Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Ghost of Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte was a colorful character who lived much of his life outside the law, and a number of details about his life are obscure. He was said to have been born in France. Though well known in history and folklore, both his origins and demise are uncertain. Along with his 'crew of a thousand men', Lafitte is credited for helping defend Louisiana from the British in the War of 1812, with his nautical raids along the Gulf of Mexico. He traveled between New Orleans, South Louisiana and Galveston Island. Lafitte established his own "Kingdom of Barataria" in the swamps and bayous near New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. He claimed to command more than 3,000 men and provided them as troops for the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, greatly assisting Andrew Jackson in repulsing the British attack. Lafitte conducted his operations in the historic New Orleans French Quarter. He used a blacksmith shop as a front for his criminal activities.

The Lafitte Blacksmith Shop in The French Quarter still stands today.

Around 1817, Lafitte was on the island of Galveston, Texas establishing another "kingdom" he named "Campeche". In Galveston, Lafitte either purchased or set his claim to a lavishly furnished mansion used by French pirate Louis-Michel Aury, which he named "Maison Rouge". The building's upper level was converted into a fortress where a cannon commanding Galveston harbor were placed. Galveston pushed Lafitte's presence from the island after one of the pirate's captains attacked an American merchant ship. Lafitte agreed to leave the island without a fight, and in 1821 or 1822 departed on his flagship, the Pride, burning his fortress and settlements and reportedly taking immense amounts of treasure with him. All that remains of Maison Rouge is the foundation, located at 1417 Avenue A near the Galveston wharf. The Remains of Maison Rouge in Galveston.

From there he moved back to Louisiana. This time into the Barataria, with its three islands — Grande Terre, Grande Isle which is know as Grand Isle State Park today and Cheniere Caminada — all occupied by Lafitte's brigands, was literally a fortress; no ship could pass into or out of the Mississippi without having to squeeze past this trio of islands.

Lafitte's operations were centered on Grande Terre, an island almost level with the sea, where he constructed a great brick two-story house facing the open sea. When not in New Orleans, he could be found here among its luxurious decor gathered for himself from the vast quantities of stolen treasures. Often, Lafitte entertained on his veranda, shaded by palms. Barataria Bay — or simply Barataria, as Lafitte called his colony, named after the mythical land sought by Cervantes' Don Quixote — was a Garden of Eden. It soon dawned on Lafitte that if he could contract his seamen to land their ships outside the coast, what could prevent him from smuggling their goods as well as the "black ivory" across the bay in barges and skiffs then inland through the swamps and bayous he knew so well? He remained in the area for years and often moved inland through the rivers and swamps of South Louisiana. Rumors have long circulated that Lafitte died in a hurricane in the Gulf or in the Yucatan around 1826. Lafitte was said to be a master mariner; according to one legend he was once caught in a tropical storm off the coast of North Galveston and steered his ship to safety by riding the storm surge over Galveston island and into the harbor. Lafitte's lost treasure has acquired a lore of its own as it, like his death, was never accounted for. He reportedly maintained several stashes of plundered gold and jewelry in the vast system of marshes, swamps, and bayous located around Barataria Bay. One such legend places the treasure somewhere on the property of Destrehan Plantation, and Lafitte's spirit walks the plantation on nights of full moons to guide anyone away from the treasure's location.

When I was a kid helping my grandfather on his fishing boat we often spent the night on the boat up in the bayous. We fished on Salvador Lake, Barataria Bay and the swamps all the way to the Gulf. It was not unusual to hear the sound of chants and of sails flapping in the wind late at night when we stayed on the boat. There was a tree with a huge metal chain that had grown into the oak that my grandfather said was the place where Lafitte chained his ship when he brought slaves into the swamps to unload. There are many stories of Lafitte's ghost. I heard many from my grandfather and later from others. Many are the tales of close encounters with what some believe to be the phantom fleet of Jean Lafitte; some claim to have seen the pirate himself standing at the helm of the lead vessel.
While flying to and from the oil platforms that dot the Gulf of Mexico I have talked to a lot of men who say they regularly spot a billow of sails on the horizon just before sunset, always heading east into the gloom. Myself and the crews of offshore supply vessels have heard the flapping of sail rigging's and the cry of phantom voices, calling out in the Creole patois (once spoken in Barataria) commands to a ghostly crew. Small boats, according to many oil field workers, have been almost swamped by the passage of the ghostly fleet that is said to produce visible white foam where the bows break the waves and a tremendous wake in the dark waters. These are stories from men who work in the oil fields and who are not given to imaginary ghost.

The strangest story comes from the three man crew of a charter fishing boat who, anchored off Grand Isle in the dead of night, all claim to have seen the apparition of a tall, pale man, clad in black and wearing a wide-brim hat such as Lafitte was known to wear, standing on the aft deck of their sport fisherman. It is said the apparition looked at them forlornly then turned his head in the direction of Louisiana and disappeared before their very eyes. Significantly, the ghostly fleet and the apparition believed to be the Pirate Jean Lafitte were spotted just before the disastrous Hurricane Katrina. Many have come to believe that seeing Lafitte or his ships is a warning that something evil is about to befall his beloved Louisiana coast. But the ghost of Jean Lafitte is not confined to the open Gulf alone. Many legends exist concerning Lafitte’s golden treasure and there are as many hiding places as there are versions of the tale. Most center around the old Barataria area, Grand Terre and Grand Isle and Galveston Island particularly, and it is said that often the ghosts of pirate watchmen can still be seen, sitting on the spot where Lafitte’s gold is hidden, guarding it forever into the afterlife. Archaeological digs in the area have turned up little of significance and no gold, but the legends persist throughout south Louisiana and Texas. Many believe that Lafitte is coming back for his treasure one day.

Written by thevoudou

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been told my entire life that I am a descendant of Jean Laffite on my mother's side. Her maiden name was Tribou, and she came from Braintree MA.