The Pirates of Texas: The Legend of Jean Lafitte

"Pirate Jean Lafitte and His Crew Clearing the Decks of the Indiaman" | By Charles Ellms, Engraving published in 1837 from book “The Pirates' Own Book -- Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers” by Charles Ellms, published 1837 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pirates have captured the imaginations of entire generations. The word is almost synonymous with thieves, pillagers, rogues, and scalawags. Soldiers, volunteers, and even patriots are words that would never come to mind when describing a pirate, yet these are the words used to describe Jean Lafitte and his men, the Batarians, notorious pirates of Louisiana and Texas, and heroes of the War of 1812.

Etching of Jean Lafitte, by Frank Triplett, 1895 | Published in “Conquering the wilderness; or, New pictorial history of the life and times of the pioneer heroes and heroines of America, a full account of the romantic deeds, lofty achievements” | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Little is known of Lafitte’s life before he became an outlaw. Multiple tales of his origins exist, some originating from Lafitte himself. It is believed that he and his twin brother Pierre were born and raised in the village of Bajes, a small country lying on the border of France in 1782.1 Other historians believe he could have grown up in Spain, or one of the French territories as well.

Lafitte grew up the youngest of three boys and raised by his grandmother. He is believed to have gone to school in the Caribbean, and trained in military lifestyle while residing in St. Christopher Island.2 He is said to have been tall, handsome, well mannered, literate, and fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and English. He is also believed to have been from Jewish descent, having credited his Jewish grandmother for one of his victories in a personal memoir.

No one knows what his life was like prior to his journey to the Americas, or his exact motivation for his pilgrimage. One common belief is that at one time he served in the French army under none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Others say he came from a long line of French aristocrats who fled the country amidst the French Revolution after his parents were executed. It is also believed that he originated from Spain and left to escape religious persecution during a time when the country was strictly enforcing the Catholic faith, and exiling or killing Jewish citizens.3

The true story of Jean Lafitte began after moving to New Orleans in the year 1800 with his brother Pierre, prior to fleeing Santa Domingo, Haiti while fleeing from a slave rebellion. The Lafitte brothers made port in the city and opened up a blacksmith shop, which soon served as the cover front of their smuggling operation. Pierre was a merchant and handled the goods that Jean brought back to the mainland. It was Jean Lafitte who took to the seas leading his men as they pillaged and plundered countless ships, stealing cargo to be sold through the black market.4

“The Lafitte Brothers in Dominique You’s Bar” | John Wesley Jarvis | 1821, Louisiana State Museum | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In no time at all the Lafitte brothers had formed a vast and complex smuggling network of pirates and operatives. They soon began operating out of their new headquarters on Grand Terre Island, a mere fifty miles away from New Orleans, where they housed over fifty ships with anywhere from five to ten thousand men, given the name Batistas after Bataria, which resided so closely to their hideout.

Jean Lafitte never referred to himself as a pirate, always insisting he was a privateer, even though he did not actually possess a privateer’s licence. He firmly believed that his only crime was that of smuggling, and he was viewed by many almost as a hero. Due to the ban on exports at the time, resources were scarce, and were taxed heavily. Lafitte offered the resources he stole to citizens at discounted prices, clothes, tools, and food to people at discounted prices, making clothes, tools, and food easier for them to acquire. Many times law enforcement were willing to turn a blind eye towards him and his operation. Lafitte also dealt in the slave trade, since new laws put in place had made the selling and transporting of slaves increasingly difficult.5

Lafitte evaded arrest many times. Only once, in 1812, were he, his brother, and several of his men captured and arrested. This was merely a temporary defeat, however, for they each escaped shortly after the bail was posted.6

While he was plundering the coasts of New Orleans, the rest of the country was engulfed in the War of 1812. British forces approached Lafitte to make him an offer. In exchange for his aid in attacking New Orleans, the British were prepared to offer him $30,000 and a pardon for all of his crimes, as well as making him a captain in the Royal navy. Lafitte refused and reported this offer to the Governor of New Orleans. This act was met with treachery, however, as the navy soon came down on Grand Terre Island. Believing they came in good faith, Lafitte did not order his men to take up defense positions. Lafitte’s empire came crashing down as the navy destroyed his base, confiscated his loot, and had his men arrested and charged with piracy. Only Lafitte and a few of his men were able to escape by hiding in the bayou, where they remained for nearly two months.7

