Jean Lafitte...The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Jean Lafitte's ~ KIngdom of Barataria ~ Island of Grand Terre' Louisiana
His self-made kingdom, from the Gulf of Mexico through the villages and plantations to and including New Orleans, was a part of an untamed wilderness that came as part of the package called the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This delta was a new and lusty territory, overgrown with willows and wildlife. Within its miles and miles of marshlands a man could get lost and wander until he maddened and died of starvation. Unlike anything the government knew; the topography, coupled by its habitation of misunderstood Creoles (Half French & Half Spanish) and Cajuns (French Acadians), confused and perplexed Washington decision makers.
Much more, overcome with other, deepening international problems, the nation abandoned this wetland with its foreign cultures to fend for itself. Jean Lafitte's Trading Company™ ~ always provided the best merchandise such as clothing, coffee, liquor, tobacco, spices and trinkets, all sold at discount prices, avoiding high tariffs, to the grateful citizens of New Orleans. In short, Jean Lafitte's piratical methods, despite their negative connotation, proved to be a survival factor for what was to become a major American city and State of Louisiana.
And then came a new territorial governor, William C.C. Claiborne, who decided that it was not conventional to let, what he thought was an outsider, let alone a notorious pirate, become a part of the blossoming American texture. Harassment and imprisonment followed, even destruction of Jean Lafitte's Valhalla on Grande Terre’. But, the governor and the rest of burgeoning America were to learn that Jean Lafitte's importance to this new territory meant much more to him than his own personal prosperity. When men were needed to keep New Orleans and the entire Mississippi River from enemy hands, Jean Lafitte, despite the chastisement and near ruination he faced from American mediators stepped forward to defend them.
Many stories have been told of Jean Lafitte. Some considered him a rapacious rogue, a man of unmitigated violence. Others, many of whom were young women, regarded him as a charming person. He was seductive, perhaps deceptive, but always elegantly gracious.
He was a well-read, 'graceful and elegant in manners, well-dressed, very cultured gentleman for his young age who spoke four languages (English, French, Spanish and Italian) fluently and could discuss the venues of politics and policies of New Orleans better than members of its founding families.
With his obviously French accent and decorum, Jean Lafitte melded well into the Creole and Cajun cultures, cultures he obviously knew as a native. And yet this was the man who was often described in very different terms as the 'Gentleman Pirate' or the 'ferocious' head of 'desperadoes.'
Most physical descriptions of Jean Lafitte seem to agree with that he was tall, with light skin, and he had large black eyes. He was clean shaven except for a beard extending part-way down his cheeks. Additional others said his hands were small and delicate for a pirate; that he was "remarkably handsome" with Gallic features and possessed a "brilliancy of teeth". "When he walked the streets of the city, he exhibited an aire of gentlemanly self-confidence".
However, his temper was ferocious, and most accounts support that; a man who could be kind and serene but turn panther-like when pushed. When a small group of armed and boisterous Baratarians gathered outside his home threatening mutiny, Jean Lafitte appeared on the porch, pistol in hand, and shot their leader at point-blank range. The mutiny ended.
He devised laws to protect the men and their women from lawless rampages. Retribution was swift: cast adrift for molesting a woman, hanged for murdering a Baratarian. Any man that went against Jean Lafitte's orders were dealt with accordingly. Hangings were his favorite disciplinary action. Bodies of men who had been hanged were left dangling for weeks, as a reminder that Jean Lafitte was in charge.
But this need for violence to maintain order was rare. To lead, he depended on and honed his innate flexibility; he knew how to adjust to the moment — to be the gentleman, the rascal, the radical, entrepreneur, the patron of the arts, the lover or the pirate to fit the situation at hand.
Many stories exist, most of them founded on fact, attesting to his chivalry. When a family named Martin found itself in danger caught in a rowboat during a violent storm in the Gulf of Mexico, a vessel manned by Jean Lafitte took them aboard. Mrs. Martin's diary reads:
"Jean Lafitte the Pirate...treated us with all kindness possible (providing us with) a bountiful breakfast (and) even supplying a hat for my husband who had lost his own."
Once after he and his lieutenants divvied up their treasure evenly, two gold coins remained on Jean Lafitte's desk unclaimed. He turned to the wife of lieutenant Louis Chighizola and motioned, "Those are for you." But her husband's quick hands claimed them. "I'll hold them for her," Chighizola said. Jean Lafitte's eyes darkened as he rose from his chair and shot a hand forward, palm up. "Louis," he replied, "Give them to me." His subordinate knew better than to argue. Jean Lafitte then turned to his blacksmith, Thiacus. "From these coins, create a thimble of gold and give it the misses." That thimble still exists in the Chighizola family that has remained in Barataria.
A charming story relates the night that the pirates were playing cards in Jean Lafitte's den. An argument had broken out between Jean Lafitte's crew and Vincenzo Gambi's, the latter blaming the others for cheating. "We shall have a third party cut the cards," Jean Lafitte announced and sent Thiacus to summon one of the fishermen from the coast up to his house. When the fisherman arrived, he looked nervous; he had brought with him his little daughter in hopes that these pirates wouldn't harm him in front of his child.
Jean Lafitte smiled when he saw the girl and asked her to cut the deck, explaining to her in a gentle voice what that meant. She did, and Jean Lafitte went on to win the play. Gambi stormed out. Before they left, Jean Lafitte called the little girl to his lap, thanked her for her help and dropped a $20 gold piece into her palm. She grew up never forgetting the dashing pirate who had been so kind to her.
Years later Gambi's own men killed him.
Women loved Jean Lafitte. That he was aware of his seductive qualities is evidenced in the manner by which he sought and won female company. A regular at the formal balls in town, usually a guest of some rich merchant or landowner, he tantalized the belles in the room with his courtly demeanor and fine-cut figure, which he primped in the finest cloths and silks of the day. He waltzed as well as the high society crowd.
It is said he preferred the company of the quadroons, dark-eyed beauties one-quarter African-American who in Southern society were demanded by wealthy men as mistresses. Jean Lafitte had several and would provide for them well-furnished apartments in town. One of these women whom he visited regularly was Catherine Villard, whose sister Marie Villard lived with and gave children to Jean Lafitte's brother Pierre.
In no other field of activity is early New Orleans more identified with than that of dueling. Both Creoles and Americans practiced the sport to avenge their name or sometimes merely to impress their women. Insulted by a statement made by a congressman, Governor Claiborne was once compelled to cross swords, as were many other members of the gentry. Two popular dueling spots were the gardens behind the St. Louis Cathedral after Mass on Sundays or under the weeping willows of a park near Bayou St. John outside of town.
One frequent practitioner was Jean Lafitte, adding the term swashbuckler to his romantic image. Jean Lafitte excelled in the art of the rapier and never lost a bout, although he was "called out" many times by men testing his skill. One evening, legend has it that, while dining with his lady at what later became the famous restaurant Courtyard of Two Sisters, he fought three separate unrelated duels beneath the magnificent oak that centered the open air inn. Unscathed and unflustered, he finally sat down to eat his dinner.
But...pirate, thief, swordsman, businessman or savior, Jean Lafitte's legend has grown exponentially over the last two centuries. Complex in nature, shrouded in mystery, and often painted in splashes of color, he lives on in the role of auspicious hero.
Note: Jean Lafitte actually spelled his last name with two f’s and one t. The spelling has changed over time and more recognized as Lafitte. However, the correct spelling is Laffite.