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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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Pam Keyes about Jean Laffite

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The signature of the letter to President Madison


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

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

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


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


Jean Laffite signature from the Journal

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Jean Laffite as a Father

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


Sketch of Jean Laffite by Lanie Frick

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

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

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

Jean Laffite as a Single Father

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

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

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

Jean Laffite as a Married Father


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 Dividing the Laffite Fortune Per Stirpes

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

The Scrapbook of Jean Laffite

April 27, 2013 in American History, general history, History

“The Journal of Jean Laffite” is a historical manuscript that surfaced in 1948 when John Andrechyne Laflin presented it to the Missouri Historical Society. He claimed that it was a journal kept by Jean Laffite from 1845 to 1850. The authenticity of “the Journal” has been questioned by many, and while not everyone believes it was written by Jean Laffite, it is an artifact from the latter half of the nineteenth century, is written in a hand that looks like the signature of Jean Laffite on his ship’s manifest, and does tell things from the point of view of Jean Laffite and in his voice, to the extent that we know his point of view and voice from other documents. Some believe that the Journal was not written by Jean Laffite himself, but rather by a close associate, one of his sons or by his second wife. Most, however, cast doubt on John Anderchyne’s role in bringing the “The Journal” to light, and many doubt his claims to be related to Jean Laffite.

“The Journal” is written in French and currently resides at the  Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Texas. It is not really a journal. It is much more like a memoir written toward the end of his life by an old man about events that happened much earlier. Not only that, but the journal is also a scrapbook.


Jean Laffite discusses martial law in New Orleans under General Andrew Jackson

Kept in a memorandum notebook,  the hand-scrawled memoirs are also decorated with scraps of newspaper clippings from a number of different years.


The inside cover of the scrapbook.

We can learn much about a man from the sorts of things he chooses to record and the types of events he never mentions. But equally revealing is the sort of material he chooses to clip from the newspaper and keep as a memento. Take, for instance, the clipping posted below. Written in rhyme, it tells the terms and conditions under which someone was willing to do business: trade or cash, but no credit.


A poem published in the paper by a merchant who was willing to trade or take cash, but would grant no credit.

In verse, the advertisement runs as follows:

He has received of any kind,
That you in any store can find.
And as I purchase by the Bale,
I am determined to retail
For READY PAY a little lower
Than ever have been had before.

I with my brethren mean to live
But as for credit shall not give.

I would not live to rouse your passions
For credit here is out of fashion.
My friends and buyers one and all
It will pay you well to give a call.
You always may find me by my sign
A few rods from the house divine.

The following articles will be received in payment: Wheat, Rye, Buckwheat, Oats, Corn, Butter, Flax, Ashes and Raw Hides. These articles will be taken in at Esopus prices. Cash will not be refused.

Warsink. December 25, 1799.

While arguably the reason Laffite kept that ad was not because of the verse, but because of the business arrangement that it describes, another clipping is a poem written by a young lady about the death of George Washington.


The poem, while not necessarily high art, does have a very solemn patriotic tone. But the journal is not always solemn, and the clippings are sometimes humorous. Here is an anecdote about swearing that was clipped into the scrapbook of Jean Laffite.


 The above clipping tells an anecdote about a Dr. Desaguliers. The Doctor was invited to a party with “illustrious” company, one of whom, an officer, kept swearing and then apologizing for having sworn. This went on for some time, until, tired of this, the Doctor said: “If God Almighty does not hear you, I assure you I will never tell him.”

What can we learn from “The Journal of Jean Laffite”? Most of the facts it relates about his life are already well known. Those facts that are under dispute, will probably remain under dispute. But the scrapbook of Jean Laffite is another matter entirely. From it we can learn about the character of the man who kept it, what he found amusing, poignant, funny or worthy of note.

Sometimes it is not what we say about ourselves that matters the most. It’s how we see others and which of their writings we value that reveals our own true character.


Copyright  2013 Aya Katz

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