Lafitte offered his assistance to the United States once again, this time to General Andrew Jackson. Jackson at first was somewhat reluctant to trust the famous pirate, but knew he needed his resources and knowledge of the terrain. Jackson commanded an army of soldiers, pirates, and privateers against British forces. One of the most famous battles during this time was the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson led his army of only four thousand men against the British whose ranks were more than double that of Jackson’s. Not only did Jackson succeed in repelling the British, but they caused 2,500 deaths, all while suffering only six casualties and seven injuries. The war ended shortly afterwards. While Jackson was accredited for the victory against the British, he acknowledged he owed many thanks to Jean Lafitte who had earned his respect. In return for his service, Jackson pardoned Lafitte and his men of all crimes after the war.8 While many Batarians used this new chance at life to seek an honest living, Lafitte quickly fell back into his old ways.

Having grown bored of the civilian life he had been given, Lafitte sought to reclaim the ships and supplies that had been taken from him by the British, but the request was refused by the United States government because they felt he had no right to any items that he had stolen. Outraged, he and his men set sail for new land. They eventually settled in Galveston Texas, an island belonging to Mexico, which was still under Spanish rule. Lafitte arrived in the midst of a revolution, an opportunity that he took full advantage of. Lafitte once again offered his services in exchange for permission to settle in Galveston, and the right to keep any ships and riches plundered from Spanish ships. In no time at all, Lafitte had once again established his criminal empire, and had even finally earned the privateering licence he had wanted for so long.3

“Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop” | March 8, 2017 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Just as his beginning was shrouded in mystery, so too was his end. No one knows for sure what fate befell him later in his life. Some say he changed his name to John Lafitte, married and lived the rest of his days in Illinois. Others believe that he relocated to the Yucatan Peninsula where he died a few years later of disease.5 Others say he joined Simon Bolivar in his war against the Spanish in South America, or even joined joined a band of pirates in the Caribbean. There are many tales of the pirate known as Jean Lafitte, and since much of his life has since been lost to time, they shall remain just that. Whether he was a handsome rogue, a war hero, or a thieving pirate and a criminal, Jean Lafitte will continue to live on in history.

  1. Terri Cook, “In the Footsteps of Lafitte,” American Road 11, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 80.
  2. War of 1812, 2007, s.v. “A Proud Nation Arrives at Peace.”
  3. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  4. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  5. War of 1812, 2007, s.v. “A Proud Nation Arrives at Peace.”
  6. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  7.  Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: War, 2008, s.v. “The War of 1812 (1812–1815).
  8. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “The United States and Privateers,” by Jennifer Stock.
  9. Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, 2011, s.v. “Lafitte, Jean,” by Jennifer Stock.
  10. War of 1812, 2007, s.v. “A Proud Nation Arrives at Peace.”
The Pirates of Texas: The Legend of Jean Lafitte
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36 Comments

  • When I saw the word pirate an instant image came to my head, and to see that I was completely wrong made me even more intrigued into your article. Jean Lafitte was a man of many mischiefs he was smart and knew what he wanted and was doing, getting an insight into a person that I never knew is refreshing and interesting to get a different perspective in what life was like at the time and even now in days is. My favorite part for sure was the mystery behind him, and especially towards the end of the article how no one really knew what had been of his life, how and where he died, and that to me makes him a great addition to history.

  • Before reading this article I did not know much of Jean Lafitte, given his name I made the assumption he was an important figure in French history. I was surprised to learn that he was in actuality a pirate working out of Louisiana. I’ve always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson’s battle in New Orleans, and knew that part of his forces consisted of local pirates. To learn that Jean Lafitte was the leader of said pirates excites to me no end, and makes me want to learn more about him. Overall an incredible and entertaining article.

  • Jean Lafitte is not someone who I am familiar with in fact the whole topic of pirates in Texas is new to me. I found it strange yet not surprising that Lafitte was only famous throughout his life as a criminal. I really enjoyed and respected the fact that although he clearly enjoyed that rush of adrenaline he wasn’t quick to betray New Orleans and even after everything was taken from him he tried to help.

