The Legend of Jean Lafitte


(EDITOR’S NOTE: The State of Texas is ultra-protective of all artifacts, treasure and other objects buried beneath its domain. Before embarking on any serious quest for buried gold, check into Texas Law concerning its royalty and removal).

At fairly regular intervals, groups of firm, serious men with big money behind them seep into the Galveston area with secret maps and sophisticated equipment intent upon unearthing buried treasure - the treasure of legendary and real pirate chieftain Jean LaFitte (zhan lafeet). For almost 5 years, from 1817 to 1821, LaFitte and his band of buccaneers made their headquarters on Galveston Island, raiding across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and stockpiling booty. They left in a hurry at the insistence of the U.S. Navy and legend has it that most of the store of looted treasure was left behind.

The available facts substantiate the legends.

It is believed that Jean LaFitte was born of wealthy parents in 1780 in Bordeaux, France. A pampered, educated, but rebellious youth, he ran away from home at 17, made his way to a port in the British Isles, and shipped out on a British man-o’-war. The brutal discipline of the British Navy grated on his dandy-ish upbringing, and at first chance he jumped ship at Bedford, England and made his way to the West Indies.

At this point, details disappear, but a few years later he suddenly emerged as the sailing master, or captain, of his own cargo ship. However, it seemed that simple cargo was not exciting enough: a large reputation as a king of smugglers preceded him into each port of call. It was well known that LaFitte and Jim Bowie, who was later to die as one of the heroes of the Alamo, were engaged in heavy and profitable slave trade.

But LaFitte’s early training and education stayed with him, and he was esteemed as a complete gentleman, wit, and master of drawing room prattle. Business brought him to Charleston Harbor; a flock of invitations brought him to a gala ball. And there he met Beatrice Tolliver, a beautiful Southern Belle and daughter of a wealthy planter. For LaFitte it was love at first sight, and for Beatrice it was an exciting adventure with a handsome, daring, worldly blade of dubious reputation. Local wags noted that LaFitte’s ship dropped anchor in Charleston more than was really necessary. 

But Beatrice had a whole gaggle of hopeful suitors. At another and fateful ball, one of them decided it was high time to confront LaFitte head-on. In LaFitte’s presence, the young man referred to him as a “freebooter.” It was the last word he ever said. LaFitte swiftly and ruthlessly killed him. The flighty Beatrice, finally realizing she had been playing with fire, swore to him that she would “never forgive” him. LaFitte sailed at once, a heart-broken lover.

He was ripe for a bad turn. Ellis P. Bean, commander of a group of Mexican revolutionaries chaffing at the yoke of Spain, offered LaFitte a commission to prey upon Spanish shipping. Thus, Jean LaFitte, sailing master and smuggler, became Jean LaFitte the Pirate. He set up his headquarters on Barataria Island in the Mississippi Delta, and colorful and unsavory characters the world over flocked to his command. LaFitte himself kept hands off U.S. ships, but to some of his men cargo was cargo, no matter what flag it flew.

Admittedly, LaFitte was leader of the worst kind of fugitives, ready to turn on a commander at the slightest change of fortune. But he had the ability to conceal an iron rule in a velvet grip; only once did his temper get the best of him, and he hanged one of his captains for raiding a U.S. vessel. His sense of humor made him a legend in his own time. As his forays from Barataria became first embarrassing, then downright troublesome, the governor of Louisiana posted notices offering $500 for the head of Jean LaFitte. A short time later residents of New Orleans awoke to find the city plastered with notices offering $15,000 reward for the head of the governor of Louisiana, signed by Jean LaFitte, Pirate. Neither reward was ever collected. When a detachment of state militia was sent to drive him from the coast, LaFitte bought off the commander and sent him packing with good wine and good food. And when President Madison sent the Navy in 1814 to destroy the Barataria stronghold, LaFitte had advance notice. He hid his men in the dense tropical growth and laughed as marines burned his compound. Before the Navy’s sails disappeared over the horizon, LaFitte’s brigands were rebuilding lodgings bigger and better than ever. LaFitte is rumored to have sent a written thanks to the U.S. Government for ridding his village of vermin. 

