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It has already been said that the whole Gulf coast of Louisiana is sea-marsh. It is an immense, wet, level expanse, covered everywhere, shoulder high, with marsh-grasses, and indented by extensive bays that receive the rivers and larger bayous. For some sixty miles on either side of the Mississippi’s month, it breaks into a grotesquely contorted shoreline and into bright archipelagoes of hundreds of small, reedy islands, with narrow and obscure channels writhing hither and thither between them. These mysterious passages, hidden from the eye that over-glances the seemingly unbroken sunny leagues of surrounding distance, are threaded only by the far-seen white or red lateen-sail of the oyster-gatherer, or by the pirogue of the hunter stealing upon the myriads of wild fowl that in winter haunt these vast green wastes.
To such are known the courses that enable them to avoid the frequent culs-de-sac of the devious shore, and that lead to the bayous, which open the way to the inhabited interior. They lead through miles of clear, brown, silent waters, between low banks fringed with dwarf oaks, across pale green distances of “quaking prairie,” in whose shallow, winding coolées the smooth, dark, shining needles of the round rush stand twelve feet high to overpeer the bulrushes, and at length, under the solemn shades of cypress swamps, to the near neighborhood of the Mississippi, from whose flood the process of delta-growth has cut the bayou off. Across the mouths of the frequent bays that indent this marshy coast-line stretch long, slender keys of dazzling, storm-heaped sand – sometimes of cultivable soil.
About sixty miles south from the bank of the Mississippi as that river flows eastward by drew Orleans, lies Grande Terre, a very small island of this class, scarce two miles long, and a fourth as wide, stretching across two-thirds of the entrance of Barataria Pay, but leaving a pass of about a mile width at its western end, with a navigable channel. Behind this island the waters of the bay give a safe, deep harbor. At the west of the bay lies a multitude of small, fenny islands, interwoven with lakes, bays, and passes, named and unnamed, affording cunning exit to the bayous La Fourche and Terre Bonne and the waters still beyond. They are populous beyond estimate with the prey of fowler and fisherman, and of the huge cormorant, the gull, the man-of-war bird, the brown pelican and the albatross. Here in his time the illustrious Creole naturalist, Audubon, sought and found in great multitude the white pelican, now so rare, that rose at the sound of his gun and sailed unwillingly away on wings that measured eight feet and a half from tip to tip. Northward the bay extends some sixteen miles, and then breaks in every direction across the illimitable wet prairies into lakes and bayous. Through one of these – the bayou Barataria, with various other local names – a way opens irregularly northward. Now and then it widens into a lake, and narrows again, each time more than the last, the leagues of giant reeds and rushes are left behind, a few sugar and rice plantations are passed, standing, lonely and silent, in the water and out of the water, the dark shadows of the moss-hung swamp close down, and the stream’s windings become snore and more difficult, until near its head a short canal is entered on the right, and six miles farther on the forest opens, you pass between two plantations, and presently are stopped abruptly by the levee of the Mississippi. You mount its crown, and see, opposite, the low-lying city, with its spires peering up from the sunken plain, its few wreaths of manufactory smoke, and the silent stir of its winding harbor. Canal Street, its former upper boundary, is hidden two miles and a half away down the stream. There are other Baratarian routes, through lakes Salvador or Des Allemands, and many obscure avenues of return toward the Gulf of Mexico or the maze of wetlands intervening.
In the first decade of the century the wars of France had filled this gulf with her privateers. Spain’s rich commerce was the prey around which they hovered, and Guadaloupe and Martinique their island haunts. From these the English, operating in the West Indies, drove them out, and when in February, 1810, Guadaloupe completed the list of their conquests, the French privateers were as homeless as Noah’s raven.
They were exiled on the open Gulf, with the Spaniards lining its every shore, except one, where American neutrality motioned them austerely away. This was Louisiana. But this, of all shores, suited their best. Thousands of their brethren already filled the streets of New Orleans, and commanded the sympathies of the native Creoles. The tangled water-ways of Barataria, so well known to smugglers and slavers, and to so few beside, leading by countless windings and intersections to the markets of the thriving city, offered the rarest facilities for their purposes. Between this shelter and the distant harbors of France there could be no question of choice.
