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More of a visual learner? Read the transcript of this week's Galveston Unscripted podcast episode below:
Tune in every Friday for a brand new episode of the Galveston Unscripted podcast.
The pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte and his role in Galveston history. Jean Lafitte was a French pirate and privateer who operated in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century. In 1817, he chose Galveston Island for his smuggling outpost after he was driven out of Louisiana by the United States government.
Reports from people who had come in direct contact with Lafitte. Noted that he was a New Orleans gentleman who just so happened to be able to smuggle any type of cargo he could get his hands on. His knack for smuggling along with his politeness and social situations led to the nickname the Gentleman Pirate.
This nickname, however, does not stand the test of time. Jean Lafitte is infamous in American history. He is known as a smuggler, pirate, gun for hire, and slave trader. He fought against the U.S. And shortly after was hired by the U.S. Government to fight against the British in the war of 1812. Although Lafitte's origin, demise, and actions are highly contested, his privateering career was well documented.
The main difference between a pirate and privateer is that a government hires privateers for the plundering of the hiring government's enemies. Jean Lafitte and his crew were issued Letters of Marque by governments who did not have powerful navies. These Letters of Marque would give the Captains and Crew permission to capture and steal the ship and cargo of the issuing government's enemies.
It has been said that Lafitte would work for anyone who would pay him for his services on the open ocean. After Lafitte was driven out of Louisiana, he ended up in Galveston in 1817 to establish a smuggling outpost out of the reach of the U.S. government. He arrived in Galveston in the middle of the Mexican War of Independence and had no problem plundering Spanish vessels.
Galveston Island was a safe bet for Lafitte, as neither the U.S., Spanish, or future Mexican government would be willing to preoccupy themselves with a small smuggling settlement. When he arrived, he found that there had already been a small colony established, founded by Spaniard Louis or "Louie" Aury, shortly after establishing his Galveston colony.
Aury had sailed from Galveston to provide assistance to the fledgling Mexican government. While he was away, Jean Lafitte had taken over the small island outpost. Lafitte quickly realized the naval and shipping benefits of an island such as Galveston. Lafitte had many followers from his Louisiana operations who willingly accompanied him to Galveston.
He set up a shipping and smuggling outpost, which shortly expanded into a colony of over a thousand. During Lafitte's heyday in Galveston, his home would've sat just a few paces away from Galveston Bay.
This house he built was known as Mason Rouge, which is French for Red House. Besides the name, there is very little evidence that points to the home actually being red. There is currently a Texas historical marker where Lafitte's home once sat in the colony, you can find it on 14th and Harborside. Lafitte's exciting pirate legacy may not be as glorious as the media and stories make it out to be. Lafitte's men cause trouble for the native population on the island.
The original inhabitants on the island were known as the Karankawa, an indigenous population that has roots in this area for thousands of years. At first, the pirate colony in the Karankawa traded and mingled socially, but tensions grew as the two groups tried to live with separate interests on the same island. After one of the many disagreements between the two, Lafitte's men battled the Karankawa in a battle known today as the battle of the three trees.
This show of force effectively drove the Karankawa off the island. On top of being responsible for forcing the native population off of the island. Jean Lafitte was also involved in the illegal slave trade, although slavery was legal in the United States. The importation of slaves had been outlawed since 1808. Since Texas was a part of Spain, lafitte was able to fly under the radar of U.S. Authorities, as well as use loopholes in the US slavery laws. When enslaved people arrived in Galveston, they will be transported onto the mainland to be smuggled across the vast unpatrolled land border between New Spain and the United States, to then be sold to an open slave market or to be turned in as a bounty at a united States customs house.
Lafitte was known to steal, smuggle, and plunder just about anything. His Galveston operation had an annual income in the millions of dollars. This all came to an end in 1820 when one of his men attacked an American merchant vessel. The US Navy sailed to Galveston to force Lafitte out of the Gulf of Mexico. Lafitte agreed to leave the island without any fight.
His final orders to his men were to burn his entire colony and fortress to the ground. Once Jean Lafitte left Galveston, there is very little evidence pointing to how he lived out the rest of his life. Did he change his name and live out the rest of his days somewhere else? Did he die shortly after leaving Galveston in a privateering operation gone wrong?
No one knows for sure, but theories live in abundance. We can clearly see that Jean Lafitte is a contemptuous character and left his legacy on the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Island, with his thirst for riches, proclivity for human trafficking and shroud of mystery.