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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Letter That Tried to Scuttle the Baratarians’ Pardon

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

 

Poindexter Letter To Monroe

Poindexter Letter To Monroe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed, George Poindexter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Saga of Melita and the Patterson-Ross Raid at Barataria

December 15, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

The Balize as it looked in the early 1820s

The Balize as it looked in the early 1820s

A series of unfortunate events plagued Joseph Martinot, supercargo of the Carthagenian merchant schooner Melita. First, he had been stymied in his attempt to enter the Mississippi and arrive at New Orleans by the presence of the British blockade near the Balize; then, off the coast of Louisiana to the westward of the Balize, he had been caught in a storm while trying to slip by the British: his ship had been damaged by the squall, so he made for the closest place for repairs, which happened to be  Jean Laffite’s smuggling base at Grande Terre; next, he had endured hassles trying to lawfully bring his goods to New Orleans, and now, back at Grande Terre to oversee ship repairs, he found himself fleeing for his life in a pirogue paddled by frantic Baratarians as men on a US Navy barge fired musketry and an occasional cannon shot their way.

The Navy barge soon closed the distance between the vessels, and Martinot found his lot cast in with Dominique You and the Baratarians in the Sept. 16, 1814, raid of Grande Terre by Commodore Daniel T. Patterson of the New Orleans Naval Station and Col. George Ross of the 44th US Infantry.

At least, thought  Martinot, he had covered himself by declaring his goods and paying the appropriate duties at the New Orleans customhouse some days earlier. There was proof of that with Notary John Lynd in town, so he believed  Patterson would treat him with the appropriate consideration. Martinot and his ship had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Patterson and company, however, did not see it that way.

Comm. Daniel Todd Patterson

Comm. Daniel Todd Patterson

Martinot and the others were conducted onboard the gunboat of  Comm. Patterson, who made the supercargo open a trunk he had taken with him in his flight from the raid. Then Patterson somewhat belligerently searched through the trunk himself, confiscated a telescope and a poignard (type of Spanish knife) , then directed Acting Lieut. Isaac McKeever, to proceed with a  modified strip search of Martinot.

According to Martinot’s later deposition to Lynd, he took off his vest and laid it on the deck of the gunboat, then opened his pantaloons, and McKeever raised up the supercargo’s shirt to see whether he had any money or valuables concealed on his person, but none were found. Then Martinot was ordered to take off his boots, and they too were searched, with nothing found concealed in them, either. Frustrated in their endeavors to find valuables, Patterson then went through the pockets of the vest which was on the deck, and in the corner of a handkerchief he probably smiled as he pulled out  a folded batch of bank notes, which must have made him quite happy, considering there was a total of  $700, or the equivalent of over $9,000 in today’s currency. Martinot had been carrying a small fortune in that vest.

Patterson demanded that Martinot tell him how much money was in the handkerchief, to which the supercargo replied he did not know, so Patterson proceeded to count out the notes and told Martinot to count the amount as well. Martinot thought this demonstration might mean he would get the money returned to him as his own property over which they (the naval authorities) had no right, and said the same to Patterson, whereupon McKeever likely laughed as he said there was little chance of the prisoner recovering it. Patterson would not give him a receipt, just told Martinot brusquely to see him at his office in New Orleans later.

Alarmed at the loss of his money, Martinot explained the nature of his business at Grande Terre, and that he had been there but two days, repairing his vessel (the Melita), and pointed out the ship which was moored to the shore as she had been half full of water and had only recently been pumped out dry to start repairs. Martinot continued by saying the Melita had been regularly reported to the customhouse, and the duties of her cargo paid, that he had brought provisions for her repairs from town, and had deposited them in Msr. Lafitte’s (sic) store, with the ship’s rigging, sails, anchor, cables, and five barrels of bread. Patterson turned a deaf ear to Martinot’s account.

