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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking- Lafitte: The Scoundrel or Hero?

By Tom Morrow

French-American Jean Lafitte was a pirate who has been referred to as both a scoundrel and hero. Jean and his brother, Pierre Lafitte, had a fleet of ships, as well as operating a New Orleans smuggling and warehouse operation in the early 1800s.

Born in 1780, Jean Lafitte and Pierre used their warehouse to disperse their smuggled goods, but after the United States government passed the Embargo Act of 1807, the Lafittes moved their operations to an island in Barataria Bay south of New Orleans.

Jean Lafitte’s name became famous for his role during the War of 1812. While history does not argue with the pirate’s participation on the high seas, there has been controversy as to how much of a contribution Lafitte made to help Gen. Andrew Jackson defeat the British during the Battle of New Orleans. Ironically, because of the length of time required for news from Europe to reach America, the the war had been over three months when the battle occurred.
As the story goes, Jackson met with Lafitte, who offered to serve if the U.S. would pardon those of his men who would fight to defend the city. Jackson agreed. With Lafitte’s encouragement, many of his men joined the New Orleans militia or as sailors to man the ships. Others formed three artillery companies.

On Dec. 23, 1814, advance units of the British fleet reached the Mississippi River. Lafitte realized that the American line of defense was so short as potentially to allow the British to encircle the American troops. Lafitte suggested the line of defense be extended to a nearby swamp, and Jackson ordered it done.

On land and sea, the pirate gunners earned praise as the battle continued. Jackson praised Jean and Pierre Lafitte for having “… exhibited courage and fidelity.” The future president formally requested clemency for the Lafittes and the men who had served under them. The U.S. government granted Jackson’s request with a full pardon for all on Feb. 6, 1815.

Given the pirate’s legendary reputation, there was much wild speculation about whether, or how, Lafitte died. Rumors abounded: some say he changed his name and disappeared; others that he was killed by his own men shortly after leaving Galveston, Texas; or, a ridiculous story that he rescued French Emperor Napoleon and they both died in Louisiana. While there were no authentic records of Jean Lafitte’s death, it is generally believed he died sometime in 1823.

Today, festivals, streets, and parks are named for the pirate. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop bar is located on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Constructed prior to 1732, the structure is believed to be the oldest bar in the United States.

Jean Lafitte remains an enigmatic character of American history. Whether he was a hero or scoundrel is left for historical interpretation. There’s little doubt that he has captured the imagination of writers, both historian and novelists, as well as Hollywood, with three films depicting his “supposed exploits.”

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