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Weighing all the facts, it is small wonder that the Delta Creoles coquetted with the Baratarians. To say no more of Spanish American or French West Indian tincture, there was the Embargo. There were the warships of Europe skimming ever to and fro in the entrances and exits of the Gulf. Rarely in days of French or Spanish rule had this purely agricultural country and non-manufacturing town been so removed to the world’s end as just at this time. The Mississippi, northward, was free; but its perils had hardly lessened since the days of Spanish rule. Then it was said, in a curious old Western advertisement of 1797, whose English is worthy of notice
“No danger need be apprehended from the enemy, as every person whatever will be under cover, made proof against rifle or musket balls, and convenient port-holes for firing out of. Each of the boats are armed with six pieces, carry a pound ball, also a number of muskets, and amply supplied with plenty of ammunition, strongly manned with choice hands, and masters of approved knowledge.”
Scarcely any journey, now, outside of Asia, Africa, and the Polar seas, is more arduous than was then the trip from St. Louis to New Orleans. Vagabond Indians, white marauders, Spanish-armed extortion and arrest, and the natural perils of the stream, made the river little, if any, less dangerous than the Gulf. Culbert and Maglibray were the baser Lafittes of the Mississippi, and Cottonwood Creek their Barataria.
And the labors and privations were greater than the dangers. The conveyances were keelboats, barges, and flat-boats. The flat-boats, at New Orleans, were broken up for their lumber, their slimy gunwales forming along the open gutter’s edge in many of the streets a narrow and treacherous substitute for a pavement. The keelboats and barges returned up-stream, propelled now by sweeps and now by warping or by cordelle (hand tow-ropes), consuming “three or four months of the most painful toil that can be imagined.” Exposure and bad diet “ordinarily destroyed one-third of the crew.”
But on the 10th of January, 1812, there had pushed in to the landing at New Orleans a sky-blue thing with a long bowsprit, “built after the fashion of a ship, with portholes in the side,” and her cabin in the hold. She was the precursor of the city’s future greatness, the Orleans, from Pittsburg, the first steam vessel on the Mississippi.
Here was a second freedom of the great river mightier than that wrested from Spain. Commercial grandeur seemed just at hand. All Spanish America was asserting its independence; Whitney’s genius was making cotton the world’s greatest staple; immigrants were swarming into the West; the Mississippi valley would be the provision-house of Europe, the importer of untold millions of manufactures; New Orleans would keep the only gate. Instead of this, in June, 1812, Congress declared war against Great Britain. Barataria seemed indispensable, and New Orleans was infested with dangers.
In 1813, Wilkinson, still commanding in the West, marched to Mobile River; in April he drove the Spaniards out of Fort Charlotte and raised a small fortification, Fort Bowyer, to command the entrance of Mobile Bay. Thus the Spanish, neighbors only less objectionable than the British, were crowded back to Pensacola. But, this done, Wilkinson was ordered to the Canadian frontier, and even took part of his few regulars with him.
The English were already in the Gulf; the Indians were growing offensive; in July seven hundred crossed the Perdido into Mississippi; in September they massacred three hundred and fifty whites at Fort Minims, and opened the Creek war. Within New Orleans bands of drunken Choctaws roamed the streets. The Baratarians were seen daily in the public resorts. Incendiary fires became alarmingly common, and the batture troubles again sprang up. Naturally, at such a junction, Lafitte and his men reached the summit of power.
In February, 1814, four hundred country militia reported at Magazine Barracks, opposite New Orleans. The Governor tried to force out the city militia. He got only clamorous denunciation and refusal to obey. The country muster offered their aid to enforce the order. The city companies heard of it, and only Claiborne’s discreetness averted the mortifying disaster of a battle without an enemy. The country militia, already deserting, was disbanded. Even the legislature withheld its support, and Claiborne was everywhere denounced as a traitor. He had to report to the President his complete failure. Still, he insisted apologetically, the people were emphatically ready to “turn out in case of actual invasion.” Only so patient a man could understand that the Creoles were conscientious in their lethargy. Fortunately the invasion did not cone until the Creek war had brought to view the genius of Andrew Jackson.