  • I really enjoyed reading this article. I’ve never heard of Jean Lafitte before reading this but I honestly would like to read more about him nd his life. though he was doing things that was against the law he was doing It for a good cause. helping out the people that needed resources and was selling them at low prices I really respect that about him.

  • Jean Lafitte: It is very interesting to me, how no one knows how his life was prior to coming to America. Obviously, this man was very bright, and a man who believed in his project. “He firmly believed that his only crime was that of smuggling” something that actually helped some of the unfortunate, and poor around him. This is just a very interest depiction of a pirate, something different than what I would imagine. His life is definitely a precious piece of history which should be preserved and known. This article did just that.

  • I never heard of Jean Lafitte at all, I didn’t even know he was a pirate at all. I like how the author offered different perspectives in how he lived his life. I just found it a bit confusing because I couldn’t tell which one was valid. The ending of Jean Lafitte is also mysterious, but I think that’s a more realistic ending to his story. The author did a good job in informing the reader know about the events that lead Jean to his pirate ways.

  • This was a very interesting article. I wish that we would have read true interesting stories like these growing up. It’s amazing to think that at one point the US relied on help from someone labeled as a, “pirate” when in fact he played more of a Robin Hood role. Before this article I had no prior knowledge of Jean Pierre, and it reminds me almost of an old legend or folklore. A man with no known background becomes the hero of the film by doing good, and then after he just vanishes into the night with no one having any idea of what happened to him, only rumors or stories. I believe it’s true stories like these that inspire fictional action stories and you did a great job telling it.

  • I had never heard of Jean Lafitte in my life. I am glad I read this article because I like learning new things. I find it amazing how he turned down the offer from the British navy and also how he helped General Andrew Jackson. Although, I was kind of disappointed that he returned to being a criminal even after General Andrew Jackson had pardoned him from his crimes.

  • this was a very interesting article to delve into. in the 19 years that I have been on this glorious planet, i have never even remotely heard of this fantastical man. I honestly wish that I could have laid my eyes on it before I had gotten so old. it’s impossible to wrap my head around the idea that with Jackson, they were responsible for the death of 2,500 yet only had six people of their crew pass.

  • I have only heard the name Jean Lafitte before, never known the story behind the historical character. Even though he was technically a criminal to the government, I have immense respect for his business tactics and motives in most of his endeavors. This is a surprising side of a “pirate” that is very rarely highlighted in history. Great article. Tells a great story to the reader.

  • I was intrigued throughout the entire article! This is definitely one of the greatest stories told on this blog. I am embarrassed to say that my only knowledge of pirates are what I have seen on Pirates of the Caribbean, but reading this article opened my eyes to the reality of a true pirate and I am so grateful to have this knowledge now. I cannot believe that alongside Jackson, they were responsible for the death of 2,500, while only having six casualties. It really shocked me. In order to get all of my crimes pardoned, I would do the same as Lafitte as well.

  • I have never heard of Lafitte, so this was a very informing article for me to read. I thinks its interesting how today pirates are defines so different, we don’t think about Texas when we think of pirates. The idea of what they do is also very different, in movies and in other history pirates stole, killed, and were thirsty for gold. Lafitte however, is so different, he was pirating clothes, food, and other necessities. I know that this doesn’t justify the stealing, but I think that he is the only pirate that ever stole to help people. This was a very interesting read, and it was interesting to learn about a Texas Pirate.

  • It is interesting to find a historical figure such as Lafitte, who is considered a hero even when he was a pirate. It surprised me that he chose to tell the governor of New Orleans about the offer the British made to him instead of accepting it; and it impressed me even more when he offered his services again to Andrew Jackson even after he lost his criminal empire the last time he offered help. I didn’t know about him before reading this article, and I found it engaging.

  • This was a pretty interesting article to read. Because prior to this I had no idea such a character in history existed. If someone ever mentioned a pirate, my first thought would always be the ones waiting in the sea to attack other ships. Now that I have read this article I now have a more complex idea of what a pirate could be. The fact that he did all the smuggling through land is quite impressive although not at all proper. I though while reading the article that he kind of resembled Robin Hood but a little more selfish.

