New Book Reveals Explorer William Clark’s Dubious Past

September 17, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

Spying, smuggling, and possibly abetting treasonous conspirators against the United States are not actions most historians would associate with explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark 1803-1806 Expedition fame, but a little-known 1798 journal he left behind tells a fascinating tale of an almost completely different side of the man.

“The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark” by Jo Ann Trogdon (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2015) expertly reveals the story behind Clark’s journal of a trip he made on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Louisville, Ky. to New Orleans in 1798 by meticulously filling in the concise nature of his entries through research of the people with whom he associated.

This is a tale of high adventure and smuggling duplicity on a journey Clark charted in a personal logbook which mostly stayed overlooked for some 70 years in the Missouri State Historical Society Archives  at Columbia before Trogdon discovered it and began to do meticulous research in such archives as the Archivo General de Indies for the back stories of each entry in that journal. Her book is a richly told, vivid account of the political machinations and economic factors behind what was then Spanish Louisiana, and the players in the Spanish Conspiracy, the plot by traitorous General James Wilkinson and cohorts to get Kentucky and western territories to secede from the US and join Spain.

Famous for his later arduous journeys with Meriwether Lewis across the Louisiana Purchase territory and back in 1803-1806, Clark’s exploits on the lower Mississippi River show he was daring and adventurous by himself in his younger days.

This book is unique in its method of using a courtroom style procedure of point-by-point inquiry and evaluation of evidence presented through letters, documents, and journals to question what Clark’s intentions may have been during his adventure, considering foremost Clark’s almost dogged admiration for General Wilkinson, the American general who was unparalleled at planning covert missions down the Mississippi and into Spanish territory.

Trogdon’s wonderful book is a rich tapestry of life on the lower Mississippi and at New Orleans during the rule of Spanish Louisiana, and the Spanish Conspiracy which the devious General Wilkinson earnestly worked to make a reality while hiding his true colors from US authorities. Trogdon gives all the evidence and players behind the master plot. During his 1798 voyage, Clark played a role in this conspiracy by illegally smuggling Spanish silver coinage upriver to some unknown party. The extent to which Clark knew what was involved with the money, which was a payment from the Spanish to Wilkinson, is the question which is a focus of this book. Was Clark a traitor too? Perhaps. Was he a spy? Maybe. The reader is left to judge and decide.

Although all accounts are true and reported minutely, this book is not a dry-as-dust work of academia but reads more like an historical thriller, particularly in the account of how an incident at the Balisa at the mouth of the Mississippi River with Clark caught in the middle on an American ship almost made an international conflict erupt between Spain and the US.

“The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark” is that rare book that entertains and informs both the casual reader and the serious student of history, plus has everything that a professional historian could desire from such a work, particularly with the complete transcript of Clark’s logbook for comparison in the back, footnotes, a bibliography and index. An extra plus is the entertaining tracework history in the addenda about how the Clark journal wound up in the Columbia archives.

Trogdon helpfully gives back stories for all the main players in the book, to aid with fully understanding what went on in 1798. For example, in 1795, Manuel Lisa accompanied Clark from New Madrid on behalf of Wilkinson. Lisa was a courier for the governors of Spanish Louisiana territory at the time, and was trusted to carry Spain’s top-secret correspondence to Wilkinson.

Many major players involved with New Orleans business were associated with Clark, such as Daniel W. Coxe, a Philadelphia merchant, and his protégé, Virginian Beverly Chew, who would soon become a major player in the Crescent City. On the return trip to the East Coast in 1798, Clark sailed with Coxe and Chew and then traveled homeward with Chew, once they had docked. The subtle but pervasive nuances of all these interactions are multilayered. For anyone who loves historical detection, this is truly a stellar read and a worthy addition to the bookshelf for continued reference.

One Vote Made Thomas Jefferson President

May 18, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Louisiana History

Claiborne and President Thomas Jefferson with a map of the Louisiana Purchase

Claiborne and President Thomas Jefferson with a map of the Louisiana Purchase


Astonishingly, only one vote from a very young Tennessee state representative handed Thomas Jefferson the presidency of the United States in the 1800 Election.

The 25-year-old who cast that ballot was William C. C. Claiborne, who as a direct result of his vote that spring of 1801 was appointed governor of the Territory of Mississippi a few months later by a grateful Jefferson. The Federalist governor in place, Winthrop Sargent, had faced heavy criticism for his authoritarian rule of the territory, and the residents there did not mourn his removal from office although Sargent bitterly complained in the press.

In the Presidential Election of 1800, the US Constitution had not required that electors should designate on their ballots the person they voted for as president, and the one voted for as vice president, but that the one having the highest number of votes should be president, and the one having the next highest should be vice president. This made the end vote of the Electoral College confusing, although the popular vote had given the Jefferson-Burr ticket a majority.

Incumbent President John Adams had lost the popular vote dramatically to candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, which threw the final decision into the Electoral College. But the Electoral College gave Jefferson and Burr an equal number of votes, so the House of Representatives had to decide which of them should be president, the choice to be made by ballot, and each state would have but one vote.

According to a historian writing in 1830, “the contest was extremely animated, for on this occasion the great federal and republican parties came into violent conflict…when they were returned with an equal number of votes to the house of representatives, it was supposed of course that the public voice would be obeyed, and Jefferson made president. The federal party, however, determined to support Colonel Burr; they knew very well the political sentiments of every member of the house of representatives, and they early ascertained that the election depended on the vote of Mr. Claiborne, the sole representative from the state of Tennessee.”

Claiborne was thought to be especially vulnerable to being influenced as he was young with grand ambitions, plus the most important factor was he was poor. Members of the Federalist Party sent several delegations to the holder of the key vote to try to bribe him with various offers. Claiborne refused all of them, saying he thought it proper and honorable to obey the public voice on the matter.

The ballots began to be cast in eary 1801, and the states were equally divided on the first ballot; several other ballots took place, and the result was the same, when the House adjourned.

News of the tied vote spread like wildfire. The importance of Claiborne’s vote was so critical to the contest that when Congress began voting again, he went armed to the House, as no one could predict what violence might erupt. The public was barred from the proceedings as a safety precaution.

For several days and sometimes long into the nights, the votes were the same. All in all, a total of 36 ballots had been cast, with the same number of votes for Jefferson and Burr. On every vote, Claiborne had voted for Jefferson, and declared that he felt satisfied that Jefferson was the choice of the people, and that he intended to stick with that vote, no matter what the consequences.

On the last vote, the Vermont representative turned in a blank ballot, voting for no one, and Claiborne had the tie-breaking vote for Jefferson.

A native of Virginia born in 1775, Claiborne did not have the advantages of inherited wealth like some of his fellow Virginians in the late 1700s, but he made up for that by careful studies and through associations with benefactors who helped him attain important political positions while he was still a very young man.

He had attended Richmond Academy, and the College of William and Mary, then worked as a clerical assistant studying law in Congress at New York City, and then at Philadelphia. Among the prominent people at Philadelphia who noted Claiborne’s industriousness was Thomas Jefferson, who offered to lend him some books for his studies.

Claiborne returned to Richmond where he passed the bar, then at the request of his friend and later Tennessee governor General John Sevier, Claiborne moved to Sullivan County, Tennessee, where he soon was named one of the five members of the Tennessee delegation to form the newly-minted state’s constitution. Gov. Sevier made one of his first acts the appointment of Claiborne as a judge of the supreme court of law and equity of the state, citing his universally acknowledged merits despite the fact Claiborne had not quite turned 22 years old.

Even at that young age, Claiborne set his sights high, aiming to become district judge of Tennessee. He asked his influential friends in Virginia  William Fleming and Edmund Randolph to recommend him to President George Washington for appointment in 1797. Fleming said in his letter to Washington that Claiborne’s “superior talents, great sobriety, and intense application to business distinguish him from the generality of young gentlemen of his age and should he be so fortunate as to succeed in his application, I am persuaded you will never have cause to regret the appointment.”

Claiborne did not get the district judge position as Tennessee Congressman Andrew Jackson told President Washington in his letter regarding the matter that “Mr. Claibourn (sic) is an amiable young Man, but perhaps not possessed of sufficient Experience to fill such an important office (district judge).”

Somewhat ironically, when Jackson vacated his representative seat to run for senator later in 1797, Claiborne successfully ran in the special election for Jackson’s former post in the House of Representatives, winning by a large majority over more seasoned and wealthier opponents. Only 22 years old, he was the youngest man who had ever appeared on the floor of Congress. He was re-elected to a full term in the House in 1798.

Jackson and Claiborne’s lives would intertwine more than a few times in subsequent years, and they never were on friendly terms. Jackson had been an enemy of Sevier, who was one of Claiborne’s mentors.

In 1803 at the transfer of Louisiana territory from France to the United States, President Jefferson furthered Claiborne’s prominence by naming him and General James Wilkinson to accept the transfer on the part of the US. From the outset, it was understood that Claiborne was tacit governor of the Territory of Orleans, and he moved from Natchez, Miss., to New Orleans.

In 1804, Jefferson officially appointed Claiborne governor of the Territory of Orleans, although he noted in his letter that Claiborne had not been his first choice for that honor. Jefferson had wanted his old friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, for the post, but Lafayette had turned him down. An earnest applicant for the governorship had been Andrew Jackson, who must have fumed that the young man he had considered inexperienced had won the job over him, in a large part due to that presidential vote.

When Louisiana became a state, in 1812, Claiborne had gained enough respect and admiration from the French and American citizens there that he easily became the first governor.

According to a biographical entry in “The National Portrait Gallergy of Distinguised Americans” when Louisiana was invaded by the British, Gov. Claiborne “voluntarily surrendered to General Jackson, when he arrived, the command of the militia of his state, and consented himself to receive his orders, a measure which he thought a just tribute to the military experience of General Jackson, and which he adopted, also, to avoid to his state all the expenses of the equipment and movements of her militia, which would have fallen upon her alone had he kept the command.”

Jackson made sure Claiborne and his select group of militia were nowhere near Chalmette, the main scene of the action which would culminate in the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815. On Dec. 23, 1814, Claiborne and his corps had received orders from Jackson to go to Gentilly to occupy the important pass of Chef Menteur as it was feared the British might try a diversion there. Claiborne and his group stayed there and fortified it, remaining at the spot through the whole contest and missing any action against the British.

Upon the expiration of his term as governor in 1817, Claiborne was elected to represent Louisiana in the Senate of the United States but before he could do so, he fell victim to liver disease on Nov 23, 1817, at the age of 42. He had lived a relatively brief life, but had left many legacies of his skill as both a statesman and patriot.

As a youth, Claiborne had written to President Washington that the “primary object of my life is to be useful to my Country,” and that “I shall labour to acquire the esteem of the present, and of after Ages for good and virtuous Actions.”

If Claiborne had been appointed district judge by Washington, he would not have been seated as a representative during the dramatic House vote of 1801. Burr, not Jefferson, may have won by a tie-breaking vote. The Louisiana Purchase may not have occurred. The Lewis and Clark Expedition would not have happened. Everything which evolved from Jefferson’s presidency would not have occurred, or would have happened differently. The value of one vote, and one man’s decision, in Claiborne’s case, was enormous.



The True Tale of Mitchell, the Zombie Pirate

March 11, 2016 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, Louisiana History, Nautical History


Mitchell’s privateer ship, Cometa, with Gov. Gonzales hanging from the yard-arm.

When notorious Gulf Coast pirate William Mitchell came back from the dead in 1835, he looked like a zombie from Hell.

One-eyed, the man was covered with horrible scars, evidence of many deep and dangerous wounds he had suffered in his life. The worst of these the grey-haired 56-year-old bore in the front of his neck, where it appeared at some time a boarding pike or bayonet had been thrust completely through. According to the Philadelphia Herald of Oct.. 30, 1837, the pirate also “had a wound in the back of his neck, a musketball in his fore shoulder, had lost the calf of his leg from a splinter, and was otherwise marked upon his arms and legs.” Mitchell obviously had led a very hard “second life” after reportedly dying in 1821 on Great Corn Island off the Mosquito Coast in the Caribbean.

Several newspapers carried reports of his death in 1821. The Watchman of Montpelier, Vt. said in its August 7, 1821 edition that Capt. Mitchell had died on the first of May, and that he was “generally known by the term Pirate Mitchell as he has been several years privateering and pirating in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the coasts of South America. He was born at Bath, in England, and was several years an officer in the Spanish [Patriot] service.”

Much of the intervening time between 1821 and 1835 Mitchell had spent in various prisons, including at Norfolk, and the last two years at Philadelphia, where he was convicted on charges claimed by his wife of bigamy and assault and battery. He said he had wanted to keep her as a “Key West wife” since his legal wife (in New York) refused to accompany him, but apparently the second wife resisted. (Nov. 4, 1837, Gloucester Telegraph, Gloucester, Mass.)

Released from prison at Philadelphia on June 23, 1837, the ever-enterprising Mitchell soon got a ship, a long black schooner called the Blooming Youth, and began to try to recoup his treasure, buried on an island in the Bahamas. He was stymied in this effort late in November 1837 when the captain of the Revenue Cutter Dexter captured him and his six man crew on suspicion of piracy. Mitchell was taken to Mobile, but soon released. He had been suspected of having attacked the packet ship Susquehanna near the New Jersey coast earlier, but there was no proof.

By 1838, he was operating off Key West, attacking Spanish shipping in the vicinity, smuggling slaves into the coastal areas. He visited Mobile frequently.

The June 25, 1838 Mobile newspaper said Mitchell had died as the result of a bullet wound suffered in an escape attempt from the city jail.

“Mitchell, well known about our city as ‘The Pirate,” died this morning about 6 o’clock. Several days ago, he was imprisoned for a riot, and by some means made his escape. He was retaken yesterday and bound, but whilst on his way to the prison, he managed to unloose himself. In securing him, he made resistance, and the guard was obliged to shoot him down. He died from the wound received….He was notorious for having been engaged in several acts of piracy and it was supposed that he commanded the much dreaded ‘low, black schooner’ which overhauled the Susquehanna. At the time of his escape, he held a privateering commission in the service of Texas; and his purpose was to get on board of a boat at the wharf, and to reach a vessel lying at the Balize ready for the expedition. He had several companions leagued with him.” (July 2, 1838, Charleston Courier, S.C.)

