Rio History: End of an Era

Special to the PRESS

Last week: “Jackson had an army of 5,100 men. They included mounted regulars, volunteers, United States Dragoons and a mixture of Kentuckians and Creoles. They were joined by the Battalion of Free Men of Color. It must have been a very ironic moment for the Lafitte brothers, to fight alongside some of the same slaves, who, armed by the Spanish a few short years before, had driven the Lafittes and other white planters off the Island of Santo Domingo.”

In recognition of their role in saving the day during the Third Battle of New Orleans, Lafitte and his men received a full presidential pardon for any crimes they may have committed prior to Jan. 8, 1815.

With a fresh lease on life Lafitte moved his base of operations out of the United States to present day Galveston, which was then under the tenuous rule of Spain. He called his new headquarters Campeche.

All went well for several years, but in the summer of 1819, calamity struck the pirate enclave. The original inhabitants of the Island, the Karankawa Indians, became increasingly hostile, raiding Lafitte’s properties and killing several of his men in ambush. A great hurricane arrived wiping out most of the buildings and causing much damage to the ships anchored in the harbor. His men, too, were now of a different cut. Too many were simply fugitives from the law in Mexico and the United States. These were not the sea-worthy sailors he was used to commanding. These men were mere opportunists, who felt no vested interest in Campeche. Lafitte had trouble controlling these new pirates, and their activities soon drew the attention of the fledgling American Navy. Campeche was always under scrutiny.

Many of his old-time faithful, such as Beluche and Dominique You, did not approve the quality of men now joining Lafitte’s operation and quietly left.

In December 1819, several of Lafitte’s lieutenants and 16 sailors attacked and captured a ship off the mouth of the Mississippi. While they were plundering the vessel, the United States cutter Alabama came alongside and ordered the pirates to surrender. Cannon fire and gunshots were exchanged before Lafitte’s men were captured and taken to New Orleans. The judge sentenced the men to hang. Lafitte approached powerful men in Washington D.C. and managed to get a 60-day reprieve but the two lieutenants were hanged from the yardarm of one of the United States Navy vessels anchored at the foot of St. Ann Street. Newspapers carried editorials condemning the predatory actions of the Lafitte brothers.

In early 1821, the government of the United States demanded Lafitte give up his occupation of Galveston. The demand was carried by Lt. Kearny, commander of the brig-of-war, Enterprise. Lafitte asked for, and was granted, two months in which to get his affairs in order. During the next eight weeks, Lafitte settled up with his captains and men. Some of them wished to go with him onto the high seas while others wanted to return to New Orleans. Some chose to follow the wave of settlers into Texas.

Two months to the day, Kearny returned. True to his word, Lafitte was prepared to leave. Before departing however, Lafitte torched the town. Wooden huts, warehouses, tool sheds and piers all were consumed by the raging inferno. Kearny and his sailors watched as three ships sailed beyond the bar of the bay and out into open water.

An era had ended.

Historians disagree on Lafitte’s eventual fate. Saxon quotes a letter from a Thomas Duke to Ferdinand Pinckard dated 1843 at Galveston.

Duke writes, “In answer to your letter I have to state that Lafitte, the celebrated pirate died in the Yucatan, at an Indian village named Silan, about fifteen miles from Merida. He died in the second year of the independence of Mexico and was buried in the Campo Santo of Silan. A tombstone was placed over him marking his name and time of death.”

In his personal memoirs, “The Journal of Jean Lafitte”, the buccaneer tells a different story though, about how he faked his death and actually lived until the early 1850s. He left the memoirs to his family with instructions that they not be made public until 107 years after his death. The papers, now on display at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center at Liberty, Texas, were published in 1958 by Lafitte’s great-grandson, John Lafitte.

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