You are browsing the archive for Caribbean History.

Bicentennial of Jean Laffite’s Takeover of Galveston Is April 8

April 7, 2017 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History, Texas History

Jean Laffite in front of an early 1800s map of the Galveston area.

Jean Laffite in front of an early 1800s map of the Galveston area.

Privateer Jean Laffite, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans, took control of the Island of Galveston in a bloodless coup two hundred years ago this April 8, taking the small pirate base which had been used by Louis-Michel Aury as a point from which to prey against Spanish shipping. Although he had ostensibly taken the island on behalf of Spanish interests, Laffite actually would use it as a camp from which to nettle Spanish shipping for both himself and his brother, Pierre Laffite, plus some of the same corsairs who had been with them some years previously at Barataria in Louisiana.

Aury had first arrived at Galveston in July 1816 and set up a small settlement of crude huts up on the rise of a sandy beach on the higher eastern end of the island. Galveston was a rawboned kind of place at the time, mostly marshland crawling with so many rattlesnakes washed there from the mainland that the island had earned the nickname “Isle of Serpents.”

On a secret mission for the Spanish, Jean Laffite had arrived at Galveston on March 23, 1817, to find six ships in the harbor: Aury’s corsair, Belona, the frigate Cleopatra (commanded by General Francisco Xavier Mina), two captured Spanish brigs, a schooner named General Victoria which had been captured by a corsair armed in New Orleans and commanded by John Davis, and another schooner in the anchorage which had been captured by the General Arismendi, captained by Renato Beluche, Laffite’s old friend from the Grande Terre days. Another former Baratarian associate also was among the captains atGalveston: Johnny Barbe en Feu, who commanded Aury’s armed sloop Congreso Mexicano.

In a diary Jean made as part of his Spanish spying record, he wrote that he spent two weeks at Galveston discussing matters with both Aury and with Aury’s fractious associate, General Mina, who wanted to invade Mexico and the control of it from Spain. The Spanish had sought the help of the Laffite brothers due to the problem of constant depredations by Aury-led corsairs in the Gulf of Mexico on Spanish merchant ships, and Padre Antonio de Sedella had recommended to Don Diego Morphy, Spanish vice consul at New Orleans, that the Laffites were the best men to fix the problem in lieu of a Spanish fleet of war vessels which the King of Spain did not send.

Aury and General Mina each wanted control of the Mexico invasion, but agreed to go together in separate ships with their men to accomplish their goal. They sailed from Galveston on April 7, 1817, but not before burning the huts onshore. Jean Laffite and about 40 men were left with a few ships.

According to Laffite’s diary, “Seeing the port was abandoned by Aury, and in order to better execute the project that John Williams [code name for Arsene Latour, Jean’s friend] and he had planned with No. 13 [Pierre Laffite’s code designation], they named officers and established the administration under their direction. No. 13-2 [Jean Laffite’s code name] has agreed to provide them with men and supplies and to send the supplies immediately from New Orleans in case something should prevent his bringing them himself.”

For the next week, Jean Laffite set up residence on Galveston, which he named Campeche. The men there rebuilt the burned huts, then met April 15, 1817, on the schooner Carmelita, which belonged to Barthelemy Lafon. There all but Jean Laffite signed a document of fealty called the Registry of Deliberations, pledging an oath of allegiance to the Republic of Mexico.

Aury returned to Galveston on May 4 to find to his surprise he had been overthrown as leader in his absence. Although he intended to still be recognized as governor and treasurer general of the settlement, his complaints fell on deaf ears so he sulked about it for a bit, then left for greener pastures, winding up at a new base at Amelia Island off the eastern coast of Florida. The men had remained resolute against Aury, even in Jean Laffite’s absence, as Jean had left April 18 for New Orleans to report to the new Spanish consul.

Pierre Laffite sailed to Galveston and managed the operation there for a few months, but the climate and conditions did not agree with his sickly disposition. Pierre returned to New Orleans, with Jean again assuming control of Galveston, where he would mostly stay. The Laffite Galveston privateering base would go through encroachments by French settlers with the Lallemand Expedition, a massive hurricane in September of 1818 that nearly wiped out the base, and finally, threats of naval action against Laffite and his men by the United States, even though Galveston was outside US territory on land claimed by Spain.

The worst thing of all occurred in late 1819, after Jean had built the settlement back up from the hurricane devastation: the crew of one of his ships, the Le Brave, was found guilty of piracy. A ship’s article paper onboard bore Laffite’s signature. It was the only time his name was ever evidentially connected with a piratical action. The Le Brave captain and some members of the crew were found guilty of piracy and hanged in New Orleans in 1820, shortly after Jean Laffite abandoned Galveston, setting fire to the place, including his Maison Rouge home. All that was left were ashes.

After a temporary incarceration in Cuba, Jean Laffite proceeded on to Carthagena, Colombia, where he became captain of the General Santander privateer ship for Bolivar, harassing ships in the Caribbean until reportedly dying as a result of injuries suffered in a sea battle with two Spanish ships in 1823. Pierre Laffite left New Orleans for the Isla Mujeres area, where he was reported to have been killed in a land battle.

If the Laffites could see their wild and wooly Galveston today, 200 years later, they would not recognize it, with a seawall protecting the Gulf side, a strip of tourist spots and swank hotels all along the beach zone, monster cruise ships at the bayside dock, ornate Victorian mansions in the interior and the Strand’s downtown business district. They’d find a Walmart offering low- dollar goods akin to items they once sold from captured ships, but for prices in the neighborhood of a sailor’s pay for a couple of month’s work in 1817. Would they be surprised to find that there is an historical social group honoring their memory, the Laffite Society, on the island? Perhaps. In the end, they would still recognize two things at Galveston: the waves of the eternal sea, and the glorious sunsets over the Gulf Coast. Some things never change.

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.


Yellow Fever: Napoleon’s Most Formidable Opponent

July 8, 2014 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, Louisiana History, Nautical History

By Pam Keyes


In mid-1802, French general Victor-Emmanuel LeClerc took up his pen to write back to his superior and sighed in the dripping, humid heat of Port-au-Prince. His brother-in-law, Napoleon, thought it would be an easy mission to quash the latest slave uprising on the island of Haiti and French-controlled colony St. Domingue. After all, he had sent 20,000 seasoned French troops to supplement the St. Domingue garrison and assist LeClerc in ending the terror on French planters and colonists caused by marauding black slaves and maroons hiding in the mountains around Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in the country. LeClerc himself had believed they would have the rebellion ended in a few months, but there was one factor they had failed to take into account, an infinitesimally small enemy that would kill more Frenchmen than all of the black rebels could ever have slain: the dreaded virus of yellow fever.

From 1802-1803, yellow fever at St. Domingue ravaged almost 50,000 French soldiers due to their lack of immunity to the disease, plus the medical ignorance of their doctors in ways to successfully treat a fever. The ports of St. Domingue, particularly the main one at Port-au-Prince, were surrounded by quagmires and swamps, prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes during hot and humid times of spring and summer. After being bitten by an Aedes aegypti mosquito carrying yellow fever, the victim would get either a mild or a severe form of the disease a week later. Symptoms included headaches, fever, muscle cramps, nausea, a black vomit, and in the worst cases, delirium, coma and death. At one point in early summer 1802, the men were dying at the rate of as many as 50 a day. LeClerc himself fell victim to the disease late in 1802. Children under 18 usually got the mild disease, and once they had had it, were immune for life, so the French planters’ children on the island were mostly safe, as were the natives of the island, and most of the slaves, who had acquired immunity in Africa. Safe also were older residents of the island who had had the mild form in their youths.

French fighting renegade slaves in Snake Gully area of St. Domingue in 1802

French fighting renegade slaves in Snake Gully area of St. Domingue in 1802

Some 20,000 additional French reinforcements were sent to supplement the surviving troops in late 1802, and LeClerc was replaced by General Rochambeau. By November, 1803, Rochambeau retreated to France with only 3,000 survivors. Almost twice as many French troops were felled by yellow fever on the island of Haiti than were slain in the Battle of Waterloo years later.

Napoleon reacted decisively to the slave insurrection victory due to the epidemic sickness of the French troops. He had met his match in a disease he couldn’t conquer, so he abandoned all ideas about expanding the empire into the Louisiana Territory of the US, and offered it for sale to the Americans for $15 million. The purchase agreement was signed in late 1803, doubling the US in size with a penstroke. Haiti declared its independence in 1804, becoming the first independent nation in Latin America.