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Hither they came, fortified Grande Terre, built storehouses, sailed away upon the Gulf, and re-appeared with prizes which it seems were not always Spanish. The most seductive auctions followed. All along this coast there are vast heaps of a species of clam-shell, too great to admit the idea of their being other than the work of nature. Great oaks grow on them. The aborigines, mound-builders, used these places for temple-sites. One of them, in Barataria, distinguished from larger neighbors by the name of Petit Temple, “the Little Temple,” removed of late years for the value of its shells as a paving material, yielded three hundred thousand barrels of them. A notable group of these mounds, on one of the larger islands of Barataria, became the privateers’ chief place of sale and barter. It was known as the Temple. There was no scarcity of buyers from New Orleans and the surrounding country. Goods were also smuggled up the various bayous, especially La Fourche. Then the captured vessels were burned or refitted, sails were spread again, and prows were pointed toward the Spanish Main. The Baratarians had virtually revived, in miniature, the life of the long-extinct buccaneers.
On the beautiful, wooded, grassy and fertile “Grande Isle,” lying just west of their stronghold on “Grande Terre,” and separated from it only by the narrow pass that led out to sea, storehouses and dwellings were built, farms and orangeries yielded harvests, and green meadows dotted with wax-myrtles, casinos, and storm-dwarfed oaks rose froth the marshy inland side where the children and women plied their shrimp and crab nets, and, running down to the surf-beach, on the southern side, looked across the boundless open Gulf toward the Spanish Main.
The fame of the Baratarians spread far and wide; and while in neighboring States the scandalous openness of their traffic brought load condemnation upon Louisiana citizens and officials alike, the merchants and planters of the Delta, profiting by these practices, with the general public as well, screened the contrabandists and defended their character.
Much ink has been spilled from that day to this to maintain that they sailed under letters of marque. But certainly no commission could be worth the unrolling when carried by men who had removed themselves beyond all the restraints that even seem to distinguish privateering from piracy. They were often overstocked with vessels and booty, but they seem never to have been embarrassed with the care of prisoners.
There lived at this time, in New Orleans, John and Pierre Lafitte. John, the younger, but more conspicuous of the two, was a handsome man, fair, with black hair and eyes, wearing his beard, as the fashion was, shaven neatly away from the front of his face. His manner was generally courteous, though he was irascible and in graver moments somewhat harsh. He spoke fluently English, Spanish, Italian, and French, using them with much affability at the hotel where he resided, and indicating, in the peculiarities of his French, his nativity in the city of Bordeaux.
The elder brother was a seafaring man and had served in the French navy. He appears to have been every way less showy than the other; but beyond doubt both men were above the occupation with which they began life in Louisiana. This was the trade of blacksmith, though at their forge, on the corner of St. Philip and Bourbon Streets, probably none but slave hands swung the sledge or shaped the horseshoe.
It was during the embargo, enforced by the United States Government in 1808, that John Lafitte began to be a merchant. His store was in Royal Street, where, behind a show of legitimate trade, he was busy running the embargo with goods and Africans. He wore the disguise carelessly. He was cool and intrepid and had only the courts to evade, and his unlawful adventures did not lift his name from the published lists of managers of society balls or break his acquaintance with prominent legislators.
In 1810 came the West Indian refugees and the Guadaloupian privateers. The struggle between the North American and the West Indian ideas of public order and morals took new energy on the moment. The plans of the “set of bandits who infested the coast and overran the country ” were described by Government as “extensive and well laid,” and the confession made that “so general seemed the disposition to aid in their concealment, that but faint hopes were entertained of detecting the parties and bringing them to justice.”
Their trade was impudently open. Merchants gave and took orders for their goods in the streets of the town as frankly as for the merchandise of Philadelphia or New York. Frequent seizures lent zest to adventure without greatly impairing the extravagant profits of a commerce that paid neither duties nor first cost.
