Texas was known as a haven for Old West outlaws it
was a haven for pirates. All the famous pirates of the day sailed the Gulf Coast
waters: Captain Kid, Henry Morgan, Jean Laffite and Blackbeard. Of those, Laffite
was the best known and casts the longest shadow across Texas
As is often the case with legendary almost mythical characters
like Jean Laffite, the legend gets the spirit of the man right but is glamorized
beyond recognition by history and especially popular culture. With Laffite, it’s
likely that he was not a pirate at all, not in the way that pirates are portrayed
in movies and novels. What he was, particularly in Texas,
was a privateer.
privateer differed from a pirate, according to the participants anyway, in that
they carried letters of marquee from one nation or another, allowing them to pillage
and plunder ships with who the nation was at war. With France, Britain and the
United States still trying to settle things, somebody was at war with somebody
nearly all the time.
Jean Laffite was also a national hero, along with
Andrew Jackson, at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, the war that
settled once and for all whether or not Britain was going to control any of the
still-developing United States. Despite shifting loyalties (almost a job requirement
for pirates or privateers) Laffite can be viewed as much a patriot as a pirate.
Soon after his heroics at the Battle of New Orleans, where he cast his
lot with Jackson and America despite a financially lucrative offer from the British
for his help, Laffite found himself something of a liability to the American government.
Snubbed in polite society he moved his operation to a remote part of Texas
known then by the Karankawa tribe as Snake Island and today as Galveston Island.
Laffite and a few dozen buccaneers sailed seven ships into Galveston Harbor
in April of 1817, named it Campeachy and treated it as if they owned it, a rude
shock to the Karankawa who had believed for centuries that the land and its many
snakes belonged to them.
The island was soon lined with houses, taverns,
gambling parlors, houses of ill repute and other free enterprises. The town grew
to more than 2,000 people and many of them made a lot of money. One of Laffite’s
men wrote that gold doubloons were “as plentiful as biscuits.” Campeachy also
became the largest slave market in the New World. Jim Bowie and his brothers were
A hurricane leveled the Island in 1818. Laffite traveled
to New Orleans for a loan to rebuild the town but an officer of the U.S. Government
was waiting on him when he returned. Laffite was told that he would have to leave
the Island. Laffite assured the officer that he would do just that but he stayed
right where he was.
Laffite used a plot by former U.S. Vice President
Aaron Burr to claim everything from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean
for himself to stall for more time. General James Long, a confederate of Burr,
declared the island as an official Port of Entry to the Republic of Texas and
appointed Laffite as governor, as if Laffite needed an appointment to run the
island like it was his own private kingdom.
That situation was as temporary
as Burr’s hare-brained scheme. Laffite soon found that the times they were ‘a
changin’. The pirating business just wasn’t what it used to be. The United States
ordered Laffite off the island and this time they meant it.
1821, Laffite and a handful of men sailed out of Galveston
and “into the white mists of oblivion” as one poet put it. Where Jean Laffite
went and what he did after he left Galveston
is the subject of much conjecture and debate, but in Texas
the conjecture and debate usually centers on plundered treasures that he or his
confederates may or may not have buried at different locations along the coast
and southern waterways of the state.
Since the U.S. claimed much of Laffite’s
fortune as its own once he left Galveston,
Laffite is believed to have buried an enormous treasure on one of the sandy islands
near the Texas coast. The northwest tip of Padre Island has for years been known
as Treasure Dunes.
The rumors and tales of Laffite’s buried treasure extend
to the mouth of the Lavaca River and to the Sabine River near the town of that
same name. The Sabine River treasure is thought to have been dumped into the muddy
waters by Laffite’s men after they took down a Spanish ship and confiscated its
$2 million in silver.
There may have been something to this claim. In
the 1880s some fishermen with hoop nets scooped up a few silver bars, making the
Sabine ground zero for treasure hunters everywhere. The search was renewed in
the 1960s but came to nothing.
That doesn’t mean someone isn’t out there
looking for it right now.
Central Texas" January
1, 2010 Column