Old map of Haiti

Old map of Haiti

In the end, the US benefitted greatly from the land, port of New Orleans and Mississippi River waterways additions; the French lost a major sugar-producing colony plus the chance for expansionism; and the slaves of St. Domingue (with the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines) accomplished the only successful slave revolt, all due to a microscopic virus that physicians could not properly treat nor understand at that point in history.

Commemoration of a Hero: Jean Laffite and the Battle of New Orleans

March 6, 2014 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History

A “Buccaneer” scene from the Battle of New Orleans, with Yul Brynner as Jean Laffite, at Battery No. 3.

Almost 200 years ago, privateer-smuggler Jean Laffite became a hero because he did something most people wouldn’t have done: in the face of extreme adversity, he had helped save New Orleans for the Americans, even though United States officers had destroyed his home base and seized his property a few months earlier.
Sometimes incorrectly regarded as a pirate, Laffite and his Baratarian associates were actually privateers sanctioned by the Patriot regime of Carthagena to prey on Royalist Spanish shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. They smuggled prize goods past customs at New Orleans through their base ports of both Cat Island and Grande Terre, providing low-priced goods to the populace through both auctions and other sales.
“Though proscribed by my adoptive country, I will never let slip any occasion of serving her, or of proving that she has never ceased to be dear to me” wrote Laffite to Louisiana legislator Jean Blanque on Sept. 4, 1814, in an enclosure that contained British letters he had received from Commodore Nicholas Lockyer of HMS Sophie the day before at Grande Terre. Laffite also said the British represented to him a way to free his brother Pierre from prison. Pierre had been incarcerated at the Cabildo in New Orleans since early summer 1814 after being arrested on a grand jury indictment.
Lockyer had tried to bribe Laffite to aid the British in their plans to seize New Orleans, but Jean had stalled for time about a reply, so he could advise the New Orleans authorities about the imminent threat. Lockyer told his superior, Capt. William Henry Percy, that his mission to secure ships and assistance from Laffite had met with “ill success.”
Blanque gave the letters, including Laffite’s, to Louisiana Governor W.C.C. Claiborne. Perversely, Claiborne’s advisory council decided to allow US Commodore Daniel Todd Patterson and Col. George Ross to proceed with a raid on Grande Terre. On the morning of Sept. 16, US ships and gunboats under the direction of Patterson and Ross blew up Laffite’s home and Grande Terre to bits, confiscated nine ships in the harbor, and all the goods they could find, from wine to German linen to exotic spices. They also pursued fleeing Baratarians, and imprisoned some 80 of them, including Dominique You, who had made sure that none of the Baratarians fired on the American vessels, per Laffite’s instructions.
Almost as soon as the British letters arrived in New Orleans, somehow Pierre escaped from jail and quickly rejoined his brother at Grande Terre, where he, too, wrote a letter to Claiborne to offer allegiance to the US.
Jean and his brother Pierre then had left Grande Terre to hide out at the LaBranche plantation on the German Coast, slightly upriver from New Orleans. They would remain fugitives until a short while after Gen. Andrew Jackson’s arrival at New Orleans in December. Jean was subject to arrest on sight following the raid.
So what did Laffite do right before the raid, and afterward? Here is what he says he did, in his own words, in a letter to President James Madison written Dec. 27, 1815:
“I beg to … to state a few facts which are not generally known in this part of the union, and in the mean time solicit the recommendation of your Excellency near the honourable Secretary of the treasury of the U.S., whose decision (restitution of the seized ships and items in the Patterson raid) could but be in my favour, if he only was well acquainted with my disinterested conduct during the last attempt of the Britannic forces on Louisiana. At the epoch that State was threatened of an invasion, I disregarded any other consideration which did not tend to its safety, and therefore retained my vessels at Barataria inspite of the representations of my officers who were for making sail for Carthagena, as soon as they were informed that an expedition was preparing in New Orleans to come against us.
“For my part I conceived that nothing else but disconfidence in me could induce the authorities of the State to proceed with so much severity at a time that I had not only offered my services but likewise acquainting (sic) them with the projects of the enemy and expecting instructions which were promised to me. I permitted my officers and crews to secure what was their own, assuring them that if my property should be seized I had not the least apprehension of the equity of the U.S. once they would be convinced of the sincerity of my conduct.
“My view in preventing the departure of my vessels was in order to retain about four hundred skillful artillerists in the country which could but be of the utmost importance in its defense. When the aforesaid expedition arrived I abandoned all I possessed in its power, and retired with all my crews in the marshes, a few miles above New Orleans, and invited the inhabitants of the City and its environs to meet at Mr. LaBranche’s where I acquainted them wih the nature of the danger which was not far off…a fews days after a proclamation of the Governor of the State permitted us to join the army which was organizing for the defense of the country.
“The country is safe and I claim no merit for having, like all inhabitants of the State, cooperated in its welfare, in this my conduct has been dictated by the impulse of my proper sentiments; But I claim the equity of the Government of the U.S. upon which I have always relied for the restitution of at least that portion of my property which will not deprive the treasury of the U.S. of any of its own funds.
Signed Jn Laffite”

Two French honey-colored flints from the Laffite cache at Chalmette

Two French honey-colored flints from the Laffite cache at Chalmette

Diagram shows how the stone flint was positioned in the lock mechanism of a gun.

Diagram shows how the stone flint was positioned in the lock mechanism of a gun.

The interesting thing about Jean’s letter to the President is he considered the aid of his veteran artillery personnel to be the most important contribution to the defense of New Orleans, and he says nothing at all about what was truly his most valuable aid to the Americans_the supply of some 7,500 desperately needed gun flints, flints which Gen. Andrew Jackson himself said later were the only ones he had during the battles against the British at Chalmette. Indeed, in a letter to a friend in 1827, Gen. Jackson flat out stated that the Laffite cache was “solely the supply of flints for all my militia and if it had not been for this providential aid the country must have fallen.”
For those unfamiliar with firearms of that era, most were muskets, fowling pieces, some Kentucky long rifles, and a variety of pistols, all with the flintlock firing mechanism. Flintlocks require small specially shaped squares of flint to spark the charge into the gunpowder to fire the lead shot. Without a flint, the weapon is useless save as a club, and indeed many pistols of the time were fortified with brass wrap-arounds on the stock to make them heavier towards that end. If Jackson’s men had no flints, they would have only had cannons, swords, knives, bayonets and guerilla style hand-to-hand fighting to fall back on, whereas the British were fully supplied with flints and firearms. The British would have easily routed Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans if Jackson’s troops could not have fired back at them. Jackson was correct in his assessment of the value of those flints, he was not exaggerating at all. Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest impacts.
It is not known exactly when Laffite delivered the flints to Jackson, but it was sometime after Dec. 22, as the Americans had insufficient flints during the night raid on the British camp on Dec. 23, and were seizing British weapons in that event.
On Dec. 22, Jackson sent Jean Laffite to the Temple area near Little Lake Salvador to assist Major Reynolds with blocking the bayous there, plus setting up fortifications on the ancient Indian shell mound area. He told Jean he wanted him back at Chalmette as soon as possible. On his way back to Jackson’s Line, Laffite and some of his men must have picked up the kegs of flints from a Laffite warehouse in New Orleans, or the immediate vicinity, as the flints were soon being distributed on Jackson’s line.
The combination of Laffite’s flints, the expert cannoneers Dominique You and Renato Beluche, Jackson’s tactical skills and leadership, and the logistical combined nightmare of the swampy ground and unusually cold weather proved overwhelmingly devastating for the British. The Battle of New Orleans was an extremely horrible defeat for them, as at the conclusion, the ground in front of Jackson’s Line at the Rodriguez Canal was called a literal “red sea” of the dead and dying English troops and officers.
The most prominent history of the New Orleans campaign is
”Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana” written by Jean Laffite’s friend and Jackson engineer Arsene Lacarriere Latour. There were some contemporary histories written by British participants in the New Orleans campaign. None of these say anything about receiving any type of assistance whatsoever from Jean Laffite, although British historian Tim Pickles of New Orleans makes the preposterous and undocumented claim that only Jean could have led the British through Lake Borgne to the Bayou Bienvenu. However, neither Jean nor Pierre were anywhere near that vicinity on Dec. 16, 1814. Some Spanish fishermen who knew those bayous thoroughly were there, because that’s where they lived. A few of them, named in Latour’s history, were the ones who aided the British, not either Laffite. History is the art of interpretation of the past, but facts are facts. Jean did not tell Lockyer he would help the British, he did not give them any ships or maps, or even geographical attack advice. He certainly didn’t stay neutral. His sentiments, as clearly stated in his letters in the archives, were wholly with the United States, his adoptive country, as proven by his actions.
In the end, the Laffites never got their ships back for free, or most of the goods that were taken in the raid. Ross had beaten Jean to the punch about approaching Washington authorities regarding proceeds from sales of the raid items, and he successfully lobbied for a congressional bill to approve the award to Patterson, Ross and their soldiers. That was not approved until 1817, by which time Ross had died, so Patterson was the one who benefitted from the $50,000 windfall.
Madison had promised the Baratarians a full pardon for anyone who fought for the US in the New Orleans campaign, but neither Laffite ever applied through the governor for one of these pardons. Medals, swords, and all sorts of praise were heaped on Gen. Jackson after Jan. 8, 1815, but the Laffites only got a few appreciative words from the general in newspaper articles.
Chalmette Battlefield is now a part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, and it will celebrate the 200th anniversary of that glorious victory day on Jan. 8, 1815. Let’s hope the ceremonies include some recognition of Jean Laffite, Pierre Laffite. and the Baratarians. It would be the proper and fitting thing to do.

