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This sketch of Jean Laffite was published in 1879 by Thrall.
Laffite brothers stories told
By PAM STRANAHAN
Friend of the History Center of Aransas County
Many stories have been told about Pierre and Jean Laffite. Their feats have become legends with many coastal bays claiming to hold their treasure. Where did the Laffites operate and what became of their gold?
Pierre Laffite was born around 1779 and Jean around 1782 near the Bay of Biscay, France. Their father was a merchant in Bordeaux and they received some early schooling. When their father died in 1796, they sailed to the French colonies to seek their fortune. By 1803 San Domingue, where Pierre lived, was not a safe place to stay so he moved to New Orleans, a city soon to be sold by France to the United States (Louisiana Purchase). He was a peddler for a while in New Orleans, then moved to Baton Rouge, which was a Spanish outpost. By 1805 Pierre returned to New Orleans where he entered the illegal slave trade.
Jean Laffitte appears in the records around 1806 as a privateer near New Orleans. The privateers and merchants smuggled many goods to the lucrative city markets. To avoid close scrutiny, the brothers set up operations at Barataria Bay. Pierre handled goods and sales in New Orleans and Jean managed a fleet of ships and sailors who camped on Grand Terre, Grand Isle or Petite Isle. They flew the flags of many countries as they operated as privateers. When they captured a ship, it was declared “a prize” and, along with the cargo, it was sold; the proceeds were divided among the crew.
During this time the U.S. navy began to seek out privateers and threatened the livelihood of the Laffites. The Laffites cultivated the politicians who could protect their business and who were often part of the smuggling operations. Jean was especially adept at wooing notables. He was described by associates as “tall and finely formed; his manners were highly polished.” Still authorities wanted to stop the illegal trade that prevented the collection of import taxes. As the scene became heated, an opportunity for the Laffites appeared during the War of 1812.
The Laffite brothers assisted General Andrew Jackson in defeating the British although they mainly acted as advisors. For their services, they were granted amnesty from a prison sentence for dealing in contraband. They continued their trading but Pierre was captured and put in jail for a debt. One night he found his cell mysteriously unlocked and walked out. With this close call, the brothers decided to find another location for their operations.
A fellow privateer, Louis Aury, had settled on Galveston Island. He was involved in the intrigues of the Mexicans insurgents against the Spanish. Aury left Galveston and settled briefly on Matagorda Bay and the Laffites visited him there. The Laffites took over Galveston Island when Aury left. During his time on Galveston, Jean entertained Jane Long and other Texians who described him as very gracious. From 1816 to 1820 the Laffites again built up a fleet that took many prizes. Their targets this time included American ships, which brought in the federal forces to challenge them and force them to flee.
They roamed the seas with Pierre sailing southwest near the Yucatan and Jean heading to the Caribbean. After one failed campaign, Pierre was ill and on the run. He died and was buried near Dzilam de Bravo in Mexico in November 1821. In 1823 Jean’s ship followed a decoy and was attacked near Honduras. He took a direct hit and died within hours. Jean Laffite was buried at sea. No treasure was found with either brother. In truth, whatever riches they gained were quickly sold to buy the next vessel or cargo. Their lives tell us about that amazing chapter in history when the seas were open and power belonged to the boldest adventurer.
The History Center for Aransas County at 801 Cedar Street will showcase regional history for visitors of all ages. The projected opening is 2014.