Worse was to come for Martinot. On the evening previous to his departure from Grande Terre, Patterson demanded of Martinot a list of the sails, and said he had no knowledge of any other articles. Then the next day shortly before he left (and after the officers and soldiers had thoroughly scavenged and retrieved anything of value on the island),  the commander ordered the dry-docked schooner burned. Martinot was allowed to go on shore to see if he could find anything belonging to his ship, but of course nothing was left to find.

Patterson and Ross, with their men, had claimed and seized all the “booty” and ships that they could, and destroyed the rest. All told, they had seized close to half a million dollars’ worth in the raid.

Martinot was not jailed for very long, as by Sept. 29, he was back in the office of Notary John Lynd, deposing his protest against “Commodore Patterson, his officers, and all others who may concern (sic) for the loss and damage done by him and them, or by his order to the said vessel (Melita) and her stores and materials, for the value of which he holds him and them responsible, and which he will endeavor to recover of him or them by all lawful ways and means.” Records show that Martinot did pursue them in the court system, but due to rapidly transpiring events with the British invasion, nothing was resolved, and although Patterson told him to see him at his office for a recipt for the $700, etc., that, too, must not have transpired, considering Martinot filed the protest. The man’s telescope must have remained part of Patterson’s seizures, too, and it was a valuable instrument in itself.

The saga of the Melita’s and Martinot’s troubles began in July 9, 1814, when the schooner left Cartagena bound for New Orleans. During the voyage, as well as previous to their departure, the master and supercargo of the Melita were repeatedly warned by various captains of other ships in the Gulf not to attempt to enter the Mississippi River by way of the Balize as they would run a great risk of being captured by the British warships blockading off the bar there. The Carthagenian privateer General Bolivar , owned by Laffite associate Renato Beluche, had recently attempted to enter the Balize only to be chased off by the British.

Martinot said in his testimony to Lynd in a sea protest filed August 4, 1814, that due to the warnings about the British, they therefore endeavored to fall in with Grande Terre, to westward of the Balize, and came to anchor on the coast in five fathoms of water: while there, a storm arrived from the south so heavy that it parted their cable, and they lost part of it along with the anchor. The ship limped to Grande Terre, where Martinot in his role of supercargo took the goods off the ship, loaded them on some pirogues, and proceeded up the bayous to the Customhouse at New Orleans to make a good faith declaration to the Revenue Department so that even though the Melita could not arrive at New Orleans the regular way, her cargo would be lawfully entered at the port.

Martinot made sure to attest that it was only due to fear of the superior force of the British off the Balize that the Melita had diverted to Grande Terre, where she went by necessity, and self-preservation, and not any sinister view, nor intent to defraud the revenue of the United States.

Accordingly, P.L. Dubourg, clerk of the New Orleans Customhouse, then gave Martinot written permission on August 5 to bring the goods, consisting of four trunks and fourteen boxes of dry goods, marked “Mt” through the lakes to the landing opposite the Custom house, then to make report, and wait a regular permit for landing.

Martinot brought his goods to the Customhouse, where two city merchants, Francis Ayme and J.S. David, estimated the value to arrive at the duties payable. Martinot paid same to the collector, then faced a new hurdle. Although Dubourg gave permission for Martinot to take the goods to his friend and fellow agent Joseph L. Carpentier’s store in New Orleans, as they were repacking the trunks, naval officer Edwin Sequin abruptly stepped in and declared he would seize the goods, and did so.

Martinot immediately went to get Lynd to come to the Customhouse and speak to Seguin about the matter to demand the goods be delivered up to Martinot, to which Seguin probably blithely replied he would not do so then, but only after he had had the quantities and qualities of the goods verified, and their value estimated by two other merchants. This resulted in Martinot filing a protest on August 11 with Lynd against the naval officer and all others for any losses and damages suffered by the unwarrantable detention and seizure of the Melita’s goods. (He must have wondered at this point why he had even bothered to try to do the right thing in not smuggling the items into New Orleans.)