Was the Journal of Jean Laffite an Original, a Copy or a Forgery?

October 19, 2013 in American History, Ancient History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Texas History


This photo of the Laffite family copybook on the left and the Journal of Jean Laffite n the right was contributed by Pam Keyes. Both documents were acquired by the Sam Houston Regional Library from John A. Laffite.

What is the difference between a forgery and a copy? How can you tell something is a good copy of an original document and has not been altered? And if it is, indeed, a copy, how do you go about recognizing alterations in the copied document? What is the distinction between a facsimile and just a copy, and is every good forgery a facsimile?

These are questions that come up over and over again in life. Sometimes people rely on physical evidence to determine the age of a document, based on the age of the papyrus it is written on or the ink it is written in. If it’s a clay tablet, carbon dating can help establish its age.

But the age of a copy is not conclusive when it comes to the question of when the original might have been written. Here is one example: we have many, many copies of the Old Testament. But we have no original. That does not mean that there was no original; it may have been written so long ago that it would have been destroyed by now, and the only reason we know about it is because of the copies. It is also possible that the original of some or all of the books was not written down but passed orally from one generation to the next, so that the scribe or scribes who first wrote it down were not the authors of the text. The original might have been a sequence of memorized words that passed from one living brain to the next until someone transcibed it. Once transcribed, this text was copied extensively. The copies were not forgeries. They were not meant to pass for originals. They were merely meant to transmit and preserve the text. Copies are all we have.

The copies were made by scribes, and their job was to write down word for word, letter by letter the same things as the scribe who came before them did. But sometimes a scribe made an error. Sometimes the error is so obvious that any modern reader of Hebrew could point it out and correct it, as if it were a typo. But because the scribes were sworn to copy exactly what was written and not add or subtract a jot, when they spotted an error, they just kept copying it word for word, letter for letter. Over the generations, quite a few errors accumulated.

In addition to all this, since the Old Testament is composed of more than one book, written at more than one time, by more than one author, there are arguments about which books are more authentic or which are just something that got inserted much later and really does not belong there. And also, some things have been intentionally altered by later scribes to go along with changing social mores and religion. Biblical scholars often have to use document-internal evidence to try to ferret out what is what. And the discovery of an older copy, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Kaifeng Scrolls, which may have been less open to more modern tampering, can shed some light on what the original is more likely to have been like.

Having established that authorship and scribeship are separate issues, we should also take into account the difference between the copy of a document’s textual content and a facsimile copy which is meant to represent exactly how the original document looked, even though it is not the original.

In the case of the Old Testament, scholars now understand that when the text was first set down in writing, it could not have been in the Assyrian script in which Hebrew is currently written, which was borrowed from Aramaic and imported into use for Hebrew after the Babylonian exile. Instead, early Hebrew was written in letters more nearly resembling the ancient Phoenician alphabet. But as much as the letters were different in appearance, it was still the same alphabet with a one to one correspondence of symbols to symbols. Hence the text has come down to us letter by letter transcribed, though the letters look entirely different from those in the original. The text matters. What it looks like, considering that there is no original, does not matter. Nobody claims that any of the scrolls that we currently have access to, however ancient, is a facsimile copy of an original.

In all these cases, none of the copies are deemed to be forgeries, just because they are not original. Forgery, for the purposes of this discussion, would only occur if a modern person tried to create an older looking scroll and pass it off as something that it is not. But even in the event of such an attempt, most of the text would still be an accurate copy of another copy. The thing that would make it a forgery would be trying to pass a new copy off as an old copy. It would not change the document’s validity as some sort of copy of a very old document that no one currently living has ever seen the original of.

The Old Testament is not the only book to be subject to this kind of scrutiny or to require this type of analysis. Many a copied document can be found which has no original extant, and all can be subjected to the same type of analysis.

Take what is commonly known as “The Journal of Jean Laffite.” Ostensibly this was an original document presented by John A. Laffite, aka John Andrechyne Laflin, aka John Nafsiger or John Matejka, as the original, unaltered one and only journal of the famed privateer. Some have claimed it to be a forgery, created by the man who presented the document to the public. But even if it is a forgery, what exactly would that mean to those who are interested in the text rather than in the artifact in which the text is embedded?

The Journal as an artifact is a kind of notebook written upon by an ink pen, with a number of old newspaper clippings inserted within, and with some drawings and other extraneous matters. To determine its age would allow us to know if it was written at the same time as the text purports to have been written, but it does not tell us who is the author of the text, nor when the text was composed.

Composing a text and writing it down are two very different things. In some cultures, oral texts are passed on from one generation to another until one day someone writes them down. The person who transcribes these oral texts is not the author. That person is merely a scribe. Authentication of the text, in the event the scribe is suspected of having invented it, involves finding other versions of the same text elsewhere, circumstantial evidence of the existence of the text that long predates the writing and also text internal evidence that indicates through linguistic cues just how old the text really is.

In determining whether the Journal of Jean Laffite text is a hoax devised in the twentieth century or a genuine text from the period and by the person it is ascribed to, here are some of the issues that must be addressed:

  •  The language in which it is written: in this case, a Creole French patois common to the Cuba-Haiti islands sprinkled with some hispanicisms. According to linguist Gene Marshall, who studied and translated it, the writing is in a style common before 1850.
  • The spelling and other idiosyncracies not common to all writers of the dialect.
  • The story it tells in terms of its detail and accuracy.
  • Whether it is similar to other such documents, if any are available
  • The voice of the author or narrator, and whether it conforms to the voice of other available documents known or believed to be written by Jean Laffite in the latter part of his career.
  • The handwriting, but not necessarily as proof of scribeship or authorship, but as possibly pointing to the author or the scribe of the original document, in the event that it is a forgery.

If the text is genuine, but the particular copy which we have available at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center is not the original or not of concurrent age with the text, then it may well be a financial loss to the institution that purchased it, as its market value would be greatly reduced. But its value as a historical text would in no wise be diminished, if the sequence of words that it enshrines is a genuine and authentic transcription of a text whose author was the privateer Jean Laffite. That is the difference between the value of a forgery and the value of an accurate copy of a text.

It is said that John Andrechyne Laflin, aka John A. Laffite, aka John Nafsiger, did not speak French at all. It is said that those French speakers he had access to were not speakers of that dialect of French used in the Journal. It is known that there was not just one copy of the journal but at least two, as another copy was lent to Madeleine Fabiola Kent, who used it as background information when writing her novel The Corsair. If all these facts are true, and if indeed it were to turn out that John A. Laflin/Laffite/Nafsiger did copy the text of the Journal of Jean Laffite in a hand that looks very much like that of the famous privateer’s, then he could not have been its author, though he may have been a forger. If he was a forger, what did he forge? A copy of an original. But the very existence of the copy tends to corroborate the existence of an original.

How could a man who did not read or write French forge a document in a French Creole? One way is if he was indeed an expert artist, by looking at the original not as a text at all, but as a picture that must be copied line by line, angle by angle, correctly, much in the way a photocopier duplicates a text or a photo without understanding what it is copying. To do this, a forger has to be a great savant or a great artist. There is no evidence that John Andrechyne Laflin/Laffite/Nafsiger had that kind of skill or talent. Even if he did, the Journal of Jean Laffite is probably not a facsimile copy of the original journal, because it incorporates genuine newspaper clippings into the notebook in which the journal is copied.

