Tuesday, April 23, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 21


The pirate Jean Lafitte became more famous for joining Andrew Jackson to become a hero of the Battle of New Orleans than he was a pirate. (The French spelling of his name was Laffitte  and he didn’t even come through Ellis Island, but in America it became Lafitte and with the number of places named after him now, hopefully he’d just go with it!) Everywhere you go in New Orleans—and in much of Louisiana—you can be reminded of Jean Lafitte.         

                Lafitte once claimed to have been born in Bordeaux, France. His brother, Pierre, claimed to have been born in Bayonne. Several of the pairs biographers have claimed that they were born anywhere from upstate New York to Saint Dominique, in what is now Haiti, and there are a few who suggest a small city in Spain and some who say maybe even New Orleans. You’d think he’d know where he was born—except that claiming to be a French
citizen was helpful when dealing with American laws.

                So, he was born somewhere in the world sometime around the year 1782. By the late 1790s, his brother, Pierre, was in Saint Dominique and Jean was most likely with him. Due to the violence of the Haitian Revolution, they left—and came over to New Orleans.

                In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase made New Orleans an American city and in 1808, the country began seriously enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807. They’d been traders, really, until that point, dealing with the Caribbean countries and supplying New Orleans merchants with the goods they’d needed.

Off they went to Barataria Island which was sparsely settled and not easily accessible by the American navy. Here they set up their own little kingdom, essentially. They began their life of piracy with first one ship and then another, and soon they were rolling in ships and ill-gotten goods.

                Is there such a thing as a good pirate? Well, the Lafitte brothers were known for treating captives decently; after taking the goods, they sometimes even returned ships to their crews.

                The merchants of New Orleans were fond of the pirates. Without the pirates, they wouldn’t have any merchandise.

                Eventually, Governor Claiborne became furious with the situation; he posted handbills across New Orleans and in newspapers posting a 500 dollar reward for Lafitte.
(Big bucks in those days.) But Lafitte was loved; the next day, handbills posting a higher ransom for Governor Claiborne appeared all over the city.

                The Lafitte brothers had been very successful holding auctions of their goods at the Temple (the prehistoric mound/ancient burial ground you can now visit at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park)  on Barataria. They decided to try doing the same just outside NOLA. This didn’t go quiet as well—there was something of a skirmish, a revenue officer was killed. A grand jury indicted Pierre and he was arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed.

                War was brewing.

                The Americans feared the pirates would side with the British. The British feared that the pirates would join up with the Americans.

                Governor Claiborne sent troops out to Barataria. The pirates knew they were coming, burned some of their own ships, and fled. But ships were taken, goods were seized—and Jean escaped.  He later wrote a letter to the governor; he still had ships. He knew the Americans wanted him. However, it was hard to come to terms when his brother was in jail.

                Pierre most mysteriously escaped right after the letter was received.

                It was time for . . . a pardon, a truce—a way to save the day.

                By the war of 1812, the Americans were a little bit desperate. Britain—huge navy, queen of the seas. America—new nation, tiny navy, struggling to gain a position of authority against the country from which they had just broken.

                Letters of marque were offered; this meant the navy was going to hire privately owned armed ships. This was a great chance for a pirate to become a privateer—and receive a pardon.

                Andrew Jackson arrived in NOLA on December 1st, 1814. There were about a 1,000 raw troops at his disposal, and nothing much of a defense for the city.

                Jean Lafitte met with Jackson in the city in mid-December. Lafitte’s deal was simple; his men would serve if Jackson would pardon every man who served in the defense of the United States with him. Jackson was a shrewd military leader; when Lafitte noted that the defensive line was short and the British ships might encircle the Americans, Jackson had the line extended. This move assured American success; two of his men were the first to fire on the British—on that extended line.

                Yeah! We won. Okay, no one in NOLA had known that the war had already officially ended. What the battle proved was that the United States could—and would—fight a naval war.

                Soon after, the Lafitte brothers moved on to Galveston, Texas. There was some pirate-ing in there, some spying for the Spanish government—and even some protecting of American ships again. He was wounded in battle and it’s believed that he died of those wounds and was buried at sea somewhere in Honduras Bay, February 5th, 1823.

                He had forever left his mark in NOLA, Louisiana, and yes, the United States.  

                As mentioned earlier, you can visit the Barataria preserve. Wonderful trip! In the city, right in the French Quarter, you can head to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and Bar. It’s on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip.  Built between 1722 and 1732 by Nicholas Touze, it’s
now supposed to be the oldest structure in the country operated as a bar.

                It’s believed that the Lafitte Brothers used the place many years in the late 1700s for their smuggling operations for the city. Much of what we know is legend that gets a little more embellished every year, but this was the perfect place for people to meet. A rich man on Royal wouldn’t want to talk business with a pirate in his parlor, and here, at 941 Bourbon Street, “sales staff” and merchants could easily meet on what would have been considered “neutral” ground.

                I enjoy coming here; it’s once again something that I really love—living history. It’s not a blacksmith shop at all, of course, but a lively bar. I like to just touch the walls and try to imagine life in the late 1700s. There’s a courtyard, and in all, you still have that wonderful feeling of the world here being casual. Yes! It’s nearly three-hundred years old. Sit down, have a drink, cool off. Wander into the courtyard.

                You can also wander to Café’ Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon Street,) the oldest continually operating gay bar in North America, and no one really cares what your sexual preference might be. Get your literary cloak on—Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were known to stop by for a libation. Café’ Lafitte in Exile offers “Yappy Hour” from 3:00 to 5:00 so that your canine friends can do some bar-hopping as well.  

                The Lafitte Guest House and Gallery is just down at 1003 Bourbon Street. Once you get down this far, it’s quieter. The guest house is historic and beautiful. The guest house was built as a private home in 1849. One of the nice amenities here for an extended stay is that there is a full self-service kitchen
here.  Check her out on-line!

                You might want to give the elder Lafitte brother a boost and opt to head just out of the French Quarter—still close, easy walking distance--and stay at Maison Pierre Lafitte. Bedrooms are often little suites; the only complaint I’ve ever heard is that the bathrooms are small, but even then, beautifully appointed.

                You will find the Lafitte name over and over again—and as I said, there’s nothing like a tour out to the national park on so many levels. The history is far richer than I ever begin to tell in this space and so much fun to explore on your own.


                Ahoy Matey.

                Pirates! Yes, NOLA has them!

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