On September 3, 1814, the British man-o’-war “Sophia” anchored off Barataria and the commander, a Captain Lockyeard, offered LaFitte a frigate, a captaincy in the British Navy, and 30,000 pounds sterling if he would take arms against the United States. LaFitte turned him down immediately. Some prefer to believe that LaFitte had a sudden attack of patriotism, but the historical fact is that somehow, at this most opportune time, a mysterious letter form the sweet Beatrice related to him that if he would join forces under Andrew Jackson, “all will be forgiven.” Join forces under Andrew Jackson he did, and his most noted contribution to the War of 1812 was the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, where his flair for battlefield command, knowledge of guerilla tactics, and direction aided the route of the ordered British lines.

Armed with a full Presidential pardon, LaFitte hurried to Charleston to collect his beloved Beatrice. He found her quite satisfactorily married. It is not known how the letter came to LaFitte, or if Beatrice did in fact write it. In any case, LaFitte was again crushed. He returned to his ship, apparently triple-crossed, and vowed once again to terrorize the Gulf of Mexico in a rage of piracy.

LaFitte knew better than to try to re-establish the Barataria compound, so he decided in 1817 to headquarter Galveston Island, which he called “Campeche.” LaFitte set up in an old abandoned fort 1 ½ miles down the island from Snake Point. He renamed the place “Galveston” in honor of Count Galves, viceroy of Mexico. At this point LaFitte had under his command more than 50 sailing brigs and more than 1,000 men. He attempted to set up a colony, Champs D’Asile, on the Trinity River, for the purpose of eliminating Bowie as his middleman in the slave trade. The colony failed. However, LaFitte had often sailed his captured ships to the mouth of Clear Creek on Upper Galveston Bay, where tall trees hid the masts and the ships could be stripped in privacy. 

Meanwhile, LaFitte was building his famous Maison Rouge, or Red House, to specifications he felt would have pleased Beatrice Tolliver. Verified maps place the location of the house between the present 14th and 15th Streets, on Avenue A (Water Street) in Galveston. LaFitte married Madeline Rigaud, the widow of a French settler, but she herself died in 1820. It was rumored that she was buried beneath the Red House with a great quantity of gold, and well into the 20th Century the site of the house was dug into time and again by treasure seekers.

In January 1821, the U.S.S. “Enterprise” hove to off LaFitte’s stockade and menacingly pointed a broadside as a Lt. Kearney came ashore. He briskly informed LaFitte that he had 60 days to vacate the premises, or be blasted off with Navy cannon. It was peace-time, and the U.S. could no longer tolerate LaFitte’s presence near it shores, hero of the Battle of New Orleans or not. LaFitte knew that to buck the navy was hopeless, so he began dismantling of his colony. A huge stockpile of treasure was on hand, but the evacuation would allow room only for men and supplies. The treasure had to be buried.

Day after day, ships laden with gold ventured to the far reaches of Galveston Bay and West Bays, only to return empty. LaFitte himself directed several ships to the mouth of Clear Creek, from which he would lead a small boat with treasure, head up the creek, and return for more. LaFitte did not adhere to the standard pirate lexicon of “Dead men tell no tales,” so certainly a great many of his men knew the exact whereabouts of the buried riches. 

On March 3, 1821, only hours before the Navy’s deadline, LaFitte set torch to the Campeche stronghold and sailed away. No further word was heard of him. 

It is assumed that LaFitte, only in his early 40s, and his entire force perished off Yucatan in a hurricane in 1826.

But the gold is still buried; none of it has ever been reported found. Certainly, shifting sands and vanishing islands in Galveston and West Bays have hidden a great deal of it forever. But somewhere, perhaps beneath a highway, under a fire station, in a backyard, or only inches beneath the salt grass, untold riches await only the turn of a shovel.

Reprinted from Jimmie Walker’s Edgewater Echoes
Published for the enjoyment of our customers and friends.
Volume 1, Issue 1, all 1973
Publisher: Mrs. Lorae Walker
Editor: P.L. Fears
Editorial Staff: Ken Caywood
Bob Schulz

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