This second “death” of Mitchell was no more true than the first, as the Charleston newspaper learned to its chagrin via the next day’s paper from Mobile that the obituary was a hoax perpetrated by one of Mitchell’s friends.

“The individual [Mitchell] whom we unceremoniously shot yesterday, is still among the living. There is no death so easy as that perpetrated by a newspaper. One has but to scribble off a few words and presto! an unhappy mortal is whisked off to eternity without having time to change his clothes for the journey. We beg ‘the Pirate’s’ pardon, and hope he may live a thousand years, and each day grow a better man.

“The best of the joke is, some of our enthusiastic phrenologists applied immediately for the head of the deceased,’ reported the Mobile newspaper. The jailer received the men with some consternation, told them to wait, and relayed their request to his prisoner, Mitchell, coming back with the answer “that Mr. Mitchell had use for his head-that he was very sorry to disappoint the gentlemen-hoped that they would not take it ill for refusing such a trifling request-but as they were the first comers, he should be happy to give them the preference, when he could conveniently dispense with the use of a head.” (July 3, 1837, Charleston Courier.)

Of course, newspapers throughout the United States reprinted the story of Mitchell’s death, but very few published the story of the fact that the second death, like the first, was a hoax.

By Oct. 5, 1838, Mitchell was once again active around the Key West area, very much alive, but a bit more physically handicapped as during the Mobile riot he had managed to get one foot partially crushed, so he now walked with a lurching limp. You can’t keep a good pirate down

In late 1840, Mitchell, in a Baltimore clipper, visited the port at Savannah, Ga., and said he and his crew of five men had been at the Bahamas to look for some money he had buried on what he called “Bull Key” about 20 years’ previous. However, as he had overheard the crew resolving to kill him when they had obtained possession of the money and divide it among themselves, he had refused to point out the spot, and they had finally steered for Savannah. The crew then libelled the Blooming Youth, and imprisoned the captain for not paying their wages. (Jan. 11, 1841 Augusta, Ga., reprint of a report from Savannah, Ga., dated Dec. 23, 1840)

Soon out of jail, Mitchell zealously worked to obtain assistance to make another treasure-retrieving voyage. He avowed he was never a pirate, but a privateer, and that he had been engaged in that capacity for many years, chiefly under the authority of the Brazilian flag.

The treasure he sought to reclaim was said to be worth $7.5 million, including $75,000 in Spanish coin, and the bulk of the remainder in bar gold. Mitchell said there also was a cross of pure gold, manufactured for a church in Havana, weighing 17 pounds; a diamond as large as an egg, and two watches made for the Queen of Portugal. (Ibid.)

Mitchell offered all his hidden wealth, one half to any firm in the city if they would advance money to fit him out, and ten thousand dollars to any young men who would accompany him as companions in the voyage.

According to the Savannah article of Dec. 23, 1840, Mitchell’s “endeavors were successful: a firm in good repute, of which the senior member is a communicant of the Baptist church, and the junior a quondam Methodist preacher, (I spare their names for their reputation’s sake, although the transaction is common talk here,) has chartered a fast sailing schooner, hired a captain at seven hundred dollars a month, and prevailed on a clerk of their own (a religious man) and one or two other young men, in addition, to accompany him. In the mean time, Mitchell has joined the Methodist Church, and promises it a share of the spoils_to the amount of seventy-five thousand dollars.”

Before leaving on the voyage, he met a young French girl of 20 years, a Methodist, and married her the next day. He was about 60. The Savannah newspaper writer noted that “she has probably caught the Captain Kidd infection, and fills her imagination with dreams of luxury and wealth.”

“Mitchell is a tall man, with grey hair, and a very sinister and forbidding aspect. He has lost the sight of one eye, and is lame from an injury to one of his feet, in a conflict with a mob at Mobile.” (Ibid.)

Mitchell and crew go searching for his buried treasure

“The chartered schooner, Magnet, sailed with seven men and Mitchell on board. Various views are entertained in relation to the enterprise. Some imagine that the old fellow is deranged, and that the whole matter will end in smoke. Others entertain serious fears that he desires to get possession of a vessel, that these men will be surprised by wretches in concealment on the key, or coasting in the vicinity, and that Savannah will never see them more. The captain goes well armed, however, for such a contingency.” (Ibid.)

The Savannah writer editorialized, “The worst aspect of the affair is the connection of church members and a church with this abandoned wretch. Admit that he be nothing worse than a privateer-yet he who takes advantage of a conflict between nations other than his own, to prey upon his fellow men, is no better-no, not a whit_than a pirate; and there is an old and true saying that ‘the partaker is as bad as the thief.’ Such circumstances afford triumphant material for those who are disposed to cavil at religious effort, and look upon professing Christians as hypocrites.”

Mitchell, the Magnet and crew returned to Savannah around Jan. 8, 1841, empty-handed, much to the consternation of the crew, and no doubt the Methodist backers as well. The captain took the Savannah to Boston, where the customs collector libelled her May 7, 1841, for forfeiture of the vessel for having been engaged in a foreign voyage while under a coasting license. (May 10, 1841 Boston Courier, United States District Court report)

“It appeared that while the vessel was lying at Savannah, the captain had been prevailed upon by Mitchell, a distinguished rover or privateer in the last war, to undertake an expedition to Cat Key, an island within the jurisdiction of a foreign power, for the purpose of digging up certain specie deposited there by Mitchell some eighteen or twenty years ago. The vessel was to receive $350 a month, and to draw a handsome proportion of the money to be exhumed.” (Ibid.)

Mitchell and the Magnet crew made several excavations and dug furiously for several days without so much as finding a single sixpence, according to the court report. Mitchell attributed the failure of the expedition to the erosion of that part of the island where he had buried the treasure. He claimed that the right spot was covered by the ocean.

The owner of the Magnet, a Mr. Lothrop of Cohasset, Mass., said the vessel had been out of his control as at the time it was under a charter party for the coasting trade, and that he neither consented nor knew of her illegal occupation. Results of the libel were not found, but the Magnet was back in business within a month after clearing Boston harbor.

As for Mitchell, he still had Methodist backers to pay back, and he seemed to have convinced them to finance yet another venture, possibly the one which failed to materialize with the Methodist Rev. Capt. Daniel De Putron, related in the Historia Obscura article “The Bizarre Case of the Wannabe Pirate.” The large schooner which was reported near the Balize in mid June 1841 may have been captained by Mitchell himself. De Putron had been waiting with his small schooner to join a larger ship when he was arrested and taken to New Orleans along with his Independence ship on suspicion of piracy. Among the possessions in De Putron’s trunk were a pirate flag and a copy of the recently published “A Pirate’s Own Book,” which ironically included a story about Mitchell’s colorful background near New Orleans.

if the top-sailed schooner that sped like the “Flying Dutchman” by the Balize indeed had Mitchell at the helm, he sailed into oblivion. Nothing more was ever published about any of his exploits after 1841, and no third obituary ever appeared. His true last anchorage is unknown.

So who was Mitchell, before he came back from the dead in 1835? He had been a privateer with a Cartagena commission, and had been associated with Jean Laffite at Grande Terre and Barataria for a time. His true nature was related in his own words to an American captain, Jacob Dunham, during Dunham’s visits in 1815 and 1816 to Old Providence Island near the Mosquito Coast of present-day Nicaragua. Mitchell believed in the War to the Death against the Spanish, and boasted that he had personally killed 87 Spaniards by 1816. In short, he was a sociopath, though he treated friends like Dunham well.

During Dunham’s first visit to Old Providence to trade goods, Mitchell invited him to dine at the home of a local planter, John Taylor, whose daughter, Sarah, was Mitchell’s “wife.” The dinner featured roast pig, poultry, and all the accompaniments, with a dish of roasted plantains used for bread as was the native custom.

“The next day, I was invited to dine on board Capt. Mitchell’s vessel. The table was elegantly furnished with silver platters, plates, knives, forks, spoons, pitchers, tumblers and with the exception of the knife-blades, every article on the table was pure silver. He showed me many valuable diamonds and large quantities of old gold and silver; and the least valuable article I saw on board his vessel was the schooner’s ballast, which consisted of brass cannon,” recalled Dunham in his autobiography, Journal of Voyages, published in 1850.

Over dinner, Mitchell told him a few months earlier [in late 1815] he had captured a small trading schooner, armed her for a privateer, and appointed a Capt. Rose to the command, to go on a cruise.

“While laying here [at Old Providence] I made up my mind to sail for New York…sell my vessel and cargo…retire to private life, thinking my means would support me. One morning, while contemplating my future enjoyments when I got settled in New York, I thought it would much disturb my mind to think that old Gonzales should boast that he had frightened Mitchell, who dared not attack him. He had sent me many saucy messages by trading vessels saying I dare not come to St. Andreas (island) to annoy him, as I had the inhabitants of Old Providence, who were afraid to resist me. These reflections so affected my mind that I immediately ordered my boat manned and went on board Rose’s vessel. I told Rose we would never leave these seas until we had made an attack on St. Andreas,” said Mitchell to Dunham.

The next day, Mitchell with Rose and 46 men sailed to attack the island, some 60 miles away, and arrived shortly after 11 at night. They found the guards sleeping and killed the soldiers, then stormed the governor’s house, where they found him still asleep in bed. The governor, along with his slaves, money and plate, were taken on board ship.

Mitchell proceeded to treat the governor politely, dining with him, feeding him the best the island had, and allowing him lots of Spanish cigars. On the 10th day after the governor’s capture, Mitchell said he gave the old man a good dinner, had a glass of wine with him, and then, not skipping a beat, told the governor he was going to hang him that afternoon.

“He laughed,” related Mitchell, “supposing it a joke, and that I had no intention of harming him. He was sitting in an armchair near the cabin door on deck, smoking a cigar, when I ordered one of the seamen to reave a yard-rope from the fore-yard, bring the end of it aft and put it round his neck. He was soon dragged from the chair to the fore-yard arm (of the ship).”

He told Dunham he let Gov. Gonzales hang for about an hour, then cut the rope and “let the old devil go adrift.”

Dunham said Mitchell should have spared the old man as he could never have done him much harm, to which Mitchell coldly replied, “I have served him the same as they will serve me when they catch me.”

This scary story starkly illustrated that Mitchell was a sociopathic killer with no remorse. Dunham managed to get along with him without incident, but noted that although Mitchell had some education and had the appearance of a gentleman, he could be “one of the greatest tyrants to exercise authority over (his men) that I have ever heard of.” Dunham related in his book that one time Mitchell scalded a ship cook to death with boiling water over a simple mistake, and when a crewman remarked that was a harsh thing to do, he shot the sailor dead.

As Dunham prepared to leave for the Mosquito Coast for more trading, Mitchell said he now was bound to New York to make his permanent residence, but needed to stop off at New Orleans first to smuggle some slaves via a pilot at the Balize. On his way, he would proceed along the Cuban coast to search for Spanish vessels to take as a last venture. His arrival at New Orleans after taking a prize would become his main claim to infamy as a very successful pirate who evaded the noose through New Orleans connections and legal shenanigans.

In early April, 1816 as Mitchell was approaching the Balize in his swift-saling Cometa privateer, the US Boxer under the direction of Capt. Porter captured the Cometa, arrested Mitchell, and sent a crew on board to take the ship and crew to New Orleans for adjudication. The Cometa was laden with treasure said to be worth from $50 to $60,000; one small basket contained an estimated $10,000 in jewelry. The captain’s cabin had a great quantity of beautiful china ware, and Mitchell’s wardrobe was extremely elegant, according to naval officer’s letter published in the July 10, 1816 American of Hanover, N.H,

The Cometa’s main gun was a 1648 dated “long tom” 12-pounder on a pivot, with five other guns, from 3 to 6 pounders, all brass.

Mitchell and his crew remained in prison in New Orleans until their piracy trial that June. During the trial, Mitchell freely admitted having killed the governor of St. Andreas, and avowed he was a privateer involved in the Venezuelan War to the Death against Spanish royalists. He claimed to have Carthagenian privateer papers, but the court thought those papers were forged. Nevertheless, Mitchell soon walked out of court a free man, ready to plunder again, thanks to his secret connection to the New Orleans Association. Mitchell happened to be commander of a fleet of privateers working for the New Orleans cartel headed by attorney Edward Livingston, and had garnered prize goods worth at least $100,000 for the association’s benefit. (“Privateersmen of the Gulf and Their Prizes” By Stanley Faye, Louisiana Historical Quarterly 22, 1939) [See more about Livingston in the Historia Obscura article “Edward Livingston: A Famous Man That Few Have Heard Of.“]

Following his piracy trial, Mitchell concerned himself with smuggling like his former partners the Laffites, but along the Lake Ponchartrain shore, rather than Barataria. In 1817, an armed force tried to take him and did shoot him in the shoulder, but he escaped. By early 1818 he was once again sailing in a small schooner around the Florida keys area, but then he decided to return to smuggling in the Barataria area, where he brought down the ire of Customs Collector Beverly Chew. In July 1818, at the Balize, Mitchell managed to steal Chew’s unguarded revenue cutter with her six brass guns, only to lose it to a US naval schooner in October of that year. Mitchell escaped again. [See more about Chew in the Historia Obscura article “Beverly Chew: The Man Behind The Curtain In Early New Orleans.”]

A year later, Mitchell and eight others in an armed boat were doing a series of attacks on small ships approaching the Balize, further nettling Chew and the revenue agents. Finally he tired of that and proceeded to Cuba, where he captured a schooner at Santiago de Cuba, and left to prowl around the Mosquito Coast before dropping out of sight in 1821 when his first death story appeared in the newspapers.

Mitchell had been a very lucky pirate and/or privateer in his time, with more lives than the proverbial cat. He made friends with the right people to avoid the noose, and always managed to elude full vengeance from his enemies. It was almost, one might say, like he had made a bargain with the Devil.


The Bizarre Case of the Wannabe Pirate

February 18, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

The type of pirate flag found in De Putron's trunk.

The type of pirate flag found in De Putron’s trunk.