John and Pierre Lafitte became the commercial agents of the “privateers.” By and by they were their actual chiefs. They won great prosperity for the band; prizes were rich and frequent, and slave cargoes profitable. John Lafitte did not at this time go to sea. He equipped vessels, sent them on their cruises, sold their prizes and slaves, and moved hither and thither throughout the Delta, administering affairs with boldness and sagacity. The Mississippi’s “coasts” in the parishes of St. James and St. John the Baptist were often astir with his known presence, and his smaller vessels sometimes pierced the interior as far as Lac des Allemands. He knew the value of popular admiration, and was often at country balls, where he enjoyed the fame of great riches and courage, and seduced many of the simple Acadian youth to sail in his cruises. His two principal captains were Beluche and Dominique You. “Captain Dominique” was small, graceful, fair, of a pleasant, even attractive face, and a skilful sailor. There were also Gambi, a handsome Italian, who died only a few years ago at the old pirate village of Cheniere Caminada ; and Rigoult, a dark Frenchman, whose ancient house still stands on Grande Isle. And yet again Johnness and Johannot, unless-which appears likely – these were only the real names of Dominique and Beluche.
Expeditions went out against these men more than once ; but the Government was preoccupied and embarrassed, and the expeditions seemed feebly conceived. They only harassed the Baratarians, drove them to the mouth of La Fourche in vessels too well armed to be attacked in transports, and did not prevent their prompt return to Grande Terre.
The revolution for the independence of the Colombian States of South America began. Venezuela declared her independence in July, 1811. The Baratarians procured letters of marque from the patriots in Carthagena, lowered the French flag, ran tip the new standard, and thus far and no farther joined the precarious fortunes of the new states, while Barataria continued to be their haunt and booty their only object.
They reached the height of their fortune in 1813. Their moral condition had declined in proportion. “Among them,” says the Governor, “are some St. Domingo negroes of the most desperate character, and no worse than most of their white associates.” Their avowed purpose, h says, was to cruise on the high seas and commit “depredations and piracies on the vessels of nations in peace with the United States.”
One of these nations was the British. Its merchantmen were captured in the Gulf and sold behind Grande Terre. The English more than once sought redress with their own powder and shot. On the 23d of June, 1813, a British sloop-of-war anchored off the outer end of the channel at the mouth of La Fourche and sent her boats to attack two privateers lying under the lee of Cat Island; but the pirates stood ground and repulsed them with considerable loss.
Spain, England, and the United States were now their enemies; yet they grew bolder and more outrageous. Smuggling increased. The Government was “set at defiance in broad daylight.” “I remember,” reads a manuscript kindly furnished the present writer, “when three Spanish vessels were brought in to Caillon Islands. They were laden with a certain Spanish wine, and the citizens of Attakapas went out to see them and purchased part of the captured cargoes. There were no traces of the former crews.”
In October, 1813, a revenue officer seized some contraband goods near New Orleans. He was fired upon by a party under John Lafitte, one of his men wounded, and the goods taken from him. The Governor offered $500 for Lafitte’s apprehension, but without avail.
In January, 1814, four hundred and fifteen negroes, consigned to John and Pierre Lafitte, were to be auctioned at “The Temple.” An inspector of customs and twelve men were stationed at the spot. John Lafitte attacked them, killed the inspector, wounded two men, and made the rest prisoners.
Still he was not arrested. His island was fortified, his schooners and feluccas were swift, his men were well organized and numbered four hundred, the Federal Government was getting the worst of it in war with Great Britain, and, above all, the prevalence of West Indian ideas in New Orleans was a secure shelter. He sent his spoils daily up La Fourche to Donaldsonville on the Mississippi, and to other points. Strong, well-armed escorts protected them. Claiborne asked the legislature to raise one hundred men for six months’ service. The request was neglected. At the same time a filibustering expedition against Texas was only stopped by energetic measures. The Federal courts could effect nothing. An expedition captured both Lafittes, but they disappeared, and the writs were returned “not found.”
But now the tide turned. Society began to repudiate the outlaws. In July, 1814, a grand jury denounced them as pirates, and exhorted the people “to remove the stain that has fallen on all classes of society in the minds of the good people of the sister States.” Indictments were found against Johnness and Johannot for piracies in the Gulf, and against Pierre Lafitte as accessory. Lafitte was arrested, bail was refused, and he found himself at last shut up in the calaboza.