  • I had never heard of Jean Lafitte until now. What an interesting person. Yes, he does sound like quite the pirate at that time, but personally, I would also call him a business man. The fact that he provided necessities at lower prices for the town was actually smart. Whether it was the kindness of his heart or his greediness, it was a good and witty thing to do. One thing for sure that was notable was his help to General Andrew Jackson.

  • I cannot fathom what has made Pirates so popular in contemporary times. Still, I admit I chose to read this article because I like pirates and anything that involved pirates. This article was well written and enjoyable to read. I had no idea of who this character was but the title convinced me to learn more about it. The fact that Jean could build an “empire” and fought alongside Andrew Jackson made him an interesting character. Perhaps a film should be made of his life.

  • To start off this piece was well written, but it brought a whole new light to the word “pirate” as you pointed out that word is always connected to pillaging and thieves and, the information you provided about Jean Lafitte showed that not all pirates were the version always depicted in media. I was quite surprised to find out about a pirate who would not necessarily give to the poor but make it more manageable to live as the lower class. I shale not forget the name Jean Lafitte or John Lafitte as he was later called.

  • I will admit this article stood out to me because of the words “pirate” and “legend” in the title which got my thoughts going quickly. I loved the fact that Jean Lafitte’s life is pretty much a mystery because it allowed me to get creative with my thoughts and start thinking of my own theories as to what his life was like before becoming an outlaw and how he died. Overall, I really enjoyed learning about this so called pirate or “privateer”. It almost seems as if Jean Lafitte is a representation of Robin Hood due to the fact that he stole to give others food and clothing even though he was also considered a criminal.

  • Jean Lafitte, and his brother were two very influential pirates which was very interesting to read about, but what I found even more interesting was massive amount of boats and men/pirates working under Lafitte they really built there own little army of men seeking for others belongings. Great article, very well organized and explanatory.

  • This was such an informative article, I had heard a few things before about Jean Lafitte however there were many facts in here that I did not know. Lafitte seemed like a very smart man who focused more on the opportunities that presented themselves rather than really having a plan. He seemed loyal to his cause and knew what he wanted to do with his life. Pirates are made to seem that they only care about themselves and that could be true in some cases but in Lafitte’s case he seemed to have some empathy for others.

  • Wow, I had no clue as to who this was. I had never heard of him, nor his crew. This was such an informational piece, especially because I love pirates. This was a nice knowledgeably extensive article. He truly lived the meaning of Carpe Diem. Though he lived a rugged life, it didn’t stop him from helping those who needed it. He didn’t let life stop him from having various adventures.

  • Jean Lafitte was clearly a character! I truly enjoyed hearing about all of his mischievous antics. I had never actually heard of Mr Lafitte before and am fascinated at the fact he so openly committed crimes right under the nose of the navy and American law informant of the time. Even after he was acquitted of his crimes I find it hilarious how he went and did the exact same things again. A great read and well written piece!

  • After recently visiting New Orleans, including the site that was originally Jean Lafitte’s blacksmith shop, I was delighted to read about his story and understand the significance behind his story. Apparently, he still haunts the shop turned bar to this day. Although it seems that most of his actions we for his own gain, ultimately Jean Lafitte’s action put him on the right side of history. It is so cool that he has a connection to Texas. This article is super engaging and the topic is compelling. The storytelling makes this article great.

  • It’s a good read and it sure is interesting knowing that this “pirate” had good intentions. However, I’m not sure exactly who he stole the goods from so maybe he wasn’t all that much of a good guy. Stealing from one person to give to someone else is still bad. I was also surprised to read that even after coming forth and revealing he had been given an offer by the British, his men were quickly arrested.

  • Thanks for this article, I really loved reading the article. I liked the way how this article started by portraying the background information about Jean Lafitte. Being a pirate, it was impressive to read that, he still had faith in helping other and stole for the benefit of people in need. I am happy that he finally earned the privateering license he had wanted for so long. According to my perspective, he is more like a Hero rather than a criminal.