Methodist missionary Daniel F. De Putron sought more adventure in his life, so in late spring of 1841 he bought a small schooner in New Orleans, got a sidekick of an affable Irishman with the nickname of “Happy Jack,” and kept a skull and crossbones flag ready for the moment when he planned to partner with a pirate cruising off the Gulf Coast. He had, after all, dispensed with his Bible in favor of a copy of the “Pirate’s Own Book,” kept in his cabin.

A series of unfortunate circumstances coupled with an over-zealous revenue officer led to the reverend captain’s denouncement as a pirate, imprisonment, and colorful court appearance in New Orleans. All that saved him and his crew from the rope was the discovery that a bloody-decked ship whose occupants were thought to have been his victims turned out to be just a hoax done by that ship’s dishonest captain after some insurance money.

Capt. De Putron’s story began with his arrival in the Crescent City in early 1841. He led a quiet life for a few months and seemed low on funds until he unexpectedly paid cash for the schooner Independence, intended for the coasting trade. Licensure requirements demanded that only US citizens could be masters of ships entering that trade, so De Putron claimed to be a US citizen who lived at New Orleans. After this, he cleared out with a small crew and once in the Gulf, remained some weeks cruising about the Chandeleur Islands, making occasional forays to Mobile for supplies and crewmen, trying to keep a low profile as he waited for the large schooner to show up with which his Independence would serve as tender.

New Orleans-based Revenue Officer William B.G. Taylor in the Izard also was looking for that rumored pirate ship in the Gulf, in late May 1841. He stopped and boarded every vessel he ran across. A small black schooner oddly anchored at the north of the Chandeleur Islands caught his eye. When he stopped to inspect her, he found the captain absent and only six crewmen aboard. The man in charge said the captain was out with a fishing party and had the ship’s license with him. Nothing appeared amiss other than the number of sweeps or long oars aboard, so Taylor returned to the Izard. He stayed suspicious of the vessel because it had no cargo, and anchored a mile above the schooner to the north to spend the night.

The next morning, while the Izard was speeding along with the wind past the black schooner, Capt. Taylor was jolted by the sight of a man jumping overboard from her and swimming rapidly towards the Izard, calling out “Captain Taylor, protect me!” Taylor clapped the Izard’s helm and tacked sharply in response, reaching the man just as two other men in a skiff from the schooner approached. Brought on board, the swimmer said his name was Thompson, that he had been kidnapped in Mobile, that the schooner (named Independence) was a piratical vessel, and to prove what he said, if Taylor would protect him, he would go back onboard that ship and show him where the arms were concealed.

On his second boarding, Taylor with Thompson’s aid found arms stowed under the bread lockers, and ammunition consisting of balls and powder in abundance. Convinced he had found a piratical ship, he seized the vessel, removed the arms and ammunition to the Izard, and made sail for the Balize with seven prisoners in irons. Once at the Balize, the prisoners were placed under guard to await transfer upriver to New Orleans to Collector of the Port Denis Prieur.

Upon a more thorough investigation of the contents of the Independence, Taylor reported finding “seven pair more of high-priced pistols, a back and breast-piece of heavy iron armor and skull-cap to suit, dirk and bowie knives in plenty, a ship’s articles of war and no quarter, and two calling cards of the absent captain, the Rev. Daniel F. De Putron.” He also found something striking: a pirate’s flag bearing a skull and crossbones in white against a blue bunting background, in the same chest with a copy of the “Pirate’s Own Book,” a popular work which related tales of past pirates and privateers (including New Orlean’s own Jean Laffite).

The Pirates Own Book, published in 1837, a copy of which De Putron had in his trunk.

The Pirates Own Book, published in 1837, a copy of which De Putron had in his trunk.

The Articles of Agreement contained some scary wording:

“We the undersigned, being the children of nature, have lawfully and wholly as much right to enjoy here, in all her stores, as any other who is of woman born; but being deprived of all these blessings by the artful designs of those who possess in more than superabundance the stores that were intended for all, we are compelled to come forward, protest against all the world, and thus obtain our rights. From this day we declare war against the world … no quarters are offered us, none can be expected__We do, and have formed a constitution this day for the better regulation of ourselves, knowing it to be for our mutual benefit, and as order and safety may be concerned, we are bound to ourselves and to one another. Our tie is cemented with blood, and nothing less than blood will propitiate, and atone for any of us who act contrary to our laws. Death being the warrant knell of all those who in time of action, shall through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection yield, cause others to yield, or cry for quarters.”

After reading that, Taylor and the other officers of the Izard were convinced that an infamous scheme had been nipped in the bud.

Taylor’s seizure of a pirate ship and crew caused a sensation in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune of June 6, 1841, reported: “it created an excitement in our city which extended from the center to the uttermost bounds of the faubourgs. Some asserted that they were a squad of rowdies, and that their ‘articles of agreement’ were written for a ‘lark.’ A religious old lady up town said they were nothing more nor less than missionaries going out to convert the natives of the Sandwich Islands_and this assumption was not the farthest from probabilty, since the captain (of the Independence) turns out to be a reverend gentleman.”

On the morning after the seizure, Taylor and pilots at the Balize had put out in chase of the schooner’s absent captain. They found Capt. Daniel F. De Putron looking for his missing schooner, made him a prisoner, strip-searched him, and brought him to New Orleans in irons. Capt. De Putron thought this was just all a big mistake, and before his arrest, wrote a lengthy letter to the port collector .

De Putron claimed the error of his ship’s seizure and his crew’s imprisonment was due to the “misrepresentation on the part of one of my crew, who had some spite against me…It was never my intention to use her (Independence) on this coast, and never have done it. I have been endeavoring to obtain Texas papers for the Independence, it being difficult, she being under tonnage…I have nothing on board on which the laws of the United States can take her up. There was no negro irons on board, and nothing but a few small arms for self protection, and belonging to my person. The papers were on board during the detention of the vessel; although I was absent she was taken from where she lay. I immediately followed her after I had been apprized …I take this opportunity to inform you of her detention, which is unlawful, she not being carrying any unlawful trade; and whatever others may say of her, she is intended to act as a tender to another schooner, after she has obtained Texas papers. The expenses incurred during the detention of this vessel I must obtain. And I now demand the immediate release of the vessel, which you will please to order, also of the men; and whatever may be said about her, it can never be said, that she has done any unlawful act, or injured the United States’ revenue.”

Unhappily for De Putron, just as he was arrested, word was received that the ship Charles, which had departed New Orleans a few days previous, had been found with no one on board, all the goods missing, and worse yet, blood in various spots on the deck. The gossip-mongers naturally figured De Putron, the reverend with the pirate flag, had done the deed, or the larger pirate schooner he had been waiting for at the Chandeleur North Point was the culprit. De Putron was promptly reviled in the press as the “Pirate of the Gulf.” Capt. Taylor and his men, along with several other volunteer ships, went out scouring the coast for De Putron’s supposed accomplice pirate ship with no success.

On June 4, the Charles was found by the captain of the Tiger abandoned but still full of her lumber cargo, near the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River some 40 miles from the Balize. All her sails were set, and the jib appeared to have been cut loose. There was slight water in the hold. Not a solitary living being was on board. Inside the cabin were some recently broken port bottles with contents glazing the floor. On the ship’s deck on one side was a small pool of blood running towards the scupper, and the other side had eight blood stains which appeared to have been made by some wounded person carried or forced over the ship’s side. The Tiger proceeded to look for the longboat from the ship in the area with no success, but about 10 miles distant, found the Charles’ jolly-boat whose lone occupant was a dog said to belong to one of that ship’s passengers, plus a box of sardines. The dog was rescued by the crew, and did not appear to have been adrift long. No other boats were found in the area, so Capt. Crowell of the Tiger took the Charles in tow and returned to New Orleans, arriving by 7 a.m. June 6, 1841.

As soon as the Charles appeared at the wharf, “horrid rumors of murder and piracy, mutiny and assassination, flew from mouth to mouth with incredible rapidity” reported the New Orleans Bee.

The only clue about the Charles’ fate was a logbook slate entry found which said “the ship continues to make water,” but when discovered, the ship was not sinking, and had only a slight amount of water in the hold which was readily pumped out.

The Charles had carried 23 cabin passengers, some of them women. The mostly French merchants were going to make their annual purchases in France. All of them were presumed to have been carrying considerable amounts of specie.

Several armed militia units went out on boats and ships to scour the bays, inlets, and Gulf for the big topsail schooner which had been spotted earlier before the Charles incident and which was suspected to be De Putron’s partner. Capt. Taylor of the Izard offered $500 reward to any of the fishermen of the coastal area who could provide solid leads to the capture of the pirate, and wrote that he was “confident of finding and securing the murderers (of the Charles’ crew and passengers.) He added that “You may depend I will leave nothing undone to detect and bring out all this villainy.” (Note: Taylor was still pirate-happy some 22 years after his capture of the Jean Laffite ship Le Brave, whose captain and part of the crew were found guilty of piracy and hanged in New Orleans in 1819-1820. Taylor had been a young second lieutenant at the time.)

In a letter to Prieur dated June 18, 1841, from the Balize, Capt. Taylor said Julius Watson, master of the Hercules ship, informed him he had seen the pirate schooner around June 8, carrying sail like the Flying Dutchman. “That such a vessel has been prowling our coast, and that the Independence was her tender-shipping and kidnapping men and getting supplies for her–is in my mind a stubborn truth, and that she committed the piracy on the ship Charles, I also firmly believe,” wrote Taylor.

According to news accounts in New Orleans, the articles taken from the Charles were “just such as a newly fitted pirate would be most desirous of obtaining: beds and bedding, cabin chairs, clothing, and everything in the way of arms such as axes, knives, crow bars and muskets.”

Capt. Taylor added that a fisherman from the Chandeleur who had accompanied Capt. De Putron earlier said the potential pirate had 300 doubloons about him when he saw him last, but when Capt. Taylor searched De Putron, he found neither the doubloons, nor the captain’s gold watch.

In the wake of the public alarm over the Charles and the worry that a murdering pirate was loose on the Gulf, several people in the vicinity of New Orleans were arrested just on suspicion of the supposed piracy and murder on board the ship Charles. At least one paper reported that some New Orleanians even thought that the old “pirate” Lafitte [sic] who was thought to be living at Paraguay, had returned again to his “congenial pursuits.” (Jean Laffite, by the way, had been reported in the Times-Picayune of Feb. 17, 1841 as having recently visited New Orleans, where someone recognized him and said he had the “same piercing eye he had in youth, but slightly bent with age.” Laffite quite apparently had not died in the reported sea battle off the coast of Honduras in February 1823, or else that was his ghost strolling the French Quarter in 1841.)

On June 24, 1841, the Times-Picayune printed a lengthy protest written by the imprisoned Capt. De Putron:

“I have been for the past three weeks a prisoner–my property has been seized–my name calumniated. The press has teemed with rumors which have been converted into ‘confirmation strong as proofs of holy writ.’ and untried, without the opportunity of a defense, I have been held up to public detestation as a Pirate…The piratical acts which I am presumed to have committed are the taking of the cargo of the ship Charles and the murder of her crew and passengers. I am legally advised that piracy is the commission of a felony on the high seas. Judging from what I have read and heard, there is still some doubt as to the commission of the felony, and in the absence of all direct testimony on the subject, the probabilities are decidedly that the deed was committed by persons on board (the Charles). It is absolutely certain that the whole affair transpired while I was laying with my schooner, the Independence, at anchor off the Chandeleurs, or while I was in actual custody. It is fortunately within my power to prove, by a chain of witnesses, the points at which I was during the entire interval that elapsed from my departure from the port of New Orleans and my return in irons.”

“No one saw me do the deed__I have never confessed the deed__I was not near the place of the deed__I have not been for any length a time unaccountably absent__none of the articles from the pillaged ship have been found in my possession. Why then do men call me guilty?”

“I am answered ‘because there are suspicious circumstances attending you.’ These suspicious circumstances, so far as I can learn, are the following: that a quantity of arms were found on board the Independence; that in my trunk was found a suit of defensive armor, pistol proof; that in my trunk also was found a peculiar flag, called a pirate’s, or black flag; that there was found on board the Independence a paper containing what have been called ‘articles of agreement,’ of a piratical nature.”

“And lastly, the general facts that my vessel was moored in an unusual place, had no cargo on board and was ostensibly engaged in no trade. These, I presume, cover all the suspicious circumstances that have been alleged against me,” wrote De Putron.

He proceeded to relate his own history of the affair surrounding his arrest, that he had gone to the Balize and demanded the release of his schooner, whereupon he was arrested and brought to the jail of the Parish of Orleans.

Next he endeavored to explain the suspicious circumstances that surrounded him and his ship, particularly the number of arms aboard:

“I have a right as a man, a free man, a citizen of the world, to own and keep in my own house or on board my own ship, armor, both offensive and defensive, of such a kind and of such a quantity as I may please. There are pirates on the high seas. I have a right to be prepared to defend myself against their attacks. No seaman who knows what I do of the coast of Africa and its inhabitants would venture among them unarmed.”

“I have been advised that there are municipal regulations forbidding the carrying of offensive weapons concealed about the person. Has it ever entered into the head of any legislator to forbid the wearing of defensive armor?”

“Thirdly, the ‘flag’__the piratical flag that was found in my trunk. That is conclusive he (de Putron) is a pirate! Which should I feel most strongly, derision or indignation? A piratical flag! Has the law of actions, or of any one nation ever declared a piece of bunting with a particular device upon it, a piratical flag, and made it an offense to have and carry such a flag? If not, then have I been guilty of no offense. If so, then would a Pirate be the last man to carry such a flag?”

“The fellow who made the flag informed others that he had made a suspicious flag for me, and perhaps intimated that my intentions were of a piratical nature; and the result was that I received applications from a number of persons who wished to join me for such an expedition. I informed those persons that they had utterly mistaken the man to whom they were applying, and that I had none other than proper and lawful purposes in view. In the course of the day, after the so-called piratical flag was completed, I received no less than one hundred applications of this kind. I was astonished, and at the same time, not a little alarmed. ..I therefore determined to leave New Orleans immediately on my previously intended trip to the Texas coast. My schooner, however, needed caulking, and I had not yet purchased the larger vessel to which the schooner was to act as tender. I proceeded to Mobile (to get supplies),” wrote De Putron.

