Orleans district attorney Randolph Grymes to quit his public position and protect Lafitte from Governor Claiborne

* Those who knew Lafitte relay vastly different stories about the pirate’s stated past, indicating an intentional desire to maintain an aura of personal mystique that still baffles historians

Even today, from 150 to 180 years after his death, depending on who’s keeping score, there are major gaps in the life story of the pirate Jean Lafitte, whose playground was New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. Yet, historically speaking, the man who resented being labeled a “pirate” created a legacy that continues to grow.

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