Even if there was no forgery, and the document known as the Journal of Jean Laffite was actually written by the hand of Jean Laffite himself, it is still a copy. There is nothing blotted out. The text flows without interruption. Clearly this is a composed text whose composition took place elsewhere than in this notebook. The copy we have is just a copy. And there were other copies, for it was Jean Laffite’s stated intention to leave a copy for each of his grandchildren, of whom there were several.

When examining the Journal of Jean Laffite for purposes of proving its authenticity or lack of same, it is also good to keep in mind the following basic rules of thumb:

  • Though Jean Laffite may be the author, this does not mean that everything he wrote was true – or for that matter, that anything he wrote was true. People have been known to prevaricate when telling the story of their lives. They have even been known to misremember. Therefore, finding an inaccuracy or historical untruth does not necessarily cast doubt on the authenticity of the text.
  • If the language of the text is very different in one or more sections than in the body of the work, it is more likely that those parts are not part of the original document but were added or embellished upon later.
  • Suspected alterations should be judged by the four corners rule for document interpretation: the internal consistency of the document will determine what parts must be errors or extraneous.

A forgery is an attempt to create a facsimile copy that passes for an original. A forged signature, for instance, to be effective, needs to duplicate an original signature almost identically. A copy that is not a forgery is merely the transmission of a text through duplication. It need not look the same in its typography or handwriting. Sometimes a copy is also a forgery. But being a forgery does not necessarily prove that a copy is a bad copy. In fact, the better the forgery, the more a copy resembles the original.

REFERENCES (For background on Jean Laffite scholarship.) (About Forgery and the artistry it involves) (Gene Marshall Translation and commentary) (For what the Hebrew letters used to look like during the period when the Hebrew Bible was first written down.)

An Interview with Pam Keyes about Jean Laffite

September 30, 2013 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, Louisiana History, Texas History


  • Pam Keyes is the Research Coordinator of the Laffite Society and a well known expert on the history of Jean Laffite and of the artifacts and written evidence that are available on the life of the famous privateer. In this interview, I asked her questions concerning Jean Laffite that have been preoccupying me for some time.

Pam discusses her own history with the Laffite Society and its precursors, the primary documents that she has examined herself that pertain to Jean Laffite, the evolution of Jean Laffite’s signature, the controversial Journal of Jean Laffite, and the way Jean Laffite may have viewed himself.


  1. Could you tell us a little of how you came to know about Jean Laffite and to take an interest in his life story?

I first came across Jean Laffite when I was nine years old and my parents and I went to a double feature movie in 1964 at the drive-in featuring the 1958 “The Buccaneer” along with Danny Kaye’s movie “The Five Pennies.” I was quite enthralled by the movie (not to mention the extreme charisma of Yul Brynner who played Jean Laffite) and the message of how Laffite helped the Americans even after they blew Barataria to bits. There was even a Classics Illustrated comic book about the movie which I got at the neighborhood grocery store that week, and well, everything just sort of snowballed from there. Of course I found out from the encyclopedia that the movie had been romanticized by DeMille, and there was no governor’s daughter, nor Corinthian pirated American ship, etc., but the basic story was true. 

My local library had a couple of books about the Battle of New Orleans in the children’s section, but nothing else. When I got a bit older, around 11 or 12, I found Madelyn Fabiola Kent’s novel “The Corsair” in the adult section, and read it voraciously. I did not know at the time that Ms. Kent had used one of the Jean Laffite journals for background information for her novel. Puberty hit, and my interest in Laffite dropped off by the wayside until I was around 15, when I started looking for more about Laffite. This was not easy to do, considering I lived in Oklahoma, some 750 miles from New Orleans, and at the time there was no such thing as the internet, only letters.

In Antique Trader’s newspaper which the library carried, I found a classified ad listing a copy of Stanley Arthur’s “Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover,” and purchased it. I remember it was quite exciting to learn from that book that there were Laffite manuscripts and journals around, and that a descendant was living in Kansas City in the 1950s when the book was published. I wanted to see the frontispiece 1804 portrait of Laffite in person, and I was sure that the museum at Kansas City probably had it, so I convinced my parents to take me to Kansas City on a search. No portrait was found, nor any other leads on that trip, and I returned dejected, but not ready to give up.

I placed an ad in the Kansas City Star newspaper asking for information about the Laffite portrait from anyone who knew anything about it. One of John A. Lafitte’s old neighbors in Kansas City responded and gave me the name and address of the descendant’s ex-wife, Lacie Surratt, who had remarried and moved to Spartanburg, S.C. Lacie gave me the name of her friend Audrey Lloyd, a Laffite researcher in Midland, Texas, and Audrey in turn pointed me to Robert Vogel, who was just at that time starting a new group called The Laffite Study Group, based in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. Vogel led me to longtime Laffite researchers Ray and Sue Thompson at Gulfport, Miss., Dr. Jane de Grummond, a history professor at Louisiana State University, John Howells, a Laffite enthusiast at Houston, Texas, and historian Dr. Jack D.L. Holmes.

We all carried on a lengthy correspondence over the years. Vogel came to visit me in Oklahoma when he was on his way down south one year, and I visited Dr. de Grummond at her home in Baton Rouge three times, but most of us never met face to face. I had corresponded with Howells for 25 years before I met him at Galveston in the late 1990s when I went to a meeting of the Laffite Society, a group which had formed after the Laffite Study Group disbanded around 1991. I also met Lionel Bienvenue, who served as historian at Chalmette Battlefield, around the time the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park was being created. I was a member of the citizen input group for plans for the park in the 1980s.
There’s a lot, lot more I could relate, but that’s the gist of how my interest in Laffite started. My favorite movie to this day is the 1958 Buccaneer.

  1. What primary documents have you examined over the years concerning Jean Laffite’s life? The signature of Jean Laffite in his letter to President Madison is quite different from the signature in the Journal of Jean Laffite. Is this dispositive of the issue of authenticity of the journal? Do you think the same man could have made both signatures? How does each of the signatures compare to other signatures attributed to Jean Laffite in other documents?

The signature of the letter to President Madison


The very first primary document signed by Jean Laffite that I ever saw was his 1815 letter to President Madison. I was 11 years old at the time, walking through a manuscript display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., when I spotted the Laffite letter. Somehow, I intuitively knew even then that Jean had not written the body of the letter, with the incorrect spellings, etc. Some years later, after seeing other Laffite manuscripts, this early assumption on my part turned out to be valid. The signature, however, is correct for Jean at that period of his life. Both Jean and Pierre Laffite’s signatures changed over the years: Pierre’s, due to ill health; Jean’s, due to a psychological shift, based upon my study of the few available manuscripts available. There are several notarial documents in the New Orleans Notarial Archives signed by Pierre, but only a few that are signed by Jean, and all bear a rather small understated form of his pre-Battle of New Orleans signature, usually with the first name being shortened to Jn with a strike through the first name from the cross on the double t’s, and the surname enclosed in a circle paraph.

In the New Orleans city archives at the New Orleans library, I happened across a previously unknown Jean Laffite signed document when I opened up a case file pertaining to Vincent Gambie from 1815, and a statement signed by Jean Laffite quite literally dropped into my lap. This one bore a transitional signature, still small, but without the strike-through. Some Laffite manuscripts I have only seen in exact copies and color photographs, such as the Oct. 4, 1814 French letter Jean Laffite wrote to Edward Livingston at a very tumultuous time in Jean’s life. This one has the first name struck through, and the last name circled to focus importance on the Laffite surname.

Next up for examination is the Laffite signature on the Le Brave ship’s articles document, from August 18, 1819 (the original is at the federal archive at Fort Worth, ironically the closest authentic Laffite manuscript to me, but I have never been there in person. I do, however, have an exact photographic image of the complete manuscript). The Le Brave signature is bold, larger than any of the preceding signatures, but with the same slant and same general form, with some significant differences: the strike through on the first name has now become an underline, and the first and last names are one unit. No longer is the Laffite name by itself encircled, but underlined with a fancy paraph that ties the bottom of the two f’s together. The ink pressure is heavy and fluid, with no hesitation. The whole body of the Le Brave document appears to be in the same penmanship as the signature, and that is interesting, too, as every millimeter of the paper is used on the right margin, sometimes with a curious dash where no dash is really needed. The handwriting is very legible. The next sample, also a photograph, is an 1819 letter to James Long which Jean Laffite wrote and signed (this is in the Mirabeau Lamar collection at the Texas State Archives, Austin.) The handwriting and penmanship are virtually identical to the Le Brave document.