By the 10th of September, Martinot had settled the lengthy matter of dispersal of the goods and purchased the necessary items to repair the Melita, so he left New Orleans for Grande Terre, taking the speedy bayou route and arriving on Sept. 14. To his dismay, he found the schooner moored to the shore, half full of water, and was told by the officer left in charge of her that he had been obliged to run her on shore as he had been fearful she might sink otherwise. On the 15th, the Melita was pumped dry, and Martinot told the Baratarian carpenters to begin the repairs immediately in order to get the ship to New Orleans as soon as possible. He decided to store the ship’s sails, rigging and provisions in Laffite’s warehouse. Martinot probably breathed a sigh of relief, but then the hurricane of the US Navy descended early on the morrow.

Around 8 a.m. on Sept. 16, Patterson and Ross made the island of Grande Terre after a five day journey of the US Carolina, barges and gunboats down the Mississippi River. In a letter to the Secretary of the Navy William Jones, Patterson recounted that they discovered “a number of vessels in the harbor, some of which shewed Carthaginian colors.” Within an hour, the “pirates” formed a “line of battle near the entrance making every preparation to offer me battle,” so Patterson and Ross formed an order of battle themselves, then found the Carolina drew too much water to cross the bar and enter the harbor. The closest she could approach, wrote Patterson later, was two miles from the bar, as otherwise she would ground.

The Baratarians then made signals to each other with smoke along the coast, and Patterson said at the same time, “A white flag was hoisted onboard a schooner at the fore, an American flag at the main masthead, and a Carthagenian flag below.” As Patterson replied with a white flag, he saw that the Baratarians had set fire to  two of their best schooners, so then he made the signal for battle, and the chase began, with the Baratarians dispersing rapidly without firing on the Americans, or offering any resistance, other than setting fire to their own ships. This unexpected response irritated Patterson greatly, as he was spoiling for a glorious battle, and later he stated in his letter to Jones , “I have no doubt the appearance of the Carolina in the squadron had great effect on the pirates.” As soon as he left Barataria, while he was at the Balize, Patterson dispatched a letter to Louisiana governor William C.C. Claiborne, crowing about his success, and boasting that “From the number of the enemy’s vessels, and their advantageous position, I had anticipated a sharp, short contest which must have terminated most fatally to them,” but instead of fighting, the Baratarians had scattered, which Col. Ross ignorantly attributed to their fear of seeing the American flag at the mast of the Carolina…even though the Carolina could barely get near enough to Barataria Pass so the privateers could see her colors.

In addition to the spoils of the raid, Patterson and Ross and their men brought six Baratarian ships to New Orleans, including three which Patterson boasted were “admirably adapted for the public service on this station, being uncommonly fleet sailors and light draught of water, and would be of infinite public utility.” (Those same ships would sit at the New Orleans wharf throughout the time of the British invasion, presumably caught up in legalities to prevent their use until properly adjuticated, even though Jackson’s martial law edict of Dec. 16 would have superceded any bars to their use by American forces. It has never been explained exactly why those ships sat idle, except for the fact that following the Barataria raid Patterson found it almost impossible to obtain any sailors.)

Martinot was only one of more than a few merchants and other visitors to Grande Terre who were accidentally caught up in the Patterson-Ross raid, but he seems to have suffered the most collateral damage from it. He had tried to do everything properly and by the book, only to learn that when greedy naval officers act like the pirates they claim they dispersed in their rush to seize money, ships and goods, the rule books get thrown overboard.

NOTE: Thanks go to Sally Reeves, archivist of the fabulous Notarial Archives of New Orleans, for providing  the John Lynd notarial acts involving Joseph Martinot and the Melita. The Notarial Archives is a veritable treasure-trove of historical information, with literally thousands of such stories as Martinot’s waiting to be told.

Also See:

The British Visit To Laffite: A Study of Events 200 Years Later

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

The Case of the Spanish Prize Ship at Dauphin Island

 

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