As for the “no quarter given” articles of agreement found on his schooner, De Putron pointed out it was unsigned and said that was just his translation into English of a pamphlet of piratical articles of agreement document in French and Portuguese, and had been copied in pencil just because he had been struck by the original’s ideas and style.

Thompson’s statement to Capt. Taylor that the Independence was a piratical vessel was attributed by De Putron to bad blood between Thompson and the rest of the crew. Domingos, the cook, in particular had beaten him in a disagreement.

“If I were a Pirate they try to make me out to be, I would never have allowed (Thompson) to have such constant opportunities to escape and inform against me. His carcass would have fattened some shark long ago. Whatever else I am, I am neither a fool nor a coward,” added De Putron.

Before De Putron and his crew had their day in court, the captain, passengers, crew and goods from the supposedly plundered Charles were all found safe and sound. They had departed the Charles due to what Capt. Gorham claimed to be a sinking condition of the vessel, and were immediately transferred to the Louis Quatorze, which was heading to Havana. The blood on the deck was explained by a crewman’s hand that had suffered a bad cut during the disembarkation. Word that all were safe took about three weeks before being known at New Orleans, and the ire there against the captain for his negligance in notifying authorities quickly was so great they hung him in effigy dockside. Even though there was some relief that the Charles had not been victimized by a pirate, the New Orleanians were still thoroughly interested in the case of the possible pirate, De Putron, as court convened July 2, 1841.

The Times-Picayune reporter noted that it was steamy hot that day but nevertheless men in fancy frockcoats, vests and high collars packed the courtroom so tightly they hardly had room to breathe, and as the testimony began and proceeded lengthily, all were melting with prespiration by the afternoon. No one wanted to miss the “pirate” hearing.

De Putron entered the courtroom without shackles and necks craned to get a good look at the missionary turned buccaneer. He was blond, a young man of about 25, respectable-looking, with hair combed forward as was the style. He did not seem particularly ferocious. During testimony he stood “as stiffly as though a noose already dangled above his head,” recounted journalist and spectator Charles Hooton in his 1845 article “The Crescent City.” The Times-Picayune reporter on the scene said De Putron seemed “better adapted for the cassock than the coat of mail–more fit to tell his beads than to wield his Bowie knife.”

Accompanying De Putron were his fellow imprisoned crewmen: Osborno Abbott, John Tully alias Happy Jack, Luis Bargasse, Manuel Domingos and John Peaston. The other crewman, Johnson, had turned state’s evidence.

Ballie Peyton, US District Attorney, and J.W. Smith represented the US. C.K. Johnson and Randall Hunt appeared for the prisoners. Recorder Baldwin presided.

The Independence captain and crew learned the charges against them for the first time that morning, even though they had been held in prison for some three weeks.

De Putron was charged with perjury–for representing himself at the custom house as a US citizen and as having been born in the US, contrary to the facts.

The second charge was having employed men, and fitted out and armed a schooner for the purpose of embarking in the African slave trade, in defiance of and contrary to the laws of the United States.

The third charge was for having aided, assisted and corresponded with pirates.

First up on the stand was Capt. Taylor, boarding officer at the Balize for several years. He said he was told by a fisherman that a suspicious craft lay at the Chandeleurs. He put out after her, well armed and ready for a scratch, for he expected one. He came up to her, went on board, met Abbott and told him who he was and what was his business. Abbott told him the captain was not on board, that they were merely on a pleasure or fishing excursion, and had no arms but a fowling piece, which he showed him. Taylor said he went down into the cabin which he called a dark-looking hole, could find nothing, and came up as if he had left a steam bath; was still not satisfied that everything was right, told Abbott when the captain should arrive he must see his papers, and left for the Izard. The next day when he was passing near the Independence (the suspicious vessel), he saw Thompson jump off and swim towards him. He took him on board, and Thompson told him the Independence was a pirate vessel, that the captain had kidnapped him in Mobile, and that if the witness would protect him and come with him on board the Independence he would show him arms enough to “shingle a ten-pin alley.”

Attorney Johnson interrupted Capt. Taylor and said that Thompson’s narrative related by himself was not relevant, and he was not to give in evidence anything that Thompson or anyone else told him.

Peyton said the prisoners were charged with fitting out a piratical vessel for the slave trade (which according to US laws of the time, was piracy) and for conspiring to act as pirates.

Capt. Taylor resumed his testimony and said he went with Thompson on board the Independence, went down to the cabin, and found a large lot of what he called “plunder” in the captain’s (De Putron’s) chest. The items he found were on display in the court: the skull and crossbones pirate flag, the steel armor and helmet, and a colossal Bowie knife.

Also on display were the other items found on board: two guns, a large spring bayonet, a pioneer knife or sword, ten pair of pistols, a pair of Colt’s patent repeating pistols, one keg of powder, two silk handkerchiefs filled with pistol and musket balls, one pair of bullet molds, nine dirks, a pair of double barrelled pistols which were charged with balls, a large case of percussion caps, five powder flasks, a map of the coast, the Pirate’s Own Book and articles of agreement.

Continuing his testimony, Capt. Taylor said he brought the arrested crewmen to the Balize, and when De Putron came there looking for his ship, he arrested him and found on his person a pair of loaded pistols, a dirk and a Bowie knife. (At the time, New Orleans had a law against concealed weapons.)  De Putron told him the Independence was intended as a tender to a slaver to do business on the Texas coast.

Next up on the stand was the accused, De Putron. He recognized all the items in display as his, including several papers which were read. One was his will, signed at the island of Guernsey April 10, 1840, saying he was the son of Daniel De Putron of Guernsey. Among beneficiaries in the will were the British and Foreign Bible Society, plus several pounds sterling to widows and orphans of Guernsey. Another, more peculiar paper that was read was a manuscript memoir of his short life, which started “Born February the 23d, 1817,” but had the place cut out. The memoir covered his life from 1820 up to 1838 and consisted of voyages form the West Indies to England, England to New Holland, New Holland to France, France to America, and America to Africa.

Next on the witness stand was Thompson, who said he first met Capt. De Putron in Mobile about two months earlier, and was convinced to come on board the ship by Happy Jack, who enticed him with some grog to stay and join the crew. He said the Independence had been at the Chandeluers about three weeks, and though the captain would say he was going off fishing, there was never any fishing apparatus on board. He heard it whispered on board that a topsail schooner was expected, and every vessel coming from the east was signalled.

Thompson said De Putron told him the pirate’s flag was to frighten off intruders on the coast of Africa, and also that he thought he had a right to use the prefix of reverend to his name as he was educated for the Protestant ministry and was born in Cincinnati. However, Thompson noted that De Putron’s accent was very like that of a British Cockney.

Thompson said he had been whipped by Domingos once for losing some knives overboard during washing. He added that Domingos had often threatened his life, with both a knife and a hatchet in hand but not used.

Testimony concluded that afternoon to be continued the next morning, when Smith of the US counsel said he would leave it to the court to determine whether or not the charge of confederating and corresponding with pirates, had been sustained by the evidence offered; but they (the US counsel) contended that the charge of equipping and fitting out a vessel to engage in the African slave trade was fully established against the whole of the prisoners, and that the charge of perjury against De Putron was clearly proven.

Smith read the laws enacted for the suppression of the African slave trade, particularly the law of 1817, which said transgressors were liable to a penalty of $5,000 each, and imprisonment not exceeding seven and not less than three years.

He noted that “De Putron’s failure to give proof he was engaged in legal commercial business and in honest enterprize was confirmation of his guilt.” Smith added that from the memoir read in court it was shown the captain’s relatives in Guernsey were slave traders, that his uncle in the Brazils was a slave dealer, and that from his boyhood up, De Putron had been engaged in the slave trade and knew all the means necessary for such a business, including proficiency in various languages.

Johnson, for the defense, replied:  “At first there was a monstrous piracy (the Charles)__there were foul and bloody murders. And this, which was attributed to the prisoners at the bar, turns out to be, after all, neither piracy nor murder. The piracy was no more than a cowardly, rascally captain deserting his ship and causing the passengers to do the same, and the murders and the bloody deck all ended with a cut finger (of a crewman).”

At question, continued Johnson, was not “Did the evidence show any degree of moral guilt on the part of the prisoners?”, but was it enough to ensure their legal conviction before a jury.

Smith argued at length about how it appeared the Independence was indeed being outfitted for the slave trade, and not, as Johnson commented as part of his argument, that De Putron only intended on going to Africa for oil.

The hearing concluded with Abbott and Domingos discharged, and De Putron returned to prison, on both the slave trade and perjury charges, with bail set at $6,500. Happy Jack and the other crewmen were free to go.

De Putron lingered in prison awaiting his next court appearance, which came Jan. 16, 1842, when he went to trial and was found guilty of perjury. He did not go to trial in US Circuit Court until Feb. 12, 1842, for his second, and greater, charge of fitting out the Independence with the intent to employ her in the African slave trade..

The Times Picayune reported “This magnificently magnified pirate, smuggler, and all that sort of thing, was yesterday set at liberty, after an incarceration of some ten months…” De Putron was acquitted on the charge of fitting out for the slave trade, and US District Attorney Peyton moved that a nolle prosequi be entered on the charge of corresponding with pirates. “Thus ends the great De Putron case,” quipped the Times-Picayune, reprinted in the May 3, 1842 New Bedford Register of New Bedford, Mass.

De Putron vanished from the newspapers after his release from prison, where he had been kept for nearly a year. Genealogical data seems to indicate he returned to Guernsey, where he married and likely resumed the clerical life.

Capt. Taylor did not live long after the De Putron case concluded. He and his new US Revenue Cutter Vigilant were lost at sea near Key West in a gale in 1844.

Mysteries remain about the De Putron case, especially where did he get the funds to purchase the Independence, and who was captain of the large top-sailed schooner with whom the Independence never rendezvoused? The answers to those questions might be found with the subject of the next article: the return of pirate William Mitchell from the grave.


Paddy Scott: The Irish Pirate Who Plagued Mobile

January 30, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Nautical History

A scene of bayside pirates from the Pirates' Own Book

A scene of bayside pirates from the Pirates’ Own Book

Irish pirate Paddy Scott terrorized residents and visitors of the Mobile Bay area for some ten years over the 1820s and 1830s, earning himself national notoriety as that “vile pirate.” Oddly, no one now seems to know his story at all, and his legend lies dormant, buried with his bones. Only the old contemporary newspapers are left to tell his tale of mischief and mayhem.

The history of this freebooter begins with an 1818 ad seeking customers to send freight on his brand new “excellent forty ton barge” at Tuscaloosa Falls. Under his proper name, Patrick Scott, the young man boasted “the unusual goodness of his boat added to his practical experience of the navigation of the channel, offers an insurance of safety to whatever is committed to his charge.” (Alabama Republican, April 18, 1818)

By 1824, Patrick, now known as “Paddy” Scott, had gone the “breaking bad” route, leading Mobile newspapers to caution captains around Mobile and environs, as Scott and 10 Spaniards had gotten a long Spanish launch with a four pound shot hole in her gunwale which they were cruizing about the coast. The mayor of Mobile was concerned enough about this gang to offer a reward of $50 for the leader, as Scott had called on board the British Tar, lying in Mobile Bay a couple of days previous, and had helped himself and crew to provisions, etc., demanding liquors but finding none. The article stated they were bound for the lakes, and pulled for Pass Heron. A Pensacola man informed the newspaper that ten of the crew of the Spanish armed ship Ceres, prize to a South American Patriot privateer, had stolen a boat and absconded. “They have, it appears, made Scott, alias Glass, their commander. The public will do well to be on their guard.” (New York National Advocate, May 24, 1824)

(As one of his many aliases, Scott decided to appropriate the famous mountain man Hugh Glass’ name, probably inspired by the the current newspaper accounts of Glass’ near-fatal encounter with a grizzly bear and subsequent revenge trek seeking justice on his companions who had left him for dead. Paddy Scott, however, did not have the horrid scars of a bear attack and thus most definitely was not Glass.)

Not long after Paddy’s first foray into crime, Curtis Lewis, one of the inspectors of revenue for the Port of Mobile, returned from his expedition on Pascagoula Bay, having found a further quantity of goods which had been stolen from the schooner Barbaretta. Lewis also had taken and jailed two men who had stolen the goods in question from the first thieves (Scott and Francis). Six lots of goods were plundered from the Barbaretta, and recovered by the customs officer, who placed them in the custom house under lock and key. Seven of the original thieves were then caught, including the leader. Scott, Francis Keating, and Bruce, imprisoned for stealing the items from the ship, were sent on board the steamer Colombia, to be confined in jail at Cahawba, to face trial at the next session of the District Court. (Spectator, New York, N.Y. June 8, 1824)

However, Scott did not linger in irons very long, even in the supposedly more secure jail at Cahawba. By the 14th of July, Scott the desperado was again at large. He with four others made their escape from the Cahawba Jail. Reid, the celebrated smuggler, who was committed in Baldwin county a few months previous for passing counterfeit money and sent to Cahawba for safe keeping, was one of the escapees, and it was through his means the escape was effected. A reward of $200 was offered for their apprehension, and several parties went in different directions in pursuit. One of the five sprained his ankle in getting out, and was retaken before he left the town. Keating, one of Scott’s accomplices in plundering the Schooner Barbaretta, and who turned states’ evidence,  died in prison a few days after they reached Cahawba from Mobile. (Independent Chronicle and Patriot, Boston, Mass. August 25, 1824)

By summer of 1826, Paddy Scott had proven to be a constant pest on the Alabama and Mississippi coastline, particularly around Mobile Bay. The Pensacola Gazette of June 17, 1826 reported that Scott and a colorful accomplice known only as Smiley “are hovering in and around Mobile Bay, and have for some time past made Fowl River his rendezvous, with a sloop boat called the John Fowler, armed with muskets, pistols and sabers, all in good order. Is there not promptness enough in the country, to take such measures as will lead to the capture of so vile a pirate as he is known to be? Or shall we suffer him to go at large, to and fro, seeking whom he may devour?”

