The Old Booksmith


A Partial Lineage of Descent from Jean & Pierre Lafitte






I first got interested in the Lafitte brothers years ago, when I learned of their activities in Texas, establishing the settlement at Galveston. More recently, evidence has turned up to show that the brothers acted for awhile as intelligence agents for the Spanish government. And now I live in south Louisiana, their principal stomping grounds, which brought them to mind again. As with all semi-mythical historical figures, there's a lot of fantasy (to put it politely) published about them. In the decade that I served as Editor of the Louisiana Genealogical Register (2000-2009), I received at least one unsolicited "article" every year making totally undocumented claims to descent from one of the Lafitte brothers. I have given below only what genealogical evidence seems to have been documented and verified (though much of it is questionable) — but not all the obfuscatory tales Jean spread about himself.

Generation One

1. Unknown1 Lafitte.

Known children (both probably born in Bordeaux or Bayonne, France) of Unknown1 Lafitte and his equally unknown spouse were as follows:

  • + 2. i. Pierre2 Lafitte, married Adelaide Maselari; born before 1779; also had a mistress, Marie Louise Villars.

  • + 3. ii. Jean Lafitte, born 1780?; had at least one child by his mistress, Catherine Villars.

It should be noted that "Lafitte" is a not uncommon surname in southwestern France and that there were several other Lafitte families in late 18th & early 19th century Louisiana that have no connection whatever with the Baratarian brothers. This is especially the case with the family of Jean Lafitte, pére et fils, who arrived in New Orleans in the 1760s, where the father was a respected merchant. He married Isabelle Roche in 1777 and their son, Jean, was baptized 7 Feb 1779 at New Orleans. The latter became a seaman and moved to the French islands in the West Indies sometime before the Purchase in 1803; he appears to have died at sea c.1817. This Lafitte family's home was located at 3 Chartres St. and they owned a small plantation in what is now Audubon Park. Jean Sr. 25 Sep 1789 and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1; Isabelle died in 1806. The Lafitte brothers who are of immediate interest to us probably did not appear in New Orleans at all before the city and the Louisiana Territory were acquired by the United States.

A comment on the surname: The most common present-day spelling is "Lafitte," and that is the spelling I have preferred here. However, in the few extant documents which Jean and Pierre can be proved to have signed, they both spelled their name "Laffite." Neither spelling, however, is either correct or incorrect. (Documents created by the Spanish government often spell the name"Lafit" or "Lafita"; this sort of extreme variation is well known to Louisiana genealogists.)






Generation Two

2. Pierre2 Lafitte (Unknown1); probably born before 1779 in Bordeaux or Bayonne, France; married Adelaide Maselari (date unknown, but probably 1809 or early 1810). He also took Marie Louise Villars of New Orleans as a mistress in 1811; they had seven children, all of whom apparently survived to maturity.

NOTE: Most of the events in which Jean and Pierre both took part are detailed under Jean, below.

Pierre suffered what was probably an apoplectic stroke in 1810 in New Orleans, which left one side of his face paralyzed. In April 1814 in New Orleans, following an indictment by Governor Claiborne's secret grand jury [see below], Pierre was arrested in the street and held in the Cabildo without bond. He was examined while in jail by two doctors on 10 August 1814, after claims that the confinement was affecting his health. He escaped from the Cabildo on 6 September 1814, probably with outside help, and made his way to Barataria.

On 6 September 1814, Pierre is known to have visited Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia [see below], carrying with him a letter from his brother to the president in an attempt to recover their contraband property.

On 3 January 1820 at New Orleans, Jean wrote to Commodore Patterson, again protesting the innocence of himself and his brother; this was the last mention of Pierre in any documentable source — though he apparently went to Washington again in May 1820 to see the president on behalf of their condemned crewmen. Pierre Lafitte also was reported to have been seen clandestinely leaving Charleston, South Carolina, in a schooner in March 1821, possibly on a piratical expedition.

