He was The Pirate Jean Lafitte!
From the Gulf of Mexico through a vast uncharted maze of waterways to New Orleans, his name was legend even in his day. Entrepreneur and astute diplomat, he took an island-full of bloodied seafarers, rovers and fishermen and turned them into an organization of buccaneers, smugglers and wholesalers. From the ships, they plundered off the Caribbean Coast and in the Atlantic he and his "crew of a thousand men" kept a constant cargo of black-marketed and very necessary provisions moving through the Mississippi Delta to help feed and clothe a part of the nation that the government overlooked. As a result, he won the praise of the local rich and poor alike.
He respected the American constitution for freedom and hoped that what he called his "Kingdom by the Sea" might someday meld into like ideals. He prohibited his men from attacking American ships, naming death the penalty for violation of this rule. His ships sailed under letters of marque from Cartagena, a republic of Columbia fighting for its independence from Spain. (A letter of marque allowed privateers to legally plunder ships of the country at war with the country who issued the letter of marque. Pirates attacked any ship without this legal document.)
Jean Lafitte's ~ KIngdom of Barataria ~ Island of Grand Terre'
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 and Cajuns, 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 Trading Company™ ~ always provided the finest imported merchandise such as clothing, coffee, tobacco, spices, glassware 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.
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.
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, Italian and Spanish) 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.
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. He 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.