Jean Lafitte, a corsair, privateer, or smuggler of Louisiana and the gulf of Mexico, born in France, either at St. Malo, Marseilles, or Bordeaux, about 1780, died, according to some accounts, at sea in 1817, according to others, at Silan, Yucatan, in 1826. There is a singular uncertainty with regard to the events of his career. It has been stated that he never was at sea but twice - once when he came to America, and again in the voyage on which he was drowned; and that he fitted out privateers to cruise against Spanish commerce under the flag of Cartagena. Other authorities assert that he began life as mate of a French East Indiaman, but, quarrelling with the captain, left his ship at Mauritius and entered upon a course of daring and successful piracy in the Indian ocean, varied by occasional ventures in the slave trade. After several years he returned to France, disposed of his prizes, sailed for the West Indies, and took out a commission as privateer from the newly organized government of Cartagena (afterward New Granada), continuing his depredations, not only upon Spanish, but upon British commerce.
Another account represents him as having begun his career as lieutenant of a French privateer, which was captured by a British man-of-war and taken into an English port, where the officers and crew of the privateer were thrown into prison. Here Lafitte was confined for several years under circumstances of peculiar hardship, after all his comrades had obtained their release. The resentment toward Great Britain engendered by this real or supposed severity is said to have been the motive that inspired his subsequent career. Unable to gratify this resentment in the service of his native country, on account of the suspension of hostilities at the time of his release, he found means of doing so under cover of a privateer's commission (against Spain) obtained from the Cartagenian government. According to this account - which bears some indications of authenticity in its general features - the only acts of Lafitte that could properly be designated as piratical were committed against British vessels. He is said to have gone to New Orleans in 1807; and whatever may have been the facts with regard to his early history, there is no doubt that in 1813-14 he was at the head of an organized and formidable band of desperadoes, whose headquarters were on the island of Grande Terre, in Barataria bay, some 30 or 40 miles west of the mouth of the Mississippi. It is generally admitted that the operations of these adventurers were not restricted within the limits to which their commission would have confined them.
Barataria bay afforded a secure retreat for their fleet of small vessels; and their goods were smuggled into New Orleans by being conveyed in boats through an intricate labyrinth of lakes, bayous, and swamps, to a point near the Mississippi river a little above the city. After various ineffectual presentments and prosecutions before the civil tribunals, an expedition was despatched against the Baratarians in 1814, under the command of Commodore Patterson. The settlement on Grande Terre was captured, with all the vessels that happened to be in port at the time; but Lafitte and his comrades made their escape among the swamps and bayous of the interior, from which they returned to the same rendezvous and resumed operations, as soon as Com. Patterson's forces had retired. About the same time the British, then maturing their plans for a descent upon the southern coast of the United States, made overtures to Lafitte for the purpose of securing his cooperation in that enterprise. A brig of war was despatched to Barataria, her commander bearing a letter from Commodore Percy, commanding the British naval forces in the gulf, and one from Col. Nichols, then in command of the land forces on the coast of Florida, offering Lafitte $30,000 and the command of a fine ship, on condition of obtaining his services in conducting the contemplated expedition to New Orleans and in distributing a certain proclamation to the inhabitants of Louisiana. Lafitte dissembled with the British officer (Capt. Lockyer, of the Sophia) who was the bearer of these tempting proposals, and asked for time to consider them.
Meantime he immediately wrote to Gov. Claiborne of Louisiana, enclosing the documents that had been handed him by Capt. Lockyer, informing the governor of the impending invasion, pointing out the importance of the position that he occupied, and offering his services in defence of Louisiana, on the sole condition of pardon to himself and followers for the offences with which they stood charged. This amnesty would, of course, include in its provisions a brother of Jean Lafitte, who was then in prison in New Orleans under an indictment for piracy. After some hesitation on the part of the American authorities, Lafitte's offer was accepted. In connection with an officer of the army Lafitte was employed in fortifying the passes of Ba-rataria bay, and rendered efficient service, in command of a party of his followers, in the battle of Jan. 8, 1815. The subsequent career of Lafitte is involved in as much obscurity as his earlier life. President Madison confirmed the amnesty which had been granted to all the Baratarians who had enlisted in the American service, though it does not appear that their chief ever received any further reward from the government.
It is generally understood that he returned to his old pursuits and formed a settlement on the site of the present city of Galveston, which was broken up in 1821 by a naval force under the orders of Lieut, (afterward Commodore) Kearny; but it is possible that his brother Pierre, who commanded one of his vessels, has been confounded with him. Other authorities say that he was for a time after the war commander of a packet between Philadelphia and New Orleans. In person Lafitte is represented to have been well formed and handsome, about 6 ft. 2 in. high, with large hazel eyes and black hair. His manners were polished and easy, though retiring; his address was winning and affable; and his influence over his followers almost absolute. There is every reason for believing that he was of a respectable family, and that his early opportunities for education had been good. - See "De Bow's Review," vols, xi., xii., xiii., xix., and xxiii.; Marbois's "Louisiana;" Gayarre's "Louisiana;" Latour's "War in Louisiana;" Walker's "Jackson and New Orleans;" Yoakum's " History of Texas;" and Parton's "Life of Jackson."