Scott and Smiley were soon apprehended. Reports from Mobile said  that “a man named Paddy Scott has been arrested and imprisoned with a man named Smilie (sic). He was captured off Horn Island, in a small sloop, by Capt. Foster of the Revenue Cutter. Six shots were fired at him before he surrendered. Scott has long been accused of piracy, and is said to be a desperate fellow. He broke from prison at Cahawba and had been occasionally seen about the coast of Alabama. Since he has been taken, a party of armed men had been seen about the jail, supposed for the purpose of rescuing their companion, Scott, but they were pursued, and effected their escape in a boat.” (New York Daily Advertiser, June 30, 1826)

By July 3, 1826, Scott had acquired such a dangerous reputation that the Daily National Journal of Washington, D.C. devoted a lengthy article to him: “Paddy Scott has rendered himself notorious in Mobile by his depradations. About two years ago a prize to the Colombian privateer Centilla, lying in the river, was robbed of a quantity of dry goods and other articles of value; the District Court being in session, a bill of indictment was found against Scott and several others for piracy, but they were not apprehended until after the court adjourned. Scott broke jail..a few weeks afterward, he went on board a Mobile packet for New Orleans under the promise of being landed somewhere along the coast. He was brought to Mobile and delivered up to the Marshal. The jail being considered insecure, the prisoners were taken to Cahawba. Before the next term, however, all but one escaped, and he who had turned state’s evidence died in jail. For several months Scott was seen about the Bay, and suspected of piratical intentions; it was said he threatened to burn the city, for which the Mayor offered a large reward for his apprehension. He then disappeared, and had been only recently seen, and then in a boat, with several armed men. Once they boarded a vessel in the bay, and how they subsisted is unknown. He is a native of Ireland and says his real name is Glass.”

The jail at Mobile was indeed as insecure as authorities feared, for by late September 1826, both Scott and Smiley made good their escape. The Charleston Courier of Oct. 14, 1826 reported from Mobile that Smiley had by some means managed to saw off his irons, and late in the afternoon called upon the jailer to give him some water, whereupon entering the cell the jailer was knocked down. Smiley then wrested the keys from him and locked him in the cell, and deliberately proceeded to Scott’s cell, unlocked it, took off his irons, and both escaped after carefully locking the jail door.

Scott and Smiley headed for New Orleans, a bad move on their part, as Scott was arrested on Oct. 5 and Smiley the next day.

Strangely, the newspapers are silent about Paddy’s actions for almost two years. He and his cronies do not pop up again until early September 1828, in an article in the Louisiana Advertiser headed “Pirates.” Paddy Scott was said to be leading a group of 12 desperadoes on a small sloop called the Lalla Rookh, of about 10 tons, 30-35 feet long, fitted out at Pensacola, with black upper works, white molding and green interior, complete with a quantity of arms and provisions on board. The Advertiser stated the sloop called at the Bay of St. Louis on August 26 and Paddy and co. stole a whale boat from Charles Matthews along with other petty thefts, then loitered in the area, presenting several “very impudent threats to those on shore.” The writer opined that the general presumption is that they are bound on a piratical cruise and said “Should they not be looked after?”

Once again, Paddy went to New Orleans, and once again, he got arrested there, and taken to the New Orleans mayor for examination, according to the Baltimore Gazette of October 9, 1828. Nothing appears to have come of this arrest, and he was apparently released.

As of late March 1829, Scott and some four associates stole a small boat near New Orleans and were said to be lurking among the islands off the Bay of Biloxi, according to the Custom House Collector of New Orleans. (Commercial Advertiser, New York, N.Y. April 6, 1829)

Another lull in Scott’s dramatic misdeeds occurred until the fall of 1832, when the Charleston Courier reported that Scott was again actively doing nefarious deeds. Some “respectable citizens” of Charleston who apparently were unaware of Scott’s piratical tendencies hired him to take them in a small boat from the Bay of St. Louis to the Bay of Biloxi, stopping midway to go on shore for a bit of hunting while leaving their trunks and other effects on the boat. Scott of course seized the opportunity to cast off and put out into the lake at once, leaving his victims stranded on shore. Unhappily for Scott, Capt. Benjamin Holly ran across him fleeing the scene in his boat, thought it odd there was only one man in a schooner rigged craft, and successfully pursued him. He took possession of the craft, and brought the trunks and baggage to the Bay of St. Louis, where the owners were so happy to see their belongings they gave Holly a reward of $50. Nothing was mentioned about what happened to Paddy, and for some years, once again, he was idle__until a land pirate raid on some settlers in Baldwin County, Ala., in August 1837.

The Mobile Register of August 28, 1837 and New Orleans Times-Picayune of Sept. 23, 1837 reported vile outrages against some female settlers were committed in Baldwin County by a gang of desperadoes led by Paddy Scott. Bailey, one of Scott’s accomplices, was soon taken on Mobile Point but Paddy escaped in his schooner. He soon turned up walking the streets in New Orleans while citizens of Mobile offered a reward of five hundred dollars for his arrest. New Orleans authorities seemed to turn a blind eye to the wronged Mobile citizens: although Paddy was arrested in New Orleans under the vagrant act, for want of any evidence to justify his detention, he was soon liberated. (Evening Star, New York, Oct. 2, 1837)

By late 1839, the New Orleans Times-Picayune was calling Paddy Scott “the modern Lafitte” and noted that after he had been in the city about five days, he was arrested on the Levee. In a description of him given that year, he is said to be above the middle size, and “on the wrong side of 40.”

Paddy’s luck would soon turn sour after his next release. In January 1840 he murdered James Burgoyne in New Orleans by stabbing him in the back, then fled to his old haunts around Mobile.

The coroner’s inquest on Burgoyne’s body, reported in the Times-Picayune of Feb. 6, 1840, said the deceased was stabbed in the back just below the shoulder, the wound entering the chest cavity and penetrating the lungs. Dr. J.E. Kerr noted a singular peculiarity about Burgoyne in that his heart was on the right, rather than left, side of his body,

The Grand Jury at New Orleans issued a bill of indictment for murder against Scott, and he was arrested in June of 1840 in Mobile, then transferred to New Orleans. His aliases in addition to Hugh Glass included John Scott and John Carney.

The Sept. 6, 1840 Times-Picayune reported that after being found guilty of murder and at his death sentencing, Paddy Scott was asked by Judge Canonge if there was anything he wished to say. Seeming half-choked with “fear and feeling” Scott said in a voice “scarcely audible” that he should wish the court to defer passing sentence on him. The jury, he understood, were about addressing the Governor on his behalf. Six of the jury members which found him guilty signed a memorial to the Governor, praying that Scott not be made to suffer capital punishment. The T-P writer said at the sentencing hearing Scott “cried like a child. He is an idiotic, mindless looking man, and apparently devoid of all physical courage.”

By February of 1841, Scott had been pardoned by the Louisiana governor, and the sentence of death recorded against him was commuted to two years’ imprisonment at hard labor. (Times-Picayune, March 3, 1841)

Scott’s last appearance in the press was in the Jan. 3, 1844  issue of the Times-Picayune. The brief article stated “Paddy Scott, well known as a pilot on Lake Ponchartrain, died suddenly at Milneburg on New Year’s night.”



The Laffite Portrait Proves the Authenticity of the Laffite Journal

December 1, 2015 in European History, general history, History, Louisiana History

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

At least part of the Jean Laffite journal collection at Sam Houston Regional Library at Liberty, Texas can be proven authentic through association with a portrait of Laffite never a part of the archives of Sam Houston because it was lost in a house fire in 1959 at Spartanburg, S.C.. This portrait, showing Jean Laffite standing on the deck of a ship with a cannon nearby, is dated 1804 and signed “Gros”___for Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, art advisor to Napoleon and painter-chronicler of the Emperor’s military triumphs.

Gros was a well-known and highly respected French artist who specialized in historical Napoleon portraits under the tutelage of artist Jacques-Louis David. Gros had been introduced to Bonaparte in 1796 by Napoleon’s sweetheart, Josephine, in Milan when he was away from France for safety’s sake after the French Revolution. He returned with the Napoleonic entourage and became a valued member of the group’s artistic corps. He specialized in romantic, Rubenesque portraits of various officers and vast, mural-size paintings that have been called spontaneous and free in brushwork, spacious in atmosphere, and smouldering in emotive color by twentieth century art critics. Gros’ artistic star soared with Napoleon’s own comet of fame, and slowly declined in brightness after the French emperor’s death in 1821. Called the first great romantic painter, Gros by age 64 suffered from personal dissatisfaction in his later career. In despair, he drowned himself in the Seine in 1835.

The portrait of Jean Laffite which Gros created only exists today in the form of a 4 x 5 inch black and white negative in the Laffite Collection at Sam Houston, a negative which was used by Stanley Clisby Arthur in 1952  as a frontispiece black and white photo in his Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover biographical book. Arthur had the photograph made during a visit to see the portrait, other paintings, and Laffite manuscript materials belonging to John A. Laffite, who was living in Kansas City, Mo., around 1950-51. The painting was on his living room wall, one of his KC neighbors recalled years later. Another black and white image of the same portrait was used as the frontispiece for the Vantage Press edition of The Journal of Jean Laffite, which John A. Laffite had privately published in 1958 after having the French journal translated to English.

Much controversy has ensued ever since among historians over the authenticity of the Laffite journal, and the Gros painting has been mostly overlooked through the years because it was lost, and because it appeared to be just a hastily done painting study, not a professional portrait.

(The Laffite journal and a few other holographic Laffite family materials escaped the house fire as they were in a trunk that was saved. All the paintings hanging in the house were destroyed. Strangely, even a part of the trunk’s contents was lost when they were caught in a fire at a radio and tv station in Spartanburg a feww months later in May 1960. The Laffite journal was in that second fire, and suffered fire damage along the edges, but survived intact. It and some of the other surviving parts of the Laffite Collection were sold by John A. Laffite in 1969 to collectors William Simpson and Johnny Jenkins of Houston for $15,000. Former Texas governor Price Daniel bought the lot in 1975 for $12,500, and donated all in 1978 to the newly created Sam Houston Regional Library.)

Everyone, including those in favor of the Journal’s authenticity, neglected to check on a simple way to assert the validity of the claim that the materials really were from famous New Orleans privateer Jean Laffite: all that needed to be done was to compare the Gros signature of the Laffite portrait to known Gros paintings of the same period. This seems simple, but until recently, it was not a quick thing to accomplish because Gros signatures were not easy to find to use for comparison purposes.

The majority of Gros paintings online are of small resolution, suitable for website galleries and web pages, but of utterly no use for checking the signature. This is especially true of some of Gros’ best known Napoleonic works, which are literally the size of walls. Even at high resolution, the signature on such works is often impossible to see. However, a few very high resolution scans of Gros art were examined, and signatures contemporaneous with 1804 were found. The Gros signature on the Battle of Aboukir painting (1806) at the Palace of Versailles is virtually the same as the signature on the Laffite portrait, and both signatures are found in the lower left corner of the artwork.

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting





Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait

Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait










Some may question this and say “well, it could have been a painting forgery”, but the evidence is very much against this. The first American exhibition of Gros’ paintings and portraits was held in 1955 at Seligmann Gallery in New York, and at the time, the vast majority of Gros’s artwork were only to be found in France, and most of those in Paris. The Laffite portrait photograph was made before 1952, and it shows a worn, damaged painting that is coming loose at the top from its frame backing. The photograph of the painting in the Journal of Jean Laffite shows it in an expensive heavy gilt frame compatible with the early 1800s period. Also, there is no record that John A. Laffite ever tried to sell this painting before it was lost in the fire, so there was no motive to even try to forge it. Additionally, not all Gros paintings are signed, and the ones which are signed often are difficult to make out.

The next question would be where and when was the Laffite portrait made? Laffite is wearing a long coat, so that would indicate cold weather, winter or early spring, or maybe late fall. Gros was living in Paris at the Convent Capuchin in 1804. The closest harbor would have been Le Havre. Laffite was possibly the “Captain Lafitte” of the La Soeur Cherie ship which arrived in New Orleans in April 1804 and stayed there through early August. Gros was busy most of 1804 with painting the 17 by 23 foot mural Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1804, held in September of that year in Paris. Gros was idle between September and Dec. 2, so if Laffite departed for France from New Orleans, he could have been at Le Havre by late September, and thus some time in the Fall of 1804 the portrait was created, probably in the space of a few hours. Gros received great honors for his Napoleon mural at the Salon of 1804, and was very popular for making portraits afterward, so it is quite significant that Laffite was able to commission him to do even the quick study shipboard painting. Even this sketch would have cost a hefty sum at the time, so it indicates Laffite was well off even when he was relatively young, in his early 20s. Also, he must have had some connection to Napoleon in order to even hire Gros. One possible clue is the extremely ornate presentation sword in scabbard that Laffite is holding. The portrait would seem to commemorate the occasion of getting the sword. Did Napoleon present it to Laffite? The answer, like the painting, is lost to history.

One way to verify a piece of art is to look into its provenance, or chronology of the ownership, custody or location of the historical artwork. The primary purpose is to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing its later history, custody and places of storage. A particular value in establishing provenance is in helping authenticate objects. The back of a painting, for instance, may include significant provenance information.

In the case of the Laffite portrait by Gros, since it was lost to fire, and no notes were made about what may or may not have been on the back of the artwork/frame, that particular information is lost, too. It is not known if the portrait sitter was identified on the back. In his book, Stanley Clisby Arthur said the painting was assumed by descendants to be Jean Laffite, as it was among other effects of the corsair preserved by one of his sons (presumably Jules Laffite, who died in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1920s). John A. Laffite, the owner of the painting in the late 1940s- 1950s, claimed to be the great-grandson of Jean Laffite and grandson of Jules Laffite, but genealogical data has not corroborated this. It is unknown exactly when or how John A. Laffite got the Laffite Gros portrait, other paintings, photographs, and Jean Laffite manuscript materials which are featured in Arthur’s Gentleman Rover book and the Vantage Press Journal of Jean Laffite book. All that is known about its ownership history is that he had the Gros portrait from about 1949 until its loss in 1959.

