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U.S. Marshals Service

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

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The trial commenced two weeks later, but neither brother showed up. The governor was chagrined.

Enter the U.S. Marshal

Established by an act of Congress in March 1804, the office of the U.S. marshal was created in the Territory of Orleans to solidify the recent Louisiana Purchase. From the onset, the marshal played a pivotal role in governmental affairs.

Jean Lafitte, a self described privateer, was revered by many in New Orleans but he was a thorn in the side of Territorial Governor William Claiborne

The early marshals were well-connected citizens of New Orleans. The third man to hold the position, Martin Duralde Jr., was Claiborne’s brother-in-law. And so it went.  But eventually Marshal Duralde, like his two predecessors, grew weary of the ever-changing political climate of the city and its environs and he moved on.

The pressures on these men were intense. There were always competing political factions within New Orleans — not to mention the unavoidable presence of Jean Lafitte and his band of sailing men. Duralde subsequently took the position of register of mortgages, leaving the office of marshal vacant. The governor wanted a person of influence, but he was
surprised when the federal government appointed Peter Duplessis on April 30, 1811.

“As was the case so many times back then, Governor Claiborne probably had one of his own associates in mind for the marshal’s job,” Turk said. “But despite his overtures for another candidate, Marshal Duplessis
remained in place.”

Duplessis had previously worked as a territorial auctioneer and the keeper of mortgages, and he also served in the local militia. He was from a family steeped in the French-Creole establishment. “The volatility of New Orleans politics probably stabilized the marshal in his position,” Turk said. “Louisiana did not become a state until 1812, so prior to that, the governor had the overall administrative command of the territory while the marshal handled all of the policing responsibilities.”

Firmly in place as the marshal, Duplessis attended to the business of trying to locate the Lafitte brothers and bring them to trial. On April 19, 1813, he received the official writs from the court.

The writ for Jean read as follows:

You are hereby commanded ... that you take the body of Jean Lafitte so that he be and appear before the District Court of the United States for the Louisiana District — to be holden at the City of New Orleans on the third Monday of July next ... to answer to the complaint of the United States and that he do file his defense or answer with the Clerk of said Court.

With the arrest warrants in hand, the marshal searched the entire city. But he repeatedly came up empty.

An angry Governor Claiborne placed wanted posters all over town in November of that same year. They read: $500 FOR THE CAPTURE OF JEAN LAFITTE. But the gentleman pirate could not pass on the opportunity to humiliate his rival. He replaced those posters with his own, which were emblazoned with the following: $1,500 REWARD FOR THE CAPTURE OF GOVERNOR CLAIBORNE TO BE DELIVERED TO THE ISLAND OF BARATARIA.

He didn’t get Jean, but in March 1814, Marshal Duplessis did arrest his brother in New Orleans for violating federal revenue laws. Pierre was placed in the famous Cabildo, a prison dating back to when the Spanish ruled New Orleans.

However, the prisoner escaped on Sept. 6, 1814.  “Posters were placed around town once again — this time for Pierre’s capture — but it was clear he was out of reach,” Turk said.

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