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

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

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoenix Fire Insurance which Chew & Relf sold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Dick’s Letter To Monroe Honoring the Baratarians

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

 

John Dick letter to James Monroe

John Dick letter to James Monroe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

largelaffitecopybook

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

http://www.historiaobscura.com/an-interview-with-pam-keyes-about-jean-laffite/ (For background on Jean Laffite scholarship.)

http://www.bubblews.com/news/1356968-what-is-forgery-and-why-is-it-wrong (About Forgery and the artistry it involves)

http://www.amazon.com/The-Memoirs-Jean-Laffite/dp/0738812536 (Gene Marshall Translation and commentary)

http://www.livescience.com/8008-bible-possibly-written-centuries-earlier-text-suggests.html (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

PamKeyes

  • 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?
LaffitetoMadisonSignature

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.

Laffitesignaturestwo197

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

LaffiteScrap1817Signature

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.

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Jean Laffite as a Father

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

JeanLaffiteasFather

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

JeanLaffiteFamilyPainting2

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.

JulesActivity1

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.

JulesActivity2

 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.

REFERENCES

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.

 

The Beloved Buccaneer of St. Catharines

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

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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.

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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.

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