The fact that the Laffite portrait had a Gros signature identical to that on other Gros paintings fits with the timeline presented in the Laffite journal, as Jean says in it he was born in 1782, so would have been 22 years old in 1804 when the portrait was done. As the portrait dates to the right time period, its association with the Laffite journal and miscellaneous copybooks, family photographs, etc. lends more weight to their authenticity as well. They are most likely exactly what they appear to be: holographic manuscript materials written by Jean Laffite and members of his family.

John A. Laffite was a retired railroad employee who knew no French and could not read the Laffite journal, which is mostly in an archaic Creole French mixed with Spanish and a bit of English.

The content of the Laffite journal includes some historical items that were not known until recently, and the signatures in the journal closely match an authentic Jean Laffite signature on the Le Brave ship’s document which has been in federal custody since 1819.

Only the subject of the Gros portrait could have written the Laffite journal, and that person was Jean Laffite.




Beverly Chew: the Man Behind the Curtain in Early New Orleans

November 19, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Louisiana History, Nautical History, Texas History

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

Life was good for the New Orleans business firm of Chew & Relf in the early 1800s: young partners Beverly Chew and Richard Relf controlled a virtual monopoly of the banking, shipping, trading, insurance, and smuggling business in the port city until around 1809, when the Laffite brothers came to town, quickly and systematically cutting into the profits of Chew & Relf’s Gulf Coast network empire.

Jean and Pierre Laffite successfully snatched away the market share of the smuggling business from Chew, Relf and their cohorts Daniel Clark, mainly because since they were getting their goods and slaves from privateers’ captured Spanish prizes, they paid nothing for their wares and consequently could sell them much cheaper because there was no middleman to pay.

The Laffites made an enemy for life of Chew in particular, and he would strike back like a snake when a prime opportunity presented itself eight years later. He wielded much more power in New Orleans than most people realized, and could carry a grudge for years. Along with his partner and other backers, he controlled business in the city for more than 30 years in the early 1800s. Through study of his business connections, deals, and political machinations it is evident that Chew, not Edward Livingston as commonly supposed, was the true power monger behind the curtain of New Orleans, with the help of Relf. Moreover, Chew stayed at the top of the exclusive business elite in New Orleans through the 1830s.

Historian John G. Clark said “The elite which emerged in New Orleans between 1803 and the War of 1812 possessed power and responsibilities unprecedented in the almost 100-year existence of the city.’ (The Business Elite of New Orleans Before 1815)

Born in Virginia in 1773, Chew moved to New Orleans in 1797 from Philadelphia, where he had been an apprentice for prominent merchant Daniel William Coxe and associates, and also had learned financial finagling from Natchez plantation owner William Dunbar, who had traded cotton through Coxe.

According to historian Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., Dunbar used Chew and Relf in the early 1800s to ship bales of cotton through New Orleans, for pre-negotiated prices to Liverpool, seldom taking specie alone for the transactions. Every shipment of cotton included a list of goods Dunbar wanted, which Dunbar would resell for more in the American markets. He floated the real money (gold and silver specie) like so many chess pieces among his agents to make purchases as needed, or to stall payment until goods were delivered from England. Knowing exactly where all the specie, cotton, and goods were took a very careful system of bookkeeping, which Dunbar did well. His protégé, Chew, implemented this system himself upon Dunbar’s death in 1810. (William Dunbar: Scientific Pioneer of the Old Southwest)

Chew and Relf both came to Louisiana about the same time shortly before the turn of the 19th century, in league with the well-known Irish land speculator and businessman Daniel Clark, believed to be one of the wealthiest men in America, and the notorious double-dealing General James Wilkinson, who often was complicit with Spanish authorities.

Chew counted among his personal and confidential close friends the adventurer Philip Nolan, clandestine agent of Wilkinson re Spanish land grant schemes in Louisiana territory. In 1797, before moving to New Orleans, Chew wrote Nolan that he could draw from the Spanish king’s coffers at New Orleans any sum he would have named on account of the General, and it was reported and pretty generally credited then that Nolan had indeed received as much as $5,000. In 1798, Chew wrote to Nolan that he was departing on a voyage to Bilbao, Spain, saying “respecting the connection we have so long contemplated, you will find my wishes for it undiminished, and will be able to make it much more advantageous on my part than when I last saw you.” Details about Chew’s dealings with the Spanish authorities have not been found.

In mid 1804, as President Thomas Jefferson sought input about who to recommend for positions in New Orleans, an unknown letter writer advised that “Beverly Chew of Virginia, connected with M.D. Clark, is a man of very respectable standing and most deservedly so_He loves his Country and is a zealot in its support__He has served Gov. Claiborne essentially.” One wonders if the writer happened to know that Jefferson was a distant cousin of Chew’s. Chew also was a kinsman of Mississippi territorial governor William C. C. Claiborne. Letters of the late 1700s and early 1800s between Jefferson, Coxe, and Dunbar make it look like Jefferson was at least partially responsible for placing Chew in New Orleans to assist Claiborne and learn about Spanish and French plans for the port city.

Claiborne named Chew a justice of the Court of Common Pleas at New Orleans in 1805, and a short time later, appointed him as first postmaster of New Orleans, a temporary position of a few months. This came after an incident in 1803 when the New Orleans City Council had barred Chew and Relf from importing West Indian slaves into the US, largely because when his own slaves were arrested for theft of some whiskey and tobacco from someone named Bond, Chew had admitted in court to accompanying the slaves that night. In 1805, Chew simply skirted the law by having slaves smuggled up the Bayou LaFourche to be sold  there, out of the court’s jurisdiction. The Laffites would later use the same bayou to transport both slaves and goods for smuggling into New Orleans, and may have studied the methods Chew had earlier employed.

“The firm of Chew & Relf …engaged in enterprises that circumvented the law. After the importation of African slaves was outlawed by federal law in 1808, they often acted as middlemen for other firms, some as distant as Charleston, S.C., that wished to import slaves….They used their business contacts with Spanish officials in West Florida to facilitate the landing of slave ships and the distribution of their cargoes at Mobile,” according to Junius P. Rodriguez, in The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia.

Chew counted among his close business associates John Forbes of West Florida, an internationally known trader of long-standing with the British. Forbes was a loyalist who had been with the well-entrenched West Florida frontier firm of Panton, Leslie & Co., earlier. He sold mostly trade goods which came from Britain, including guns, lead and gunpowder. He had a post at Mobile, from which goods could be sold to avoid the New Orleans duties. He was associated with Chew as both a personal friend and merchant through at least 1816.

Despite their often illegal smuggling and other questionable business activities, Chew and Relf never were charged with any crimes as they had their hands in almost every major New Orleans business: they were originators, original shareholders, and members of the board of directors of the New Orleans Insurance Co., insuring vessels, cargoes and specie. Plus they were exclusive agents of the London-based Phoenix Fire Insurance Co. Banking interests formed a major part of their portfolios: Chew was on the board of directors of the Bank of the United States New Orleans branch as well as major stockholder of the Bank of Louisiana. Additionally, in 1805, Chew was on the board of directors of the US Bank of Philadelphia branch at New Orleans along with his good friend Thomas Callender.

Phoenix Fire Insurance which Chew & Relf sold

Chew and Relf had started their New Orleans Anglo-American empire quite early, in 1801, when they joined with land speculator and business dynamo Clark. They dealt in goods for Reed and Forde of Philadelphia, freighted and leased vessels to St. Domingue, Bordeaux and London; received English goods on consignment, and bought and sold staples and groceries on their own account. In one deal, William Dunbar forwarded 3,000 pounds sterling in notes on London endorsed by Chew and Relf to a Charleston, S.C. slave trader as half down, with the balance paid to Chew and Relf. They had a store on St. Louis Street, between Royal and Chartres streets, which served as a “one-stop” shop for a myriad of needs.

According to historian Ernest Obadele-starks in Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States, “Chew and Relf were part of a solidly entrenched business circle that dominated the town (New Orleans) politically, set its social tempo, and controlled economic development by legal, extralegal or illicit means.”

Chew’s British business connections remained solid through all of the War of 1812, but oddly no one in New Orleans ever questioned his loyalties. When almost every other trader was financially hard hit by embargoes and British blockades of US seaports, Chew & Relf did not suffer major losses, not even when their financial backer, Daniel Clark, unexpectedly died in 1813.

In 1810, Chew had increased his political power in the city by marrying Maria Theodore Duer, a relative of the immensely powerful Livingston family of New York, and a cousin to Edward Livingston of New Orleans.

President James Madison appointed Chew as vice consul for Russia at New Orleans in July, 1812, to handle commercial reciprocity between US and Russia since Russia was said to take a favorable view of the American effort to defend neutral shipping rights. Madison either overlooked or was unaware of Chew’s ties to British concerns.

Sensing that the war between the US and England might prove problematic to his business interests, Chew tried to hedge his bets by pushing westward with land speculation in Louisiana. Rapides Parish records files of Oct. 24, 1812, show that Beverly Chew claimed a tract of four hundred acres of land on the left bank of Bayou Rapides, sold to him by a man named Fulton, with the land having been inhabited and cultivated as required by law of the time. No records are available regarding what use Chew made of this property, nor if he later sold it to someone else.

In the summer of 1813, and while his backer Clark was ill, Chew decided to make a trip back east to visit relatives and business concerns in the Philadelphia and Virginia areas. On July 24, 1813, Chew, his wife, and their daughter arrived at Philadelphia from New Orleans on board the brig Astra, making the voyage following a stop in Havana in only eight days. They passed the British blockading squadron around the Cape Henlopen side, without incident as the ship was in ballast.

While Chew was gone from New Orleans, Relf took care of Clark, who died suddenly after appearing to be getting better. A second will which Clark had made disappeared immediately after his death, leaving his original 1811 will, which named Chew and Relf as his co-executors. Clark’s mother, Mary, was named sole inheritor in the original will, but she never received a penny of the estate. Chew and Relf claimed after paying debts and expenses due to wartime, there was no money left, but their business did not suffer any such losses, and no formal accounting of the estate expenses was ever made. The second, missing, will had named different executors and had given a major bequest to Daniel’s sole heir, a daughter named Myra. The controversy over the Clark estate and what happened to all the money would be the focus of an extended and famous Supreme Court battle waged by the Clark daughter, Myra Clark Gaines, in later years.

During the British invasion of Louisiana in 1814-1815 and subsequent Battle of New Orleans, Chew served as a volunteer rifleman under General Andrew Jackson in Beale’s Rifles.

In late 1816, Chew was appointed customs collector for the Mississippi River port at New Orleans following the resignation of P.L. B. Duplessis. He set to his new role with a special fervor against smuggling interests other than the ones which boosted his own bottom line.

Chew must have felt elated in August 1817 that finally he could do something to strike back at the Laffite brothers, considering they had interfered with his business concens for years in the New Orleans and Gulf Coast area. Now that they had set up a privateering enterprise just outside US territory at Galveston, Chew saw a way to convince Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford to get rid of the Laffite threat to commercial shipping heading to and from New Orleans.

The customs collector felt confidant he could sway Washington politicos to his wishes because for several years, he had been the top leader among the handful of business elite that controlled New Orleans and all the trade that plied the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. His new role as customs collector was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he manipulated directly or indirectly through banking, insurance, shipping, and trade interests.

In his lengthy letter to Crawford of August 1817, Chew pointed out, “I deem it my duty to state that the most shameful violations of the slave act, as well as our revenue laws, continue to be practiced, with impunity, by a motley mixture of freebooters and smugglers, at Galveston, under the Mexican flag; and being, in reality, little else than the re-establishment of the Barrataria (sic) band, removed somewhat more out of the reach of justice.…Among the most conspicuous characters…at Galveston, were many of the notorious offenders against our laws, who had so lately been indulged with a remission of the punishment, who so far from gratefully availing themselves of the lenity of the government to return to, or commence an orderly and honest life, seem to have regarded its indulgence almost as an encouragement to the renewal of their offences. You will readily perceive I allude to the Baratarians, among whom the Lafittes may be classed foremost, and most actively engaged in the Galveston trade, and owners of several cruisers under the Mexican flag. Many of our citizens are equally guilty, and are universally known to be owners of the same kind of vessels.”

(The Baratarians had been given presidential pardons for their aid and service to General Andrew Jackson in the concluding battles of the War of 1812, culminating with the Jan. 8, 1815, Battle of New Orleans, a decisive victory against the British forces, due in no small part to the skill of the Baratarian gunners and the flints and powder provided by the Laffites.)

Chew proceeded to go on at length about the supposed crimes and revenue avoidance perpetrated by the Galveston parties, which is ironic, as it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. No one in Washington knew it, but Chew himself had long been a very successful coordinator of smuggling slaves and goods in the New Orleans area, West Florida territory, and southern seaboard. He had started early: between 1804 and 1807, he and his longtime business partner Relf had sold around 430 slaves, many of which were obtained via illegal channels. Almost all had been smuggled.

As a customs agent, Chew benefitted from the fees collected at customs, while at the same time he also participated in his own smuggling operations. He frequently overlooked slave importations any time he could profit personally. Although he ordered that all ships arriving from the Laffites’ base at Galveston be searched, it was not because they were importing goods into New Orleans, but because he suspected that they were not authorized by the Mexican government as privateers. Without a valid letter of marque or commission, the ship and cargoes could be seized by the customs agents, and Chew, of course, would profit.

Secretary of Treasury William Crawford outlined specific instructions for the conduct of US revenue officers which Chew zealously overstepped whenever it suited him. Crawford wrote “While I recommend, in the strongest terms, to the respective officers, activity, vigilance, and firmness, I feel no less solicitude that their department may be marked in prudence, moderation and good temper. Upon these last qualities, not less than the former, must depend the success, usefulness, and consequently, the continuance of the establishment, in which they are included. They will always remember to keep in mind, that their countrymen are freemen and, as such, are impatient of every thing that bears the mark of the domineering spirit. They will, therefore, refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult…They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perserverance in their duty__by address and moderation rather than by vehemence or violence.” Crawford’s express intent that smugglers be treated in a gentlemanly manner was blithely ignored by Chew.