In April, Government raised the embargo. But the relief was tardy; the banks suspended. Word came that Paris had fallen. Napoleon had abdicated. England would throw new vigor into the war with America, and could spare troops for the conquest of Louisiana.
In August the Creeks made peace. Some British officers landed at Apalachicola, Florida, bringing artillery. Some disaffected Creeks joined there and were by them armed and drilled. But now, at length, the Government took steps to defend the Southwest.
General Jackson was given the undertaking. He wrote to Claiborne to hold his militia ready to march-an order very easy to give. In September he repaired to Mobile, which was already threatened. The British Colonel, Nicholls had landed at Pensacola with some companies of infantry, from two sloops-of-war. The officers from Apalachicola and a considerable body of Indians had joined him, without objection from the Spaniards.
Suddenly attention was drawn to the Baratarians. On the third of September an armed brig had appeared off Grande Terre. She fired on an inbound vessel, forcing her to run aground, tacked, and presently anchored some six miles from shore. Certain of the islanders went off in a boat, ventured too near, and, turning to retreat, were overhauled by the brig’s pinnace, carrying British colors and a white flag. In the pinnace were two naval officers and a captain of infantry. They asked for Mr. Lafitte, one officer speaking in French for the other.
“He is ashore,” said the chief person in the island boat, a man of dignified and pleasing address. The officers handed him a packet addressed “To Mr. Lafitte, Barataria,” and asked that it be carefully delivered to him in person. The receiver of it, however, induced them to continue on, and when they were plainly in his power revealed himself.
“I, myself, am Mr. Lafitte.” As they drew near the shore, he counselled them to conceal their business from his men. More than two hundred Baratarians lined the beach clamoring for the arrest of the “spies,” but Lafitte contrived to get them safely to his dwelling, quieted his men, and opened the packet.
There were four papers in it. First, Colonel Nicholls’s appeal to the Creoles to help restore Louisiana to Spain; to Spaniards, French, Italians, and Britons, to aid in abolishing American usurpation; and to Kentuckians, to exchange supplies for money, and neutrality for an open Mississippi. Second, his letter to Lafitte offering a naval captain’s commission to him, lands to all his followers, and protection in persons and property to all, if the pirates, with their fleet, would put themselves under the British naval commander, and announcing the early invasion of Louisiana with a powerful force. Third, an order from the naval commander in Pensacola Bay, to Captain Lockyer, the bearer of the packet, to procure restitution at Barataria for certain late piracies, or to “carry destruction over the whole place;” but also repeating Colonel Nicholls’s overtures. And fourth, a copy of the orders under which Captain Lockyer had come. He was to secure the Baratarians’ cooperation in an attack on Mobile, or, at all events, their neutrality. According to Lafitte, the captain added verbally the offer of $30,000 and many other showy inducements.
Lafitte asked time to consider. He withdrew; when in, a moment the three officers and their crew were seized by the pirates and imprisoned. They were kept in confinement all night. In the morning Lafitte appeared, and, with many apologies for the rudeness of his men, conducted the officers to their pinnace, and they went off to the brig. The same day he addressed a letter to Captain Lockyer asking a fortnight to “put his affairs in order,” when he would be “entirely at his disposal.” It is noticeable for its polished dignity and the purity of its English.
Was this anything more than stratagem? The Spaniard and Englishman were his foe and his prey. The Creoles were his friends. His own large interests were scattered all over Lower Louisiana. His patriotism has been overpraised; and yet we may allow him patriotism. His whole war, on the main-land side, was only with a set of ideas not superficially fairer than his own. They seemed to him unsuited to the exigencies of the times and the country. Thousands of Louisianians thought as he did. They and he-to borrow from a distance the phrase of another-were “polished, agreeable, dignified, averse to baseness and vulgarity.” They accepted friendship, honor, and party faith as sufficient springs of action, and only dispensed with the sterner question of right and wrong. True, Pierre, his brother, and Dominique, his most intrepid captain, lay then in the calaboza. Yet should he, so able to take care of himself against all comers and all fates, so scornful of all subordination, for a paltry captain’s commission and a doubtful thirty thousand, help his life-time enemies to invade the country and city of his commercial and social intimates?
