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U.S. Marshals Service

History -   A Pirate, a Marshal, and the Battle of New Orleans

Crescent City Complications

According to Marshals Service historian David Turk, the city of New Orleans was something of a political enigma at the onset of the War of 1812. It exhibited the influences of several different cultures, including French, Spanish, Creole, African and British.

In the heart of this mix, the territorial governor, William C.C. Claiborne, found himself having to weigh the consequences upon each of these divergent groups for nearly every political move he made.  Not the least of Governor Claiborne’s worries was the powerful and ever-popular Jean Lafitte. 

With his brother Pierre and a band of 1,000 or so loyal buccaneers, Lafitte was literally king of a very strategically located region known as Barataria, south of New Orleans. This area, made up of three main islands — Grande Terre, Grande Isle and Cheniere Caminada — was a mysterious maze of swamps and bayous.

No vessel could pass into or out of the Mississippi River without having to squeeze past this trio of islands. From this delta stronghold, Lafitte, dubbed The Corsair, wreaked havoc on Spanish merchant ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet, this wily entrepreneur never attacked or plundered any American ships. It’s been said that Lafitte valued the budding country’s constitutional values.

And it was no secret that he was the toast of New Orleans — drinking in the city’s taverns and feted by many of its most prominent citizens.

“Of course, in his own eyes, Jean Lafitte was not a pirate,” Turk said. “He considered himself a privateer — claiming to be an agent of the Republic of Cartagena, in modern day Colombia.”

He sold pilfered goods such as furniture, fabrics and spices at discount prices — all the while escaping the high tariffs that the American government levied on foreign goods. It was a wildly successful wholesale trade, and many of the people of New Orleans were enamored by him and very grateful for his commerce.

But Lafitte proved troublesome for Governor Claiborne. Spain ruled Mexico at the time and the United States enjoyed friendly relations with its neighbors to the south. As governor, Claiborne not only had to protect the interests of New Orleans’ law-abiding merchants but also appease the Spanish authorities who were incensed at Lafitte and his band of swashbucklers for raiding their ships.

The governor found himself in a difficult position. He knew of Lafitte’s high standing with some of the townspeople but he was also well aware of the diplomatic pressures of the day.

While Claiborne disapproved of an outsider, much less a pirate, becoming such a part of the American fabric in New Orleans, he fully understood that there were others in the city — including some in the Duplessis family — who supported the New Orleans Association, a business interest helmed by the Lafitte brothers that armed the Mexicans in their attempts to
overthrow their Spanish rulers.

In the end, it was the political pressures wielded by the Spanish which forced Claiborne to act. In early summer, 1812, he sent an army unit under Captain Andrew Hunter Holmes into Barataria to put an end to the illegal smuggling.

Lafitte evaded the search team for months, scoffing at their mission. Holmes and his men were forced to endure dizzying heat and disease in the marshy wetlands of Lafitte’s stronghold.

But on a mid-November morning, the team’s small boats pulled into a hidden cove where Jean and Pierre had just entered. Purely by chance, Holmes stumbled onto his two fugitives.

Bowing to their pursuers’ luck, the brothers surrendered without a fight. They were brought into court and locked up. But prominent New Orleans attorney and politician Edward Livingston quickly arranged for their bail.

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