Chew’s series of letters to Crawford about the Laffite problem at Galveston went on to discussion at Washington, with Congress reviewing documents in January 1818 consisting mostly of Chew’s complaints about Jean Laffite’s occupation of Galveston Island and how he was using it as a base to launch attacks against shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, plus the “pirates” were engaged in smuggling slaves into the United States. John Quincy Adams followed Chew’s invective avidly, agreeing that after Louis Aury left, Galveston became, “indisputedly” piratical in nature. Adams further went on to publish diatribes in the press under his pen name Phocion in which he called Galveston an “association of adventurers, renegades and desperadoes from the four corners of the earth, whose sole aim was the indiscriminate plunder of commercial shipping.” Adams asserted the right of the US to “constitute itself the protector of its own seas and protest the renewal of the scenes of horror such as when ‘Lafitte’ held Barataria.”

Monroe came out with a presidential proclamation about Galveston and Aury’s new base at Amelia Island, but he repeatedly suspended orders to seize Galveston, which must have made Chew apoplectic with anger.

When US authorities finally did move against Galveston in early 1820, it was not with warships, but diplomacy through Commodore Daniel T. Patterson of New Orleans, with encouragement to end the privateering establishment there. Beset by turmoils within and without Galveston from others, the Laffites left voluntarily, with a safe conduct pass from Patterson. They didn’t leave because the US wanted them to go: they went because privateering was becoming much less profitable and the captains who served them were turning more unmanageable.

Chew’s friends back in New Orleans, however, took the news as a sign of their custom agent’s political clout to get things done. Even two years later, in 1822, his friends were still crowing about how Chew had almost single-handedly vanquished Galveston, as evidenced in this editorial in the Louisiana Advertiser:

“The banditti who infested Galvestown (sic), and the coast of Western Louisiana have been driven away by the vigilance of our officers and, we do not believe, there is at this moment a piratical rendezvous from the Cape of Florida to the Isthmus of Darien…They have been totally expelled from the American shore by the vigilance of our collector, his subordinate officers, and our small naval force. As resulting from the prostration of the ancient system of smuggling and the breaking up of the haunts of the villains who were engaged in it, the principles of an honourable and legitimate commerce begin to flourish. We have thus traced the progress of this improvement in our character, and amelioration of our commercial morality; and for their instrumentality in producing such results we openly affirm that Beverly Chew, and the officers under the control of his department, are eminently entitled to the lasting gratitude of the citizens of New Orleans, and of every honest inhabitant of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Chew did not stop engaging in  illegal activities just because he had become a well-respected port collector. According to Obadele-starks, “In June 1824 Chew authorized the ship Ceres to enter New Orleans with slaves despite the fact its crew presented no manifest. In 1825, he informed the New Orleans major of his intent to allow a free African family from Port au Prince into Louisiana although they lacked the legal documents to enter the country.” Additionally, Chew turned a blind eye to some other slave cargoes in that time, especially when the owners were friends and fellow church members of his.

Chew had served as collector for over 12 years when new President Andrew Jackson refused to re-appoint him, naming another New Orleanian in his place in 1829. Jackson’s chief of surgery during the campaign against the British, New Orleans physician Dr. David C. Kerr, recalled that “So virulent was Chew in his opposition to Jackson, that he even refused permission to hoist a flag on the church of which he was vestryman or to have bells rung on the 8th of January” in honor of Jackson’s great victory. The antipathy between the men could possibly be explained by the fact that in 1828 while still customs collector, Chew had been unanimously elected president of the United States Bank of New Orleans. Jackson was extremely opposed to the US Bank.

Even though Chew was employed as a bank president after his dismissal, his cronies lamented Jackson’s cruelty in casting him aside in his old age. According to the May 18, 1829 issue of the Courrier de la Louisiane, a group of Chew’s friends gathered together at the Exchange Coffeehouse to express their “regrets at the removal of that gentleman as collector” with Thomas Urquhart acting as chairman and John Hagan, secretary. They lauded Chew to the highest degree, saying he was a skillful, able and efficient officer as collector at the port of New Orleans; that he always had at heart the interest of the government, and the punctual observance of the laws; and that he had endeared himself to the public by his constant and strict attention to these interests; and by his gentlemanly deportment.

The friends said “we sympathize with him that after so many years devoted to the public service, he retires into private life without fortune, and with a large family, dependent upon everyone, that at his late period of life, must find new channels, through which to earn them a support,” and agreed to gather subscriptions from the public sufficient to offer Chew a suitable present upon which shall be inscribed “what their hearts may dictate as our feeling and their judgment.”

Chew stayed in the banking industry, resigning from the Second Bank of the U.S. to become cashier of Canal and Banking Co. of Louisiana in 1831. A year later, in 1832, he assumed the presidency of that financial institution.

He still kept his old ways about meddling in land speculation while he had some money and power, as in 1836, he was a member of the Texas filibusters group called the Native American Association, involved in the Texas revolution to seize lands from Spain.

From 1834 until the end of his life, in 1851, Chew would be plagued with lawsuits and trials over the Daniel Clark will and the unsettled rights of Daniel’s daughter, Myra Clark Gaines, to her inheritance. The tangle of legal testimony and lawyers would reach all the way to the Supreme Court and become one of the longest running cases in history (it ended in 1891), but neither Chew nor Relf would ever present a word of testimony in court, letting their attorneys handle it all.

The collective attorney fees and court expenses ate through whatever financial gains Chew had had, so that by his death, he had hardly anything in his estate to leave his heirs. Probate records show that Chew died with no funds to afford his children a “liberal education,” and advised them to sell ten lots of land in Lafayette, Jefferson Parish. The land speculator who had once held the purse-strings of New Orleans and ruled the city’s business for over 30 years died virtually broke.

In a coda to this story, Chew’s remains are not still at rest in the Girod Street Cemetery in New Orleans where he was entombed. Due to severe vandalism, in 1957 that cemetery was deconsecrated and all the remains were relocated in an anonymous mass tomb at Hope Mausoleum in New Orleans. The site of Chew’s first tomb is now beneath the Superdome parking garage.

The Letter That Tried to Scuttle the Baratarians’ Pardon

October 10, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History


Poindexter Letter To Monroe

Poindexter Letter To Monroe

If George Poindexter had been Sec. of War or President during the end of the War of 1812, the Laffites and Baratarians would never have been pardoned for their past smuggling offenses even though they had given service and assistance to General Andrew Jackson at New Orleans.

Poindexter, who served as a volunteer aide de camp with Major General Carroll at Chalmette, took time away from his role as a judge at Natchez, Miss., to assist Jackson in defending New Orleans from invading British forces.

As soon as he returned home to Natchez, he wasted no time in firing off a confidential letter about his New Orleans experiences to his friend, Sec. of War James Monroe. The content about the pardon process is interesting as it contains some new information:

“Even a band of pirates was drawn into our ranks who were under prosecution of their crimes, and who had been invited to join the British while they occupied the Island near Lake Barataria. You will I hope sir, pardon me for stating to you, the manner, the circumstances of their transition from piracy to Patriotism, in the notorious Lafitte and his banditti. Edward Livingston, whose character is better known to you than myself, had contrived to attach himself and one or two of his adherents to the staff of Genl Jackson, as Volunteer Aids DeCamp (sic). The pirates had previously engaged him as their counsel to defend them in the District Court of the United States at New Orleans, and were by stipulation to give him the sum of twenty thousand dollars in case he succeeded in acquitting them. Knowing as he did that the evidence against them was conclusive, and that an impartial jury necessarily convict them, he advised the leaders of them to make a tender of their services to Genl Jackson in case he would come under a pledge to recommend them to the clemency of the Executive of the United States. Their services were accepted, and the condition acceeded to. How far the country is indebted to them for its safety it does not become me even to suggest an opinion. It is, however, a fact perfectly well known that their energy has been drawn by Mr. Livingston, their counsel; and there can be but little doubt that everything of an official stamp which is presented by the government respecting them, will emanate from the same source. If they are redeemed from  Judicial investigation of their crimes with which they stand charged, his reward will be twenty thousand dollars of their piratical plunderings.

What the practice of Civilized Governments has been on similar occasions I am not fully prepared to say, nor do I remember an instance where pirates falling into the Country and under the power of one belligerent, have been offered protection and pardon of their offences, in case they would take up arms against the other belligerent. They are considered as enemies alike to both belligerents but I have thought it a duty incumbent on me as a good citizen to state the facts which came within my knowledge, as to the motives which led to the employment of these men, without intending them to have any other, than the weight which is your Judgment they merit.

It would seem to be an obvious inference from the past conduct of this band of robbers that if Louisiana should be again invaded, and they are enlarged, they would be restrained by no moral obligation from affording facilities to the Enemy.

I indulge the hope that you will pardon the freedom with which I address you on the present occasion, from a recollection, that when I last had the honor of an interview with you in Washington, you were so good as to allow me the liberty of writing to you confidentially. In that light, I wish you will view this communication, in so far as it may conflict with the wishes and opinions of General Jackson, relative to the grant of a pardon to the pirates, whom he has thought fit to employ in our service.”

Signed, George Poindexter

Poindexter’s rather snippy revelation about Livingston’s fee for representing the Baratarians may or may not have been true. It could have just been battlefield hearsay. If the fee was really $20,000 in 1814 dollars, it would be the close equivalent to $200,000 today.

The letter implies but does not say that Livingston influenced Jackson to accept the Baratarians’ service as a way to ensure he would get his enormous fee. Poindexter hatefully says “it does not become me even to suggest an opinion” relative to the Baratarians’ contribution to the safety of the country. He conveniently forgets the vital contribution of the Laffite flints and powder to Jackson, plus the Baratarian cannoneers’ service. Without them, Poindexter likely would have found himself cooling his heels in a British prison ship on Feb. 5, 1815, instead of comfortably at home in his Natchez mansion.

Thankfully, however, Poindexter’s letter was much too late to even have a chance to stop the presidential pardons for the Baratarians. The same day Poindexter wrote his letter, Monroe sent a letter to Gov. Claiborne enclosing the signed pardons. They had been rushed through the pardon process at record speed, especially considering President James Madison and his cabinet were basically dislocated in Washington at the time and conducting business somewhat haphazardly from various houses. By the time Poindexter’s letter was in Washington, the pardons were in Gov. Claiborne’s hands.

There also happened to be another reason the pardons were accelerated: Monroe was secretly something of an ally to the Laffites and their men, through their mutual friend, Fulwar Skipwith, president of the Louisiana State Senate in 1814, and former President of the short-lived Republic of West Florida in 1810.

Along with Magloire Guichard, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Louisiana state legislature, Skipwith had sponsored a resolution to grant amnesty to “the privateers lately resorting to Barataria, who might be deterred from offering their services for fear of persecution.” This was done around mid December 1814, not long before General Jackson shut the legislature down due to civil unrest within it. Skipwith must have informed Monroe about this very soon after it happened, with Jackson accepting the services of the Baratarians who were freed from prison, plus others who had not been caught in the September 1814 raid on Barataria, like the Laffite brothers. Due to wartime blockades of sea traffic by the British, letters had to be sent by post rider back east, with the time to delivery often being as much as a month or more. The request for presidential pardons from James Madison must have been made before the Battle of New Orleans, given that Monroe enclosed the pardons in his letter to Claiborne on Feb. 5, 1814.

The real reason the presidential pardons were fast-tracked lies in an understanding of the web of influence and political power between the Laffites, Skipwith, and Monroe. Even if Poindexter’s letter trying to defuse any possibility of pardons for the Baratarians had been received in time for consideration, in all probability it would never have been read by President Madison.

Monroe and Skipwith were old friends, from at least their days together in France, where Monroe was ambassador in 1795 when he named Skipwith to be the US Consul-General to France. Both men worked in the Napoleonic court together, fine tuning the Louisiana Purchase. Both men were Masonic brothers. Also, both men shared strong ties to Thomas Jefferson, Skipwith by relation as a distant cousin, and Monroe as a neighbor and very close friend.

There is a question of how Skipwith became associated with the Laffites. The most likely manner occurred not long after the Virginian moved to a plantation in Spanish West Florida in 1809. He started running privateers, at about the same time the Laffites were setting up their own smuggling and privateering business. No paper proof has been found linking them, but the actions of Skipwith in 1814 favorable to the Laffites would seem to indicate that they were, indeed, associates of some kind. Thus the Laffites had friends in some very high places.

Only a handful of Baratarians ever retrieved their pardons. The Laffites never applied or received any. Nor did Dominique Youx, the main gunner at Battery No. 3, or Renato Beluche, also a gunner at Battery No. 3.

As for what happened to George Poindexter, the man who wanted to deny pardons to the Baratarians despite their service to Jackson, he became the second governor of Mississippi and had a moderately successful political career.

Skipwith and Monroe kept up their correspondence for several years and apparently were lifelong friends.

For further reading about the hidden gems of early American history, I heartily recommend perusing Daniel Preston’s fine “A Comprehensive Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of James Monroe.” Thanks go to him for providing the Poindexter letter copy from the Monroe Papers. For more about Fulwar Skipwith, the man with the memorable name, and the Republic of West Florida, see William C. Davis’ “The Rogue Republic, How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American History.”






John Dick’s Letter To Monroe Honoring the Baratarians

August 4, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Texas History


John Dick letter to James Monroe

John Dick letter to James Monroe

John Dick, US District Attorney for Louisiana in 1815, was a man with a conscience, a strong devotion to what was fair and just, even when it conflicted with an earlier opinion that he had fostered. He had a keen sense of respect for those who had earned special consideration, like the Laffites and the Baratarians with their service and supplies in the battles against the British below New Orleans.

Even after President James Madison gave a blanket pardon to all the Baratarians who had served, Dick wanted to make sure that the powers that be in Washington knew exactly the extent of the privateersmen’s help, so he sat down at his New Orleans desk on March 17, 1815, and wrote a letter detailing the events to Secretary of State James Monroe.

It is nothing less than astonishing that Dick wrote about the Baratarians at all, considering when he had been a practicing attorney earlier, they had been thorns in his side in courtroom battles, to the extent that a man of lesser character would be loath to praise at all those from the “Isle of Barataria.” Dick had, after all, been the attorney for Commodore Daniel T. Patterson and Col. George T. Ross in their court actions the fall of 1814 for proceeds from ships and goods seized during the US raid against Grande Terre of September 1814. Moreover, Ross was Dick’s best friend.