  • I’ll be honest, the word pirate caught my attention, it gave me initiative to want to read the article, which let me say, is a great read. Another moment of honesty, I had no idea who Jean Laffite was, so thank you for giving me new historical knowledge. This article is a really well written article though there was a small blunder where ‘discounted prices’ is written twice although once was enough to make sense. But all in all it’s an enjoyable read with lots of knowledge, I really likedthis reading, thank you.

  • Before reading this article, I never would have imagined Andrew Jackson working together with pirates. Jean Lafitte definitely had an interesting life, so I am amazed that I have not heard of him before. Amusing how after so many years, Lafitte finally managed to get his privateering licence. Maybe someday someone will figure out Lafitte’s origin and ultimate fate.This was such an engaging article, great job!

  • The Lafitte brothers are the modern day hustlers. The complex smuggling networks of pirates in New Orleans was wrong but the reasoning behind him doing this were to only help him. From avoiding the taxes and obtaining the scarce resources, they somehow always were able to avoid law enforcement which is beyond impressive. The crazy part to me is how the British went to Jean Lafitte for help when they were fighting instead of trying to arrest him. Once he refused, the Navy thus proceeded with destroying his base and confiscating all his belongings. This is just one of the various examples of his craftiness. His legend is not necessarily unclear, more it is open for interpretation.

  • I’m glad that I decided to read your article, I knew nothing of Jean Lafitte. He’s someone I would have loved to read about in my history classes. He’s someone that kids would have looked upped to even if our parents didn’t want us to. To kids he would be a real life Captain Jack Sparrow, but i can see how that can go badly. But I want to thank you for giving me a piece of history I have never known and probably wouldn’t have known with out reading your article.

  • Thanks for this article, coming into this I knew nothing about Jean Lafitte. The things this man did like helping slaves flea from Haiti, and its crazy to think that a pirate helped our former president Andrew Jackson. Overall the article flowed really well and it was really in insightful and interesting. I felt like it combined a tale of this pirate and a history lesson all in one.

  • When one thinks of Texas, pirates usually don’t cross the mind. It was wonderful to learn about Jean Laffite and his pirate throughout New Orleans and Texas. Laffite was an entrepreneur, a visionary, a pirate, and a hero. It was amazing to read about a pirate who smuggled and stole for the benefit of other people, a true robin hood of his generation. This article was a great read and enlightening.

  • Jean Lafitte reminds me of Robin Hood but a little more twisted. The fact that his life before and after pirating and fighting in the War of 1812 is much of a mystery it almost seems like he isn’t a real person. Now of course I know this isn’t true because you clearly presented all believed places of his origin in France and Spain yet still, all this mystery surrounding him and his motivation for leaving to America and plundering the New Orleans area almost makes him sound like the pirates of Disney or Pixar.

  • The article was well put together and had a good flow. It stayed interesting and kept me wanting to read more of the history of Jean Lafitte. Adding the different versions of his origin story was an amazing touch. Showing how well you did your research instead of leaving it on a cliff hanger like many others would have done. Those few lines took hold of my curiosity making me read further in the article.

  • Thank you for this entertaining article. Jean Lafite is one of the most famous pirates and it is interesting to learn that there is another side to the character presented in the tales. It is also fascinating how a pirate known for his crimes can be so popular. His adventures (getting arrested, then escaping many times) make his history unique and fun to hear. The article was very enjoyable to read, I really appreciated learning more about his story.

  • This article has been so enlightening, to who this man was of such traits. With having persistence and vision he reimaged himself from a criminal to a hero. By denying the French offer of turning against the Americas even thought that is his native country. He was very independent in his choices by, not being influence by no one in any circumstance. The writer informed us great information as much he could collect on this spectacular figure in history. The information that we got was so little on how big of a person he was in history, the fact is that he has become a unsung hero of our history. The school system doesn’t teach of him or as so little mention his name.

  • I had no prior knowledge of who Jean Lafitte was, but I am glad I do now. Your article was very informative and flowed well. I’ve always had a fascination for pirates, and bold characters and Jean Lafitte is an excellent example of what it means to live life to the fullest. Even though he did steal and kill he did this to help the people acquire food, clothes, etc. Not much is known about Jean Lafitte, but from this article, we know that he was a man of action who went on many great adventures.

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