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,
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
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
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
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