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Jean Lafitte and the Louisiana Swamps

Barataria was a smugglers dream.

Used with permission.

One of the places that both fascinated and creeped me out, were the swamps! In fact, key parts of New Orleans were swamp until we learned how to drain the water. Our house was several feet below sea level–something I found unnerving, having been raised at nearly 2400 feet above sea level.

The area of New Orleans–Metairie–Kenner Louisiana includes Barataria, named after Bayou Barataria. In 1528 the men of the Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition were the first Europeans to see the Barataria swamps. They drifted in the maze of them for days until, thanks to a rising wind, they finally found their way past the three Barataria islands: Grande Terre, Grande Isle, and Cheniere Caminada, and then out to sea.

Since any boat traveling to or from the Mississippi River had to pass those islands, Barataria was a smugglers dream. In the early days of French Colonial Rule, ships with supplies from France didn’t arrive per any type of strict schedule. So, New Orleans’ businessmen depended on smuggled goods. When luggers—small, round-hulled wooden sloops with red canvas sails, docked at the French Market the merchants knew a shipment of smuggled goods had arrived.

By 1812, from his headquarters at Grand Terre, Jean Lafitte ruled Barataria, pirating Spanish ships with his brother Pierre, and a band of 1,000 men, including both freed and runaway slaves. Jean knew how to get around in the swamp so well that he made fast getaways and was nearly impossible to catch.  There were even two different routes he could choose from to get the stolen goods to New Orleans:

  1. Up Bayou Lafourche to the Mississippi, next downstream to New Orleans
  2. North into Barataria Bay, then into the various waterways that merge toward the west bank of the river, south of New Orleans

Many prominent New Orleans’ businessmen renowned the Lafitte brothers and drank to them in the taverns, but the governor of the New Orleans territory didn’t have a high opinion of the brothers at all.  Governor Claiborne plastered wanted posters all around town offering a bounty of $500 for Jean Lafitte. But, the pirate swapped them with some he’d made that offered $1,500 for the capture of Governor Claiborne. At the bottom, Jean wrote that it was a jest.

However, in 1812, both Pierre and Jean Lafitte were arrested but they jumped bail. Then, in 1814, Pierre was caught and thrown into the infamous Cabildo prison. But, he managed to escape under mysterious circumstances.

The ladies of New Orleans also loved the Lafitte brothers. Two sisters, Marie, and Catherine Villard were their mistresses.  Jean and Catherine Villard had at least one child, a son named Pierre. He also married Christina Levine and had a daughter, Denise and two sons, Lucien and Antoine. Christina died giving birth to Denise in 1804. Pierre lived in New Orleans with Marie Villard who gave him at least seven children: Catherine Coralie, Martin Firmin, Jean Baptiste, Rosa, Jean, Adele, and Joseph.

Pierre managed the commercial aspects of the smuggling business that had to be dealt with in New Orleans. Jean stayed in Barataria and handled the navel aspects and everyday work of arming and supplying his buccaneers and orchestrating the actual smuggling.

Jean Lafitte fought for the US under General Andrew Jackson’s command in the War of 1812. He and his men battled the British in several skirmishes in the New Orleans area. It’s noted that Jackson was impressed by their determination and bravery. Jean and his pirates fought for America on the Chalmette Battlefield (about 5 miles from the city) on January 8, 1815, to help win the War of 1812.

The Barataria Preserve is now the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Also from New Orleans, tourists often take tours of the Barataria swamp in covered boats with guides who are natives of the Barataria Swamps and knowledgeable in gator hunting, fishing, and trapping.

If you’re curious about New Orleans very fascinating history, I highly recommend Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children and Other Streets of New OrleansIt’s a fun read and I learned a lot!

Perilously yours,

Pauline

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