The only thing known of Adelaide Maselari is that she (aparently) was born in St.-Louis-of-Jeremie Parish, Santo Domingo.

Only known child of Pierre2 Lafitte and an unknown person was:

  • + 5. i. Pierre3 Lafitte, born before 1808? in New Orleans, Louisiana; married Marie Berret or Veret (date unknown).

Only known child of Pierre2 Lafitte and Adelaide Maselari was:

  • 4. i.Marie Josephe3 Lafitte; born 27 October 1810 in New Orleans, Louisiana; baptized 16 January 1811 at St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. Sponsored by Louis Badela ("native of Marseilles in France") & Louise Leont ("infant's maternal aunt, resident of Jeremie") [Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Vol. 10 (1810-12), p. 255 (citing SLC B22, 117)].

    In the 1830 city directory, Marie Josephe was recorded as living at 141 Hospital St, New Orleans (with the Sauvinet family).

The following record also appears on the same page of the published Sacramental Records:
         Lafitte, Jean-Baptiste (son of [blank] Lafitte and [blank] De Villars, born [blank], baptized c. 20 May 1811 (citing SLC B24, 47) "Ed. note: Reconstructed from volume index, pages were torn out."
         It's very tempting to see this as representing another child of Jean Lafitte & Catherine Villars. Also, this is the only case I remember seeing anywhere in the Sacramental Records where pages were actually torn out!

Marie Louise Villars or Villiard (reportedly a quadroon or octaroon) was born January 1791 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was baptized 14 March 1793 at St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. Her sponsors were Martin Robin & Marie Badon, but her parents' names were omitted. [Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Vol. 5 (1791-95), p. 385 (citing SLC B13, 36)] She was a sister of Catherine Villars, the mistress of Pierre's brother, Jean.

NOTE: There is considerable uncertainty and disagreement over whether Jean or Pierre ever actually married, or whether the sisters noted above (and perhaps other women) actually were their mistresses, or whether either of them ever actually had children. It comes down to how conservative one chooses to be in interpreting the sources. A discussion at the Laffite Society website points out that a connection can be demonstrated through legal documents — though not necessarily a romantic one. In 1811, for instance, "Pierre Laffite" sold a slave to Adelaide Maselari, as recorded on a document with his recognizable signature in the New Orleans Notarial Archives (which has been closed to researchers since Hurricane Katrina, unfortunately). There also are several transactions in the Notarial Archives between Pierre and "Marie Villard" after 1815, mostly slave sales. And Jean appears as surety on the note issued when Marie purchased a house at the corner of Bourbon & St. Philip Streets in 1816.

Probable children of Pierre2 Lafitte and Marie Louise Villars all born New Orleans, Louisiana, were as follows:

  • 6. i.Jean3 Villars; born 1816.

  • 7. ii.Rose Villars; born 28 August 1812 in New Orleans; baptized 22 March 1814 (Mother: Maria Luisa, native of this city. Sponsored by Martin [surname omitted — may be "Lafita"], "child's brother" & Caterina, "child's sister"). Rose passed for white, married an Anglo, and apparently had several children after 1830 in New Orleans [whose identities are problematical].

  • 8. iii.Unknown Lafitte; baptized circa March 1825. (not yet located in the New Orleans Archdiocesan records.)

3. Jean2 Lafitte (Unknown1); probably born 1780? in Bordeaux or Bayonne, France (also reported born 1781 in St. Malo, France, but this is demonstrably incorrect); Catherine Villars (or Villiard) seems to have become his mistress about November 1812 in New Orleans, Louisiana; he died probably in 1826 at Losbocas, Yucatan, Mexico (reported to have died of fever while on a dyewood expedition out of Charleston, and to have been buried in Silan, 15 miles from Merida). However, there are several other reasonable possibilities and the only thing that may be said with any degree of certainty is than Jean died sometime between 1822 & 1830.