The real test of a Jean Laffite signature and penmanship awaited me in examining first hand the Laffite Journal collection at Sam Houston Library, Liberty, Texas. I had the exact size color images of the Le Brave document of 1819 with me to compare side by side with the Laffite Journal signatures and handwriting. The Laffite Journal itself was a match, but some of the accompanying manuscript was not. Based on this comparison, it is my (admittedly layman) opinion that the Laffite Journal is authentic and not a forgery. No inconsistencies with the handwriting were found within the entire Laffite Journal. As for the language of the Journal, which at first glance appears to be an archaic Creole French, linguist Gene Marshall said it is polyglot with mixtures of English, Spanish and French, and shows a good command of grammar for the time


Jean Laffite signature from the Journal

  1. The letter to President Madison contains a number of spelling errors as well as a poor choice of vocabulary. He spelled sentiment with an initial letter “c”, even though it is a French word borrowed into English and spelled in English the same as in French. He used the word “notorious” to describe himself and his associates without realizing that it had a bad connotation. What do his spelling errors and diction choices tell us about Jean Laffite’s command of English, his command of other languages, such as French and Spanish, his education and his social class?

Although Jean Laffite appears to not have been able to write fluently in English, he could read it fluently, as evidenced by his apparent favorite news publication, the Jeffersonian political editorial newspaper Aurora of Philadelphia, Penn. The fact that he was highly literate in a language not his own demonstrates that either he had had advanced schooling, or was intelligent enough to teach himself. According to historical accounts by contemporaries, Jean seems to have been better at conversational English than the written form, so perhaps he did teach himself by being around English speakers. This ability to do business in three languages plus a knowledge of proper manners helped secure his social status, too, as a middle man bridge between the rough, mostly illiterate ship captains, and the old French and Spanish families of New Orleans and environs.


  1. How many copies of The Journal of Jean Laffite were there when John Andrechyne Laflin first made it public? Were they each believed to be in the hand of Jean Laffite? Is it possible that the original document could have been copied by hand by someone else so that each Laffite heir could have a copy?

We only know about two copies of the Laffite Journal: the one that Madelyn Kent read for her background material in The Corsair, and which she obtained from John A. Lafitte, who borrowed it from a cousin (so he said), and the Laffite Journal which is in the collection at Sam Houston. No copies of the one read by Kent are known to exist, but it is known that John A. did have to sue her in order to get it back. The cousin who owned it has never been found. The Laffite Journal we do have copies of is definitely a copy of an original document, but it is a copy made by the same person as who wrote the first, that is, it is completely in the Jean Laffite handwriting of the authentic Le Brave document of 1819. There are no mistakes crossed out, and the writing goes into the right hand edge, even into the gutter of the journal book. I used to own a similar autobiographical journal, an ms written by a Connecticut shipbuilder in 1848 for his descendants, and it also was a handwritten copy, one of five written for his grandchildren. There were no writing mistakes in it, either. Stylistically it was very similar to the Laffite Journal, leading me to believe in the 1840s, that was the thing some men did, was write out the stories of their lives for their descendants. The thing that is striking about the Laffite Journal is he starts right off saying he doesn’t want his descendants to release the contents of the journal until 1952 (one hundred and seven years from the start of the journal). John A. Lafitte could not read French, so he couldn’t read that, but interestingly, 1952 is precisely when the contents of the journal did begin to be released.

  1. In the case of those who are firm in their belief that the Journal of Jean Laffite is a forgery, what evidence do they base this conclusion on? Has the the Journal been discredited to the satisfaction of all reputable historians or is this still an open question in historical circles?

There are many reasons why so many people consider the Laffite Journal a forgery, but the main one is the fact that the person who is first known to have had it, John A. Lafitte, was a proven con man whose abused wife secretly told her friend Audrey Lloyd that “he made it all up” and studied how to age paper and ink, etc., etc.

This pretty much damned John A. Lafitte and the Journal collection in historical circles, but only long after he had died. There are signs in the Laffite collection at Sam Houston that some things were obviously added and altered to enhance the value of the collection, and the whole collection went though two fires, one at John’s A’s house, and one at a tv station. He tried to sell the collection to autograph dealer Charles Hamilton at first, and Hamilton was quite enthusiastic about it, but then fishtailed out. The collection was sold shortly before John A’s death for $15,000 to Texas autograph dealer William Simpson, and Simpson had his friend, John Howells, examine it in detail for a couple of years before selling it to former Texas governor Price Daniel. (Howells had the collection sitting underneath his coffee table for those two years while he tried to authenticate it with examinations of the handwriting and paper). When the Laffite Journal first became public, historians Jane de Grummond and Harris Gaylord Warren both thought it was authentic back in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. de Grummond believed in its authenticity until she died. I don’t know if Warren changed his mind, I didn’t correspond with him. Robert Vogel is extremely anti-Laffite Journal, a position he shared with Ray and Sue Thompson.

Because there was so much doubt about the circumstances surrounding the Laffite Journal’s provenance, most serious historians of later years haven’t even bothered to examine it in detail themselves. The only one who has done so is William C. Davis, who spent three days looking at it. He based his unbiased conclusion that it wasn’t authentic on the surrounding material in the collection, plus historical inaccuracies in the translated journal. He is not a handwriting expert, so did not make a comparison in that respect. He weighed it solely based on its historical aspects, and noted that there is nothing in it that wasn’t in some book or newspaper article published before the Laffite Journal came to light. One current historian who does think it is authentic is Winston Groom, but he never conducted an onsite examination of the Laffite Journal and collection, confining his research to telephone questions of the Sam Houston archivist at the time, Robert Schaadt (who also believes in the authenticity of the Laffite Journal).

The final chapter remains to be written about the Laffite Journal, though; it has never successfully been proven to be a forgery, nor has it ever been proven to be authentic. It remains in a gray, enigmatic haze. With modern technology, the question of its authenticity could be determined forensically, but no one wishes to do this. Sometimes people prefer to let things stay a mystery even when an answer can be obtained.


  1. Is there any documentary evidence, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, passports or other official documents to verify the lineage of the descendants of Jean Laffite?

Re documentary evidence of descendants of Jean Laffite, there is only a bit regarding the birth and death of his son by his black mistress, Catherine Villard. There are some indications that he had a daughter, Adele, by Catherine. Adele’s descendants seem to mostly be in Puerto Rico now. The black descendants of both Pierre and Jean Laffite are hard to track because during the 1800s, most passed for white and intermarried with whites by hiding any traces of their black lineage. This is especially true of Cubans who migrated to Puerto Rico. Several direct descendants of Pierre Laffite and his black mistress Marie Villard have been located, and there is every reason to believe that Jean could have just as many. Regarding the white wives and marriages for Jean given in the Laffite Journal, no documentary evidence has been found. Likewise, no evidence has been found for Jean’s white children, except for one statement from the Sallier family of Lake Charles that a daughter of their family was named for Denise Laffite.

7.   What can we learn about the character of Jean Laffite from the various letters to the editor that he was known to have sent in during his lifetime? What were his politics? How did he see himself as a public figure?

Jean Laffite did not leave many letters from which to interpret how he felt about things, or even what his personality was like, but the one prominent letter to the editor which he did write gives some clues about who he was, and his self-image. This letter, published in the Aurora newspaper of Oct. 3, 1815, was written while Jean was staying in Baltimore before proceeding to Washington, D.C., to try to get an audience with President Madison. The weekly Aurora publication of Philadelphia was the pre-eminent Jeffersonian publication of its time nationally. Jean’s choice of this newspaper to publish his letter shows that he shared its pro Jeffersonian democracy and anti-Federalist sentiments. It is not surprising that he would like this editorial stance, given that the paper was heavily sympathetic to the French and Napoleon.

In the letter Jean takes issue with lies that have been published in various gazettes the past two years calling him a pirate who preyed on American ships, and says he has letters of marque which prove that he and those working for him were privateers. and he never committed an act of piracy. He further states that if anyone can show that he or those he ordered did commit an act of piracy or injustice, they should contact the appropriate officials and he would willingly appear to answer any such charges. He did not want people to call him a pirate, because in those days, pirates were hung. Privateers, who were licensed by their letters of marque from Cartagena or Buenos Ayres to take Spanish ships, were respectable captains who made fortunes legally from their captured prizes. Pirates were regarded as ruffian murderers who thought nothing of torturing captured crews in truly horrible ways. Privateers were thought of as captains who treated their captured prizes humanely. Pirates were regarded as scum. Privateers were honorable, and often gentlemen. However, the only true difference between the two often just boiled down to a piece of paper with a seal attached, a paper which might or might not be legitimately from Cartagena or Buenos Ayres.

