Jean Laffite, (born 1780 France—died 1825), was a privateer and smuggler who fought heroically for the United States during the War of 1812 in defense of the city of New Orleans.
Perhaps one of the most notorious pirates known to operate near Mississippi was Jean Lafitte. He personally considered himself a privateer, but he and his brother Pierre were successful smugglers targeting Spanish ships and other pirates operating in the Gulf of Mexico. Jean was of French descent, but he showed allegiance to no one nation and sailed under no one country’s flag. He provided assistance to Andrew Jackson in fending off the British during Battle of New Orleans and spied for Spain during the Mexican War of Independence.
Not known to be as violent as some of their pirate counterparts, the Lafitte brothers would treat captives well and would often even return ships to the original crew after removing the cargo. The Lafitte brothers were considered modern-day heroes in the Mississippi Delta by many but were hated by the merchants and politicians of New Orleans because they sold the stolen goods at prices below current value. The government of New Orleans eventually sent a militia to disperse the pirates at their base in Lake Barataria, just south of New Orleans.
Very little is known about his early life, but by 1809 he and his brother Pierre apparently had opened a blacksmith shop in New Orleans that reportedly served as a base of operations for selling smuggled goods and slaves. From 1810 to 1814 they formed a pirate colony on the swampland of Barataria Bay south of the New Orleans. He was commissioned as a Privateer by the Republic of Cartagena. Laffite’s group preferred to prey on Spanish ships and commerce operating in and around the Gulf of Mexico, while illegally disposing of its plunder treasures through his blacksmith shop.
Because of the proximity of Barataria Bay to New Orleans, the British offered Laffite financial resources and a captaincy in the Royal Navy for his potential assistance in the future invasion of New Orleans. Being the Pirate that he was, Laffite pretended to cooperate, then warned Louisiana officials of the British threat to New Orleans’s. Instead of accepting his warning, Louisiana Governor Claiborne summoned the U.S. Army and Navy to wipe out the pirate colony at Barataria.
The American governor of Louisiana, Gov Claiborne, angered by the privateer's disregard for customs laws, ordered an attack on Barataria on the 16th of September, destroying the Barataria encampment. The Governor also offered a reward of $300 for the capture of Lafitte, to which, Lafitte responded by offering a more substantial reward of $1,000 for the capture of the Governor if he were to be delivered to the Lafitte's new base of operations on Cat Island.
Lafitte still professing his loyalty to the United States against Britain, then offered military and intelligence support to General Andrew Jackson in defense of the city of New Orleans, in return for a federal pardon for him and his men. General Jackson accepted Lafitte's offer and during the Battle of New Orleans (December 1814–January 1815) Laffitte’s Baratarians, as they came to be known, fought alongside the U.S. Forces. Jackson personally commended Laffite as “one of the ablest men” of the battle, and President James Madison issued a full pardon for Lafitte and his men.
It is said that the city leaders of New Orleans had wished to surrender the city to the British, but that General Jackson ordered the city into martial law and subsequently detained the entire city council by force until the battle was won.
After the War of 1812, the pirate chief returned to his past, and in 1817, with nearly 1,000 followers, he organized a new pirate city called Campeche on the site of the future town of Galveston, Texas, where he served briefly as governor in 1819. From this base, he continued his privateering against the Spanish, and his men were more commonly acknowledged as actual pirates. When several of his ships attacked U.S. interests in 1820, U.S. Naval and Army pressure were brought to bear on the pirate operations in Texas. This pressure to end his days of Piracy resulted in his subsequent sacking and burning of Galveston and his disappearance into history.