The legend persists that Jean disappeared after c.1821, changed his name and his appearance, remarried, and took up residence in St. Louis or elsewhere in Missouri. This is based entirely on a fraudulent journal produced in the late 1940s by John Andrechyne Laflin, who claimed to be a descendant. He refused to allow anyone to examine the document until 1969, when he sold it to an antiquities dealer. It subsequently was donated to the Sam Houston Regional Library, a branch of the Texas State Library (in Liberty, Texas, where I have seen in on display). Experts have pointed out the strong similarities between Laflin's handwriting and the handwriting in the purported journal.

Jean probably first visited New Orleans with his brother in 1804. He and Pierre Lafitte lived in 1809 in a cottage at the corner of St. Philip & Bourbon Streets in New Orleans, and operated a blacksmith shop attached to the cottage, as well as a shop on Royal Street. They also sold slaves obtained from "unknown sources," which were warehoused in Grande Terre. Jean was actually seen by 18-year-old Esau Glasscock in November 1809 in New Orleans, as reported in a surviving letter by Esau to his brother in Virginia.

Jean apparently joined the privateers already active at Barataria, following clashes between different groups of slave-smugglers in October 1810. In 1811, he was living at Grande Isle, Louisiana and built a house at Grande Terre. Jean and Dominique You (or Youx) — who may have been another Lafitte brother or half-brother — the sources are unclear, but "You" was well known at the time to have been a pseudonym — began their privateering association c. September 1811.

On 16 November 1812 at Barataria, Jean and Pierre Lafitte were arrested by Capt. Andrew Hunter Holmes of the U.S. Dragoons, and charged with smuggling slaves following the slave rebellion of January 1811 — an event which was widely blamed on the smugglers of Barataria by the planters in south Louisiana. While awaiting trial, they attended a birthday party on 25 November 1812 at New Orleans for General Jean-Robert-Marie Humbert, which ended in a near-riot. On 29 November 1812, they stood trial as smugglers. The trial was carried over to the Spring session, but the brothers could not then be found. Their bonds were forfeited and arrest warrants issued, which made them outlaws.

Gov. William Claiborne issued a proclamation ordering that Lafitte's auctions of stolen slaves and goods cease immediately, effectively outlawing him (again) on 15 March 1813. On 23 June 1813 at Barataria, the captain of a British sloop of war attacked the pirate stronghold but was driven off. Revenue officer Walker Gilbert caught Lafitte with contraband goods in the marshes near the city on 14 October 1813, tried to arrest him — and actually did succeed in capturing the schooner — but then was routed by the pirates in a counterattack.

Gov. Claiborne thereupon issued another proclamation, on 24 November 1813, offering $500 reward to anyone delivering Lafitte to the authorities. Jean issued his famous counter-proclamation two days later, offering $1,500 to anyone delivering Gov. Claiborne to him at Grande Terre! (This exchange was hugely enjoyed by the citizens of New Orleans.)

The Lafitte brothers announced an auction of contraband goods and slaves in January 1814. In response, the U.S. Collector of Customs sent a small force to close the auction but, on 20 January 1814, the pirates killed three of them and held the rest prisoner. Pierre was thereupon arrested in the street and held in the Cabildo without bond in April 1814 [see above]. By June 1814, Jean was hiding out in an inn at Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish [. . . just across the River from my present residence, in fact . . .], while awaiting Pierre's trial. (He is also known to have met Mrs. Claiborne, wife of the governor, while visiting the plantation of a friend between New Orleans and Barataria in August 1814.)

On 3 September 1814 at Barataria, Lt. Col. Edward Nicholls, commanding the British forces in Florida, attempted to bribe the Lafittes (offering money, land, and forgiveness of acts of piracy against British shipping) into joining him against the American forces in Louisiana. Jean delayed the colonel and the next day wrote a letter to Gov. Claiborne, offering his services to the American forces in return for dropping the piracy charges against himself and his brother (who was still being held in the Cabildo at that point). Col. Nicholls apparently received intelligence of the approach of ships of the U.S. Navy and withdrew.