Plus during that same fall of 1814 as the winds of war blew toward New Orleans from Great Britain, Dick had grown so exasperated by the actions of former district attorney John Grymes who had chosen to represent the Baratarians, that he openly insulted Grymes by accusing him of having been “seduced out of the path of honor and duty by the bloodstained gold of pirates.” Grymes responded by challenging him to a duel, in which both were wounded, Dick with a shot to one thigh, and Grymes with a shot to one calf.

Thus not only had Dick been against the Baratarians in court, he had even been wounded in a duel because he had insulted their attorney!

So why did Dick write to Monroe in favor of the Baratarians in March of 1815, most particularly since his friend Ross had just left New Orleans for Washington to petition Congress for monies acquired from the raid on Barataria? At the time, the Laffites were seeking restitution of these same monies in New Orleans court.

Dick heard the Laffites and Baratarians’ side in the court system,and although he took no action in New Orleans in their favor, he deliberately wrote to the secretry of state and went against the stance of Ross, who had just left New Orleans for Washington to petition Congress for monies acquired from the September 1814 US raid on Barataria. The district attorney obviously thought Ross’ motives for profiting off of the raid were personally unsettling, and wanted Washington to know the truth, least that truth be lost in the flurry of post-battle self-aggrandisements among others who had served with Major General Andrew Jackson at the plains of Chalmette. It reflects great resolve on Dick’s part that he took such an action considering he had a permanent limp from that duel he had fought regarding his insult to the Baratarians’ lawyer just a few months’ previous.

Dick’s letter to Monroe, now in the National Archives, came to light some 200 years later during a search for another research topic. Daniel Preston, editor of the wonderful annotated Complete Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of James Monroe (2001), kindly made a full copy of Dick’s letter available.

Dick begins his letter by acknowledging receipt of a letter from Monroe of Feb. 8, 1815, along with a copy of James Madison’s presidential pardon of the Baratarians.

“The measures which have already taken place with respect to some of the persons connected with the association lately existing at Barataria, and the reasons and authority upon which these measures were founded I should like the liberty to lay before you__

At the period of the late invasion of Louisiana, when the danger was imminent, and it had become necessary to call forth the whole means of the state to repel the invaders, strong appeal was made to Majr. General Jackson by the individuals composing the French volunteer companies on behalf of the Baratarians then in confinement. (Ed. Note: these men were taken during the Sept. 1814 raid on Grande Terre, Barataria, by the US forces under Patterson and Ross) These companies formed the most efficient force of the city, and they had, on this occasion, displayed great zeal, and manifested dispositions highly patriotick (sic). It was important that this spirit should be fostered and extended and no circumstance, it was imagined, could contribute more to these desirable ends than a compliance with the wishes thus expressed. [The Baratarians], although culpable, were brave, skilfull, and enterprising, and their associates were numerous, and their connexions (sic) extensive; it was felt, that, if to be depended upon, their personal exertions might be eminently useful, while their ardour and example would inspirit (sic) others.”

Dick continued that for the Baratarians’ conduct and reliability, “we had the assurances of a large and respectable portion of the community, guaranteed by their own national antipathies, domestic feelings, and private interests.”

After the state legislature passed a resolution along the same views as the French volunteers, Dick said on Dec. 18, 1814, everyone in confinement with offences “growing out of the unlawful association at Barataria” were freed.

“I need not say that the conduct of these men (Baratarians), throughout our late arduous and distinguished struggle, did not violate the confidence that was thus reposed in them. The commanding general has noticed their services,, and has done justice to them notwithstanding their circumstances.”

Dick said when he took office as district attorney in February 1815, he faced an unpleasant quandary as he felt it incumbent upon himself to prefer indictments upon presentments of the grand jury against the Baratarians, and it would have meant re-imprisoning those who had just served to help win the Battle of New Orleans. Dick wrote Monroe that such a move by the courts would have excited discontent in the community re the Baratarians “whose gallantry and patriotism had won the highest praise, and who deserved favors and indulgence even in their mistaken sympathies and opinions.”

He went on to say that he was “relieved from the embarassment arising from this apparent conflict of duty with policy and justice by the permit of a letter from the Attorney General of the United States addressed to his excellency Governor Claiborne, in relation to the Baratarians,which worked very satisfactorily and unequivocably, a disposition to lenity on the part of the President, even before the latter inducements to it existed.”

With such assurances of policy, Dick declared nolle prosequi in nine cases, including those of the Laffites and Dominique Youx, for offences growing out of the “unlawful establishment at Barataria.” (Nolle prosequi is the abandonment by a prosecutor of all or part of a suit or action in court.)

“It is a very Sensible Satisfaction to me to believe that my conduct in this subject has corresponded with the wishes and intentions of the Government; and that it has received, in addition to the sanction which immediately declared it, that contained in the President’s proclamation of the 6th of February,” Dick concluded.

A couple of weeks before Dick wrote his letter, and after the Baratarian indictments were dropped, Ross left New Orleans in March 1815 for Washington, D.C. to petition Congress with the help of a Congressional friend for the monies from the Barataria raid. The bill for the relief of Ross and Patterson was read for the first time in Congress on April 1816, a month before the sickly Ross died at a relative’s home in Pennsylvania. Jean Laffite went to Washington, too, but not until December 1815, when he wrote a letter to President Madison on Dec. 27 seeking recovery of the raid monies. Madison’s response is unknown, but at that time, he was not in Washington. On Feb. 22, 1817, President Madison signed into law an amended bill supported by Congress that directed the secretary of the treasury to pay Ross and Patterson $50,000 from the proceeds of the Barataria raid. It was, of course, too late for Ross. In his will, Ross directed Dick to see that the sum granted him from Barataria was paid to his wife and children in New Orleans, but proof that that happened is non-existent.

Dick quickly turned about once more in his estimation of the Baratarians and Laffites following the afterglow of the Battle of New Orleans, mostly due to piratical actions in the spring of 1815 by one of Laffite’s men, Vincent Gambie, who had been wounded in fighting on Jan. 8, 1815. He was unsuccessful in bringing Gambie to justice due to sympthetic jurists, but in late 1817 Gambie’s own men beheaded him with an axe following a dispute over money.

In 1819, prompted by an increasing turn of New Orleans public sentiment against the Laffites at their new base at Galveston, and the US capture of the Laffite’s newly acquired ship Le Brave after it seized a Spanish ship carrying American cargo  near La Balize, Dick successfully brought piracy charges against the captain and crew, the first time a Laffite ship had officially been found guilty of piracy. The captain and most of the crew were hanged in 1820, not long after the Laffites abandoned Galveston.

Dick married Mary Farar of Laurel Hill near Natchez in January 1820. By November of the same year, she died along with their stillborn child and her mother at the Dick’s vacation home at Bay St. Louis, victims of yellow fever. Dick also had it but recovered. Grief-stricken, he resigned his position as US Attorney and moved out of his opulent New Orleans house as it bore too many memories of his wife. However, US District Judge Dominick Hall died the next month , creating an opening, and President Monroe appointed Dick federal judge in New Orleans in 1821. In 1823, he married his first wife’s second cousin, Frances Ann Kenner. Their marriage would not last long. John Dick died April 23, 1824, of consumption.

In one of the strangest twists of the John Dick story, although he had felt the Baratarians deserved better treatment after their role in the Battle of New Orleans, he did not feel so warm-hearted to Jackson at the time, possibly due to his unconstitutional use of martial law in New Orleans, and the incarceration of Judge Hall. As soon as peace was declared, Dick indicted Jackson on charges of obstruction of justice for imprisoning Judge Hall when he had charged Jackson with contempt of court. When Jackson appeared in court for the indictment, he refused to answer interrogations, received a fine of $1,000, paid it and left the court, carried away by a cheering crowd of Baratarians. Years later, Jackson remembered Dick as his “sworn enemy,” but Dick actually revered Old Hickory. In his will, Judge Dick left a personal library which included four portraits on the walls, depicting George Washington, President James Monroe, Napoleon, and Jackson. Dick was a complex man with mutable ideals.


Nathaniel Pryor: the Unsung Veteran of the Battle of New Orleans

March 4, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Native American History

Three Forks area where Nathaniel Pryor had his trading post for the Osage Nation

Three Forks area where Nathaniel Pryor had his trading post for the Osage Nation



Among the American soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans, Capt. Nathaniel Pryor is one whose name shows up in no histories of that great battle. Oddly, Capt. Pryor, who served in the 44th Infantry under Col. George T. Ross, never received his rightful credit for participating, or even any special notice by Gen. Andrew Jackson. Pryor, of Virginia and Kentucky, is better known as one of the men who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and George Clark on their exploratory expedition of the Louisiana Purchase lands to the Pacific Ocean and back in 1804-1806.

He had joined the 44th Infantry Regiment August 30, 1813, as a first lieutenant, but did not go to New Orleans until September of that year. By Oct.1, 1814, he was promoted to captain, the highest post he would attain before he was honorably discharged June 15, 1815.

During the Battle of New Orleans, Capt. Pryor fought in the center of Line Jackson alongside his brothers, James Pryor and Robert Lewis Pryor, who had come to New Orleans with the Kentucky soldiers. They were placed alongside sharpshooters from Kentucky and Tennessee. Other Pryor relatives also were there, including his cousins Nathaniel Floyd, Thomas Floyd Smith and William Floyd Turley.

Pryor came to New Orleans late in 1813 from St. Louis, where he had earlier served as a special agent working for his old leader, Missouri Territory Governor Clark. He had done a secretive spying mission for Clark on Tecumseh’s camp at Prophetstown in 1811, and his report alerted Clark and Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison about the rapid advances Tecumseh was making in gathering various tribes to his cause against the white settlers. Pryor’s report was directly responsible for spurring Harrison and US forces to attack the Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana, when they burned Prophetstown to the ground in November 1811. Although Tecumseh was absent from that battle and soon rallied back, Harrison regarded the conflict as a success, and his name was so tied to it that Tippecanoe was used as a campaign slogan in his later successful bid for the US presidency.

After his discharge from the 44th, Pryor went to the Mississippi River trading center of Arkansas Post, where he operated a business with Samuel Richards for a time. After he won a permit to trade with the Osage Nation in 1817, he proceeded up the Arkansas River to the Three Forks area of the Verdigris, Neosho, and Arkansas watershed confluence, and set up a small trading post just above the mouth of the Verdigris River.

While at the Three Forks, he became friends with a fellow Indian trader, the legendary Sam Houston, during Houston’s days with the Cherokees at Wigwam Neosho. When an opening came up at the Indian Agency near Ft. Gibson, Pryor asked Houston to recommend him for the position. Houston sent letters to both Secretary of War Jonathan H. Eaton, and his old friend, Jackson, then the president of the United States.

On Dec. 15, 1830, Houston wrote from his home at the Wigwam Neosho, almost directly across from Ft. Gibson. He implored both Eaton and President Jackson to recognize Pryor’s past service to the country by awarding him the appointment as sub agent for the Osage Nation.

He reminded Jackson that Pryor served under him at the Battle of New Orleans as a captain in the 44th Regiment: “…a ‘braver’ man never fought under the wings of your Eagle. He has done more to tame and pacificate the dispositions of the Osages to the whites, and surrounding Tribes of Indians than all other men, and has done more in promoting the authority of the U. States and compelling the Osages to comply with demands from Colonel Arbuckle than any person could have supposed.”

“Capt. Pryor is a man of amiable character and disposition__of fine sense strict honor__perfectly temperate, in his habits__and unremitting in his attention to business,” wrote Houston.

Houston added on his last visit to Washington, D.C., Sec. of War Eaton had assured him that Pryor’s claim for the subagency post with the Osage Nation would be considered, yet another man was appointed, and Pryor was passed by.

“He (Pryor) is poor, having been twice robbed by Indians of furs and merchandise some ten years since…” wrote Houston. He stressed that the claim of Pryor to the subagency appointment was “paramount to those of any man within my knowledge, I can not withhold a just tribute of regard.”

Others also were struck by Capt. Pryor’s situation. General Thomas James, who met Pryor in August 1821 along the Arkansas near the present-day site of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was quite impressed by him, and disgusted by his poor recompense for past service.

“On the reduction of army after the war, he was discharged to make way for some parlor soldier and sunshine patriot, and turned out in his old age upon the ‘world’s wide common’! I found him among the Osages, with whom he had taken refuge from his country’s ingratitude and was living among them as one of their tribe, where he may yet be, unless death has discharged the debt his country owed him,” wrote James in his autobiographical book “Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans.”

Pryor finally was appointed sub agent for the Osages of the Verdigris on May 7, 1831. The man who had been appointed sub agent for all of the Osage Nation, D.D. McNair, was struck and killed by lightning while riding near his post on Jun 2, 1831. Pryor, who had been ill since December 1830, died June 10, 1831, at age 59 at the Union Mission Indian school located on the Neosho River about 25 miles north of the Three Forks junction.

Although Capt. Pryor never received proper honors from the US government for the roles he played in the Lewis and Clark expedition and Battle of New Orleans, his life was its own reward. He became a part of history the minute he became the first man to sign up for the Corps of Discovery. His brave spirit lives on in his namesake town of Pryor, located in northeastern Oklahoma in Mayes County, and his grave is nearby not far from Pryor Creek.

Money and fame never found Pryor, but he had been wealthy with adventures. He had traveled cross-country into the unknown to help forge a path on a dangerous trip of discovery; successfully spied on Tecumseh and his warring Indian tribes shortly before the War of 1812; nearly been burned alive in his home near Dubuque, Iowa, before escaping and fleeing hostile Indians by successfully jumping across ice floes in the Mississippi River; fought the British and helped win the Battle of New Orleans; pushed to the edges of the southwestern frontier on an expedition to Santa Fe in the early 1820s, and became a friend to the warring Osage Nation of Arkansas Territory. Few have led such a vibrant, action-filled life. Remarkably, he had gone through most of it partially disabled, as during the Lewis and Clark trip, he injured one of his shoulders so severely he had only limited use of one arm for the rest of his life.


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