What can be learned about Jean from that letter to the editor? He wanted to be regarded as a proper gentleman privateer captain, someone who could be respected. He cared about his social standing, not just in the New Orleans area, but at large, which is why he wrote the letter to the editor.

This desire for respectability is quite likely the reason why the Laffites assisted Jackson and the Americans during the British invasion of Louisiana. Jean and his brother Pierre were already socially accepted by the French residents of New Orleans as middlemen for smuggling ventures, but they seem to have both wanted acceptance by the Americans and fractious Gov. William C.C. Claiborne as well. Jackson’s lack of flints, powder, and skilled artillerymen provided the perfect opportunity to gain respect, especially after the Americans destroyed the Laffite base at Grande Terre a few months before and jailed several Baratarians captured there, and after Pierre had spent a miserable summer in the Cabildo jail before escaping. The Laffites could have packed up and left for other places, but they stayed put to help, because that’s what they both wanted to do. Why? It seems quite obvious they wanted to be thought honorable, even in the face of extreme adversity from those they would help. A presidential pardon had been extended to them, but neither Laffite ever accepted one.

Jean Laffite gained prominence over his brother Pierre in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans, but something happened that soured him on New Orleans and made him want to not rest on his laurels. Jean did not become a hero overnight. New Orleans politics were as corrupt then as they are now, and the Laffites found themselves fighting to get restitution for the losses they had suffered from the Baratarian raid. Most of it went into the pockets of raiders Patterson and Ross. Jean made his trip to the East Coast in late 1815 to try to get restitution from the president, but the mission was a failure. He must have been very depressed upon his return, enough so a mapping expedition into Arkansas territory with his friend Arsene Latour seemed like a good idea to get away from it all. He accepted a new role along with Pierre as a spy for Spain, even though they had preyed on Spanish ships. Jean made a coup on Louis Aury and assumed control of Galveston, a place where he finally realized his potential without the domineering brother Pierre nearby.

This happy state of affairs wouldn’t last long, though, as the severe hurricane of Sept. 12, 1818, made a direct hit on Galveston and nearly decimated the Laffite camp. Jean was strong enough emotionally to take charge of the recovery efforts and was able to get food and water to the other survivors, but things were never as good after that. The year of 1819 was a year of financial ruin for the United States, and it was likewise a horrible year for Jean Laffite, as his newly purchased ship Le Brave, with his signed and fully written ship’s articles onboard, was caught in an act of piracy off the Belize by US authorities. The captain and crew, with two exceptions, were found guilty of piracy in New Orleans and sentenced to be hung. Jean Laffite had reached his nadir, his name was attached to a pirate ship. Under US pressure and protection, he abandoned Galveston not long before the Le Brave pirates were strung from the yardarms at New Orleans.

Jean and Pierre drifted toward Las Mujeres, then split apart. Jean got caught by Cuban authorities but due to some friends there got put in the hospital and managed to escape, then made it to Cartagena to get a commission as a privateer on the General Santander. He was a licensed privateer again, but not for very long, as he ran afoul of merchants in Kingston who petitioned for his arrest due to piracy on merchant vessels in the Bay of Honduras and Balize. A newspaper account in the Gaceta de Colombia claimed he had died in a sea battle with two Spanish vessels off the Honduran coast, but it seems like too neat and tidy an ending. He needed to disappear, considering there was a noose waiting for him in Kingston. Newspaper stories were easy to make up. So did he give up the sea life and return to the US under an assumed name, as the Laffite Journal indicates? Well, since the handwriting and signature of the Laffite Journal of the 1840s is identical to that of the Le Brave ship’s articles of 1819, the answer must be yes.



Jean Laffite as a Father

June 16, 2013 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, Louisiana History, Texas History


Sketch of Jean Laffite by Lanie Frick

According to The Journal of Jean Laffite, the famed privateer was the father of five children. He was married when he was seventeen to Christina Levine who bore him two sons and a daughter in close succession: Jean Antoine Laffite, Lucien Jean Laffite and Denise Jeanette Laffite. After Denise’s birth, Christina died, and Jean did not remarry until he was about fifty, By then his three children by Christina were grown.

Jean Laffite’s second marriage was to Emma Hortense Mortimore, and she bore him two sons: Jules Jean and Glenn Henri. But by this time Jean Laffite was in hiding and presumed dead, and he did not go by his real name in public. He may have adopted the name of John Lafflin, and his younger sons may also have gone by that name.

What sort of father was Jean Laffite? And did he treat all his children in the same way? We cannot know for sure, but there are some indications in his journal and in the few letters that were left behind.

Jean Laffite as a Single Father

From the time that Denise was a newborn until all three of his children by Christina were grown, Jean Laffite, according to the Journal that bears his name, was a widower and a single father. If he was involved with other women, he does not mention this. The journal was written for his children and grandchildren, and it was meant to be something they could pass from one generation to the next. As a member of the bourgeoisie, Jean Laffite practiced middle class morality, and he did not discuss anything that would not be appropriate to a general audience.

We know from what is written in the Journal that Denise was nursed by a black servant of her mother’s who had accompanied her to New Orleans from Port-au-Prince. Very little else is known about the early upbrining of the three children of Christina Levine.

We do know a little more about the schooling of his elder sons. Though Jean Laffite was a highly articulate man, both in person and in writing in several different languages, among them Spanish, French and English, his spelling in some of the documents bearing his signature left something to be desired. It seems that he wanted more of an education for his children, for he writes proudly of how at least one of his sons attended a language school in Washington City.

Jean Laffite as a Married Father


An oil painting by Manoel J. de Franca which is said to have been completed in 1842, depicting Emma, Jean, Glenn and Jules, when Jean Laffite was about sixty years old.
(According to Stanley Clisby Arthur in “Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover”.

According to the Journal of Jean Laffite, following his retirement in 1823, Laffite suffered from a cold that would not go away and a rash all over his body. He was staying in the home of his friend John Mortimore, and that was when he met Emma, who helped to nurse him during his illness. It was, according to the Journal. a very real and deep love that developed between them. They married, and remained happily together for the rest of his life.

Of the two sons that Emma Mortimore bore Jean Laffite, only Jules survived to adulthood. The younger boy, Glenn, died in a freak accident in childhood. The Journal does not directly mention this death, though it is registered in the family Bible. Also, at one point in the Journal, it is mentioned that Jules is the only boy that Jean still has left at home, which would be odd if Glenn, being the younger, had matured and left home before his elder brother.

The narrator of the Journal seems averse to speaking about this loss, but there is a change of tone after the death of the younger son. Some things are too painful to write about.

Instead, at this point in the Journal, the narrator allows us to glimpse random little scenes from his family life. He tells how many teeth a certain Dr. Forbes has recently pulled from his mouth and how many teeth he has left. And he discusses the tutors of his son Jules and of his grandsons, and what subject each of them is responsible for.

The education of his son and grandsons is recorded, but the death of the youngest child is left entirely to the imagination of the reader.


My son Jules and my two grandsons, Eugene and Francis, have learned German. Mr. Jacob Phillipson was their teacher.

Mr. Bonfils was also one of the teachers of my son Jules.

Mr. Edward Chase is in the process of trying to teach music to my son Jules. My grandson Francis is also studying music with Mr. Chase.

My son Jules and Jack Clemens go on horseback and ride in the park on 14th street. Jules and William Morrison go hunting in the woods after wild animals.

These random and somewhat disjointed accounts of Jules’ everyday life show that  the father was very much interested in the education and development of the son. The two grandsons mentioned were probably the children of Denise and her husband Francis Little.


 We stayed, my family and I, at the house of the old Prairie [Praire], situated on the olive Route, about four miles west of St. Louis, as well as at the house of Shackett, situated around fifty-five rods to the west of the Praire [?] house.

Mr. Freeman Little, the seller of funeral supplies, is a member of the family by marriage.

My son Jules paid $25.00 to Elmer for stealing the slave Stephen after the death of his owner, Madame Smith.