He sat down and penned a letter to his friend Blanque, of the legislature, and sent the entire British packet, asking but one favor, the “amelioration of the situation of his unhappy brother;” and the next morning one of the New Orleans papers contained the following advertisement:
WILL, be paid for the apprehending of PIERRE LAFITTE, who broke and escaped last night from the prison of the parish. Said Pierre Lafitte is about five feet ten inches height, stout made, light complexion, and somewhat cross-eyed, further description is considered unnecessary, as he is very well known in the city.
Said Lafitte took with him three negroes, to wit: [giving their names and those of their owners] ; the above reward will be paid to any person delivering the said Lafitte to the subscriber.
J. H. HOLLAND,
Keeper of the Prison.
On the 7th, John Lafitte wrote again to Blanque,-the British brig and two sloops-of-war still hovered in the offing,-should he make overtures to the United States Government? Blanque’s advice is not known; but on the 10th, Lafitte made such overtures by letter to Claiborne, inclosed in one from Pierre Lafitte-who had joined him-to AI. Blanque.
The outlawed brothers offered themselves and their men to defend Barataria, asking only oblivion of the past. The high-spirited periods of John Lafitte challenge admiration, even while they betray tinges of sophistry that may or may not have been apparent to their writer. “All the offence I have committed,” wrote he, “I was forced to by certain vices in our laws.” He did not say that these vices consisted mainly of enactments against smuggling, piracy, and the slave-trade.
The heads of the small naval and military force then near New Orleans were Commodore Paterson and Colonel Ross. They had organized and were hurriedly preparing a descent upon the Baratarians. A general of the Creole militia was Villeré, son of the unhappy patriot of 1768. Claiborne, with these three officers, met in council, with the Lafittes’ letters and the British overtures before them, and debated the question whether the pirates’ services should be accepted. Claiborne being in the chair was not called upon for a vote. It would be interesting to know, what, with his now thorough knowledge of the Creole character and all the expediencies of the situation, his vote would have been. Villeré voted yea, but Ross and Paterson stoutly nay, and thus it was decided. Nor did the British send ashore for Lafitte’s final answer. They only lingered distantly for some days and then vanished.
Presently the expedition of Ross and Paterson was ready. Stealing down the Mississippi, it was joined at the mouth by some gun-vessels, sailed westward into the Gulf, and headed for Barataria. There was the schooner Curolina, six gun-vessels, a tender, and a launch. On the 16th of September they sighted Grande Terre, formed in line of battle, and stood for the entrance of the bay.
Within the harbor, behind the low island, the pirate fleet was soon descried forming in line. Counting all, schooners and feluccas, there were ten vessels. Two miles from shore the Carolina was stopped by shoal water, and the two heavier gun-vessels grounded. Put armed boats were launched, and the attack entered the pass and moved on into the harbor.
Soon two of the Baratarians’ vessels were seen to be on fire; another, attempting to escape, grounded, and the pirates, except a few brave leaders, were flying. One of the fired vessels burned, the other teas boarded and saved, the one which grounded got off again and escaped. All the rest were presently captured. At this moment, a fine, fully armed schooner appeared outside the island, was chased and taken. Scarcely was this done when another showed herself to eastward. The Carolina gave chase. The stranger stood for Grande Terre, and ran into water where the Carolina could not follow. Four boats were launched; whereupon the chase opened fire on the Carolina, and the gun-vessels in turn upon the chase, firing across the island from inside, and in half an hour she surrendered. She proved to be the General Bolivar, armed with one eighteen, two twelve, and one six-pounder.
The nest was broken up. “All their buildings and establishments at Grande Terre and Grand Isle, with their telegraph and stores at Cheniére Caminada, were destroyed. On the last day of September, the elated squadron, with their prizes-seven cruisers of Lafitte, and three armed schooners under Carthagenian colors-arrived in New Orleans harbor amid the peal of guns from the old barracks and Fort St. Charles.
But among the prisoners the commanding countenance of John Lafitte and the cross-eyed visage of his brother Pierre were not to be seen. Both men had escaped up Bayou La Fourche to the “German Coast.” Others who had had like fortune by and by gathered on Last Island, some sixty miles west of Grande Terre, and others found asylum in New Orleans, where they increased the fear of internal disorder.