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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Jean Laffite

by Clay Coppedge

Before 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 history.

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.

A 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 regular customers.

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.

In 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.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
January 1, 2010 Column

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