The subject of slavery is one that comes up randomly throughout the narrative. While Laffite justifies his selling of slaves captured from Spanish and English vessels, he is clearly not happy with the institution of slavery, and he seems proud of his son Jules for trying to free a slave following the death of the slave’s long term owner.

 Dividing the Laffite Fortune Per Stirpes

In the passages that were quoted above, we can see that Jean Laffite was able to blend his two families, the children  by his first wife, and the children by his second wife, into a harmonious whole. But it was not always that easy. When he first announced his engagement to Emma Mortimore,  Denise was very much opposed to it. It was only when both she and Emma had children that Denise softened, and then she and Emma became good friends. One way in which Laffite avoided provoking envy among his children was by a wise division of his fortune among his first and second families.

There are two ways to divide an inheritance. One is per capita — by the head — and the other is per stirpes — by the stock.

People who tend to divide all their property among their heirs equally tend to disregard that some heirs have many children and others have few, and they tend to favor those persons in their family who left many  offspring. But a fairer distribution is by the stock, acknowledging the different lines, and treating each progenitor equally, regardless of how many children they had. In most cases, the division takes place after death. But when Jean Laffite retired, he took all his property and divided it into two parts: one part for the children of Christina Levine and the other part for himself and his new wife and young minor children. He distributed the first half equally among Antoine, Lucien and Denise. The second half he kept to live on, and eventually leave to his current wife and her children.

In this way, Jean Laffite honored both of his wives and dealt fairly with each of his children. In the Laffite family, there was no quarreling over inheritance. All were well provided for.


The Journal of Jean Laffite, a manuscript currently housed at  Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, Liberty, Texas.

Arthur, Stanley Clisby. 1952 Jean Laffite Gentleman Rover. New Orleans: Harmanson.


Frugal Use of Resources in Privateering: How Dominique You Got His Start

May 6, 2013 in American History, Caribbean History, general history

The privateer Confiance in battle with the Kent by Robert Surcouf From the Wikimedia Commons

Letters of marque were granted by governments to successful privateers, because this was an economical way to engage in war without a heavy outlay — and without burdening the populace with either taxation or conscription.

In privateering, the profit motive required that every expenditure on equipment should ultimately result in a return on investment that would justify it. Because of this, it was not enough to win a battle — It was necessary to do so while expending less than was gained in the exploit. Privateers, unlike regular navy ships, were required by market forces  to engage in frugal use of resources and to use good business practices while plying their trade.

While some privateering outfits had financial investors who shared in the profits and were  not involved in the day to day operations of the privateer, smaller privateering operations were run directly  by those who invested the money in the venture, and the profits were shared by the officers and crew alone. Enterprising young men with the skills and courage required could expect to earn a handsome living with a minimal investment.

Regardless of who the real author of  “The Journal of Jean Laffite” may have been, his accounts concerning the business end of being a privateer do shed some light on the issue of how it was possible to earn a living while waging war as a private individual, despite the fact that most governments went into debt when they engaged in war.

The author describes how his elder brother Alexandre, (later known as Dominique You), prepared for his first outing as a privateer. Alexandre was the son of a tanner, and neither his father nor his grandmother encouraged him in his plans to become a privateer. However, he did receive training in the martial arts and in sailing and navigation from his great uncles who were independent corsairs.

The Journal of Jean Laffite describes how Alexandre refurbished a run-down ship that would not even hold water and brought it to the point when it was just barely seaworthy. He then assembled a crew and stealthily sailed out on his first run as a privateer.


…Alexandre was twenty-two years old and he had a small moustache. He took it upon himself to equip and repair a brig as a corsair. It was an old “coque”, good at most for sailing along the coast in a calm sea. But he did the impossible The vessel had two masts and four excellent cabins..

Despite the disapproval of his father, Alexandre put on a brave air, sang a sea chanty and sailed off stealthily in the middle of the night, because he still did not have a license to do what he was doing — and no investor would likely have gambled on him at this early stage in his career.


All that our father wanted to say was that Alexandre whistled for a few minutes and sang while raising the big sails, to say: “I am going to sea without fear to capture a great prize. Goodbye, Father.”

When Alexandre returned, he had captured two fine vessels even though his own ship sank. The first thing he did was to present himself at the local bank, where an appraisement was made of his prizes, and he soon obtained enough  cash to buy a better ship and had enough prestige to secure a privateering license. From this small story, we are afforded a glimpse into the financial side of privateering, and how it was possible to have a rags to riches — or rags to respectability transformation overnight.


The next day after Alexandre’s arrival was passed with bank authorities and officials to take an inventory and convert his prizes into specie.

.We learn from this story how little of an investment was required in order to get started in the privateering profession, but we also learn a little about profitability in general . It was true that Alexandre was motivated to take a risk on a vessel that was hardly seaworthy, because he was young and brave and strapped for cash. But consider what might have happened had he invested a great deal more in a better ship that may not have sunk, but might have sustained damage that would have required expensive repairs. A more solidly built vessel might have been less maneuverable and harder to ditch without regret. In later years, an established privateer may command a fleet of ships, but he can never afford to spend on them what a government might on its fleet, because he has to keep in mind the profit margin. The privateering business model puts severe limitations on spending, because the greater the investment,,  the smaller the return.

The reason many countries once issued privateering licenses or letters of marque rather than investing more money  in fleets of their own was that privateers were able to achieve useful military objectives without burdening the treasuries of the nations they served. When privateering went into disrepute and all privateers became conflated with pirates, the price of waging  war went up. The people shouldering the burden of that heavier price were ordinary citizens who ended up being conscripted and  taxed  to pay for services to their country that privateers used to provide willingly and free of charge..

The Beloved Buccaneer of St. Catharines

April 10, 2013 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Texas History


Bolivar Patriot Flag 1820

Captain Job Northrup led a double life. As a Patriot privateer in the early 1800s he captured Spanish ships, seizing their goods with a singular fervor. Prize money was carefully banked in the West Indies while Northrup combed the Gulf of Mexico, waiting for the end of a successful cruise, so he could make his secretive month-long return voyage home, to the faraway Canadian village of St. Catharines near Niagara Falls, where everyone cherished him for his unequalled benevolence and pleasant personality.

“Of all the newcomers to St. Catharines, Commodore Northrup was the greatest acquisition to the place, in his own peculiar line,’ wrote a friend, Jedediah Prendergast Merritt, years later in 1875.

Along with his wife and young daughter, Capt. Northrup arrived at the Ontario community in 1821. Operating under the Mexican flag of the Patriots, he already had been a notorious privateer for five years, in association with both the Laffites and Louis Aury at Galveston and New Orleans. By 1821, Northrup had joined forces with Bolivar and Artigas to patrol the seas for Spanish Royalist ships.

“At each time he returned to St. Catharines, (Northup) was in possession of a respectful share of the “needful.” Privateer, buccaneer or commodore, his role among us was to spend money,” noted Merritt. “His turn-outs were the best, his dinners the finest, and his social qualities unbounded.”

Spanish Royalists experienced the unpleasant side of the notable captain. In 1816, as commander of the Mexican Independencia, he had boldy but unsuccessfully tried to ransom some Spanish officers to authorities at Pensacola. By 1821, the corsair had plagued Spanish shipping to such an extent that he had earned a reputation rivaling even that of  his friend Jean Laffite,

In mid 1821, a Massachusetts reporter wrote, “We learn that the buccaneering trade still flourishes off the Islands and on the South American coasts. Indeed, piracy and plundering on the ocean have become so well organized, and so extremely practical, that they are both carried on without scruple, and without concealment. It is but a short time since an attack was made by one of the most notorious of these marine banditti_the renowned Job Northrup_upon a steamboat lying off the island of Cuba, which by the narrowest chance only escaped his fangs.”

Before he turned against the Spanish Royalists, Northrup, born in 1785 in Woodbridge, Conn., had seemed destined for a career in the US Navy. The heady opportunities flaunted by New Orleans schemers and Patriot privateers successfully caught his attention in 1816 while he was sailing master (navigator) for the US brig Boxer. That ship captured the murderous Capt. William Mitchell and his richly laden prize Cometa off the Balize on April 8 of that year.

An anonymous Navy officer who must have been onboard the Boxer when she captured the Cometa wrote about what he saw with evident jaw-dropping awe that fellow crewman Northrup must have shared:  “The captured schooner Cometa is about 53 tons burthen and is one of the swiftest sailing vessels of her size I ever saw. She had on board one long 12 pounder on a pivot, 168 years old: and five other guns, from 3 to 6 pounders, all of brass. The prize is supposed to be worth from $50-60,000. One small basket is said to contain $10,000 worth of jewels. The cabin of the Cometa contained a great quantity of beautiful china ware, and the wardrobe of the captain is very elegant.”

Sometime during the summer of 1816 while the Boxer was cruising off the Balize, Northrup jumped ship and joined the Laffites and their privateers. By early September, he was captain of a Mexican Republican privateer, the Independencia. Among his first prizes was a Spanish letter of marque, whose crew he landed and treated with humanity. Soon afterwards not far from the Balize below New Orleans, he boarded a Spanish brig, taking care not to harm the vessel, cargo or crew. He stayed around the coast near the Balize and Grand Isle for some time, making authorities wary.

In early 1817, in association with French privateer Louis Aury,  Northrup was sailing the Independencia as the Hotspur with a letter of marque from the Mexican Republic. The ship was soon seized by New Orleans port officials for irregularities after its  name change, but Capt. Northrup went free.

He then seems to apparently have stayed idle for almost two years, for newspapers fail to mention him again until April 1819, when the British schooner Speedwell ran across the Patriot privateer La Constantia under the command of a friendly Capt. Northrup. When the British officers went onboard, he showed them his commission from Artigas, president of the “Oriental Republic of La Plata.” The officers were received “very politely but in all parade of preparation. Capt. Northup professed his disposition at all times to treat the British flag with respect, and said he had friends at Nassau,” reported the Speedwell captain.

Around the West Indies a short time later, Northrup’s crew got ugly and attempted to mutiny. Two of the ringleaders were shot, another crewman wounded, and several others were severely punished by Northrup and his officers. The cause was said to have stemmed from the “effects of a case of gin, which the crew had clandestinely taken on board at Turks Island. The mutineers had armed themselves with harpoons, pistols and bludgeons.”

Soon the crew of the Constantia faced a different conflict when they fought an almost lethal battle with a Spanish topsailed schooner of 14 long brass guns in the Old Straits. During the fight, the Constantia’s main gun got dismounted from its carriage, giving the Spaniards an advantage, forcing Capt. Northrup to haul off. The Constantia was said to have been “literally cut to pieces, having 300 cannonballs and grape shot in her hull, rigging and sails.”

As he slowly made his way to a friendly port to make repairs, Northrup asked for help from the American schooner Commerce near the Hole in the Wall area. Capt. S. Thaxter of the Commerce said Northup “treated us very politely. All he asked for was two planks to repair his gun carriages_for he had had an engagement with a Spanish sloop of war and lost three of his officers and 12 men. Capt. Northrup had been out three months and taken two prizes, one of which was a Spanish Guineaman with 45 slaves_and manned altogether with Englishmen and Americans_and had no papers whatever to show, but her log book. The Patriot boarding officer said they had no money to pay for the planks, but asked my name, and said if they should fall in with me again, they would endeavor to pay me.”

More problems for the Constantia loomed ahead. On the Fourth of July, 1819, Capt. Northrup anchored the ship at Ragged Island with the intention of celebrating the anniversary of American independence. A quarrel about the observance started up among the crew, who were of different nations. The next day, eight of the crew found themselves set on shore.

The worst was yet to come. At Norfolk, Va., where Northrup had gone to repair his battered ship, he lost his brother and fellow privateer Henry in a tragic boating accident. Henry and another crewman, Richard Hambly, had gone sightseeing in the ship’s boat when it upset and they both drowned. Their bodies washed up in Hampton Creek and were buried in the church yard of that town.

Capt. Northrup’s luck changed for the better the following year. Capt. Trowbridge of the schooner Decatur said he spoke to Northrup in June 1820 on his passage in the West Indies on the way to New Haven. Northrup told him that he had been successful of late, and had deposited $30,000 in specie with one firm in the Bahamian islands. Northrup seemed to be consumed with seizing as many prizes and cargos as possible, without resorting to unnecessary violence.

In the 1820s, Northrup spent part of each year in the Gulf of Mexico, and the other time at home in St. Catharines, resuming the cloak of convivial family man. With his Spanish gold he observed Christmas with his family and styled himself like a Robin Hood of the Spanish Main. A neighbor at St. Catharines recalled that the buccaneer kept the holiday in a “grand old style, being a continual round of festivities, balls, parties, sleigh rides, social visiting, turkey shooting, etc. In fact it seemed as if the ancient days of the Yule and the Holly were revived in the western woods…a grand dinner was given by Commodore Northrup to which all friends were invited. Harmony and good will prevailed throughout. The sick, the poor and unfortunate were looked after, as were all else who could plead distress.”

Northrup was known for his unparalleled generosity. Once when the captain’s team of horses ran off with his carriage at St. Catharines, he gave both the horses and the carriage to the man who recovered them, saying he would never drive them again. He also frequently gave money to his small daughter for playing the piano for his dinner guests.

Northrup had been a sailor for over 15 years by the time he retired, in early 1825. Utilizing his early experience as a savvy navigator, Northrup demonstrated great skill in picking off prizes in the Gulf. His technique was detailed in the following account from 1824, when he commanded the Colombian national schooner General Santander, a year and a half after Jean Laffite had had that ship’s helm.

On August 19, 1824, while in the Florida channel, the General Santander fell in with a fleet of four vessels under the convoy of a French brig of war, Genie, Capt. Bourdais, of 16 guns. Capt. Northrup suspectyed the ships being protected were all Spanish, so he hoisted a flag to learn from Capt. Bourdais just what they were, and if it was his intention to protect them. Bourdais claimed all the vessels were French, but appearances didn’t look right, and Northrup didn’t believe him. He ran the General Santander beside one of the suspect ships and asked what flag she was under and got the answer “Spanish,’ with that flag run up and then struck. Northrup immediately took command of that ship, named Barbaretta, The Genie made no move toward defense, so he proceeded to pick off another of the fleet, the schooner Medusa, which was captured four hours later, followed by the brig Noticioso, of 10 guns and 45 men, which also surrendered. The prizes were manned and ordered for Porto Cabello.

Still on the prowl for the last ship of the convoy, Capt. Northrup was stymied by the approach of nightfall as he sought to close ranks with the felucca Ligero, which was laden with coffee from Matanzas for Cadiz, but by the next afternoon he had seized her, too with the French convoy leader completely neutral through the whole series of events. The captures were all the more remarkable for the fact the General Santander was in somewhat damaged condition when they were made: Northrup could not accompany his own prizes back to port due to problems with a loose stern, plus the fore and foretopsail yards were in disrepair, forcing him to bear away to Norfolk for shipyard repairs. During this cruise Northrup captured 15 guns, with three fine vessels (two of which were Guineamen bound to Africa) and made 120 prisoners. The General Santander accomplished this largely through the skill of her commander, as the ship only mounted five guns herself.

Northrup capped his career on the high seas with a bloody action off Cumana in late December 1824, when the General Santander successfully fought a Spanish government brig called the Marie Santa, Capt. Jose Andoyes, of 22 guns and a valuable cargo. Somehow Northrup and his crew managed to win the conflict and seize the prize, even though vastly outgunned. The General Santander had seven killed and 16 slightly wounded, and the Marie Santa 26 killed and 19 wounded.


Welland Canal which Capt. Northrup built at St. Catharines

His narrow escape from death convinced Northrup to give up the privateering business for good and head home to St. Catharines to retire. He became a stalwart member of that community, involved in the Welland Canal project, the Episcopal Church of St. George, plus running a small ship on Lake Ontario until he became too ill to continue. He died Oct. 19, 1833, at the age of 48 following an illness of two years.

Newspapers around the Niagara area lauded the former privateer, saying his relatives and friends “are deprived of an open-hearted, generous and sympathetic companion and friend; and the society of the neighborhood will long experience the void his absence will create, more particularly on occasion of general contribution for laudable, patriotic, and charitable programs, in which few could claim a higher rank on the scene of enterprising liberality and usefulness than Commodore Northrup.” Another memorial said Northrup was “deeply lamented by the village community as a most generous and warm-hearted man_sincere in his actions, and beloved by all who knew him.”

Due to his disappearance from the Gulf following the Marie Santa battle, the Spaniards and most of the other captains of the day probably thought  Capt. Northrup died of his wounds in 1824. His life in St. Catharines was not known in the United States until years after he had died.

The most ironic part of the whole story, though, is that two famous privateers, both Jean Laffite and Job Northrup, ended their careers on the same ship: the General Santander of Colombia.

Skip to toolbar