U.S. Navy Commodore Patterson, together with Col. Ross, with a schooner, six gunboats, and three barges filled with armed men, attacked Barataria on 11 September, intending to destroy the pirate stronghold. The pirates declined to resist against the U.S. flag on this occasion and scattered, but more than 80, including Dominique You, were captured. Hundreds of others escaped easily into the swamps. More than $500,000 worth of vessels and goods were captured from Barataria five days later.

Meanwhile, on 14 November 1814, Gov. Claiborne warned the Legislature of an imminent invasion by the British and called for the immediate arming of the militia. Gen. Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans on 2 December. Jean met with Jackson and offered to supply him with flints and ammunition. Jackson (who had already established martial law) accepted the proffered aid, ordered the captured pirates freed on his own authority, and put them to work in the defense of the city, probably about 10 December. The British army was quickly discovered to be encamped nine miles down the river from the city. On 23 December 1814, Jackson ordered his army of 2,130 men downriver to the attack, which prevented the British from immediately invading the city, and bought the American forces some time.






The Battle of New Orleans

On 8 January 1815 on the Plains of Chalmette, 3,200 Americans & Creoles, more than half of whom had never seen action before, decisively defeated more than 12,000 seasoned British regulars. Losses: 3,000+ British, 71 Americans (killed/wounded/missing).

Despite claims in numerous works of history regarding the active role of the Baratarian pirates — or, contrariwise, their complete lack of involvement — and notwithstanding the heroic images put forth in many novels and films, there is extremely little reliable information regarding the part played by Jean, Pierre, and their men. From hints in official reports, it appears that the pirates primarily manned and vigorously operated a battery of several field guns, . . . which would fit the situation, since war at sea requires expert skill at gunnery, and the pirates were certainly skilled sea-fighters.

In any case, there was a celebration of public thanksgiving in the city for the victory on 23 January 1815. Pres. James Madison pardoned the Baratarians, canceled all criminal legal actions against them, and restored them to full citizenship on 6 February 1815.






What did the brothers get up to following the war, with their piratical and slave-smuggling activities effectively curtailed in south Louisiana? Only recently discovered in the Spanish colonial records in Seville is the intriguing fact that the Lafitte brothers subsequently were in Texas (between November 1815 and June 1816), acting as spies for the Spanish government against the Mexican revolutionaries.

Then, taking advantage of the temporary desertion of Galveston, Jean occupied and fortified the town in May 1817, and changed its name to Campeachy, intending to recomence his pirate activities, under a Venezuelan flag-of-convenience. Indeed, the brothers ran a very successful slave-dealing operation out of Galveston. Apparently, Catherine Villars joined him there in 1818; she was reported keeping house for him by American letter-writers. In August 1818, however, a major hurricane destroyed Galveston/Campeachy, and Catherine was injured when the fort collapsed.

On 7 July 1819, Jean replied to a letter from James Long, head of the filibustering expedition to Texas, who had asked his assistance — assuming incorrectly (and rather naively) that Lafitte was on the side of the Mexican revolutionists. "General" Long even visited Galveston in September 1819, seeking Lafitte's aid for his filibustering expedition. He didn't get it. Instead, on 11 December 1819, apparently still acting as an agent, Jean wrote a report on the Long expedition to the Spanish governor in Havana.

Meanwhile, one of the Lafittes' ships had been captured by the U.S. revenue cutter Alabama on 1 December 1819 off the coast of Louisiana, and its crew arrested and taken in irons to New Orleans. Jean and Pierre appeared again in New Orleans a few weeks later, when the old Baratarians were threatening to burn the city unless the captured pirates were released. Jean wrote to Commodore Patterson, again protesting the innocence of himself and his brother.

Jean remained at Galveston until about May 1821. Finally, acceding to the demands of the U.S. Navy, he abandoned Galveston/Campeachy, destroying the remains of the settlement as he went. Reportedly, he was one of the few to escape after his pirate schooner was captured near Cuba in December 1821, nearly all the rest being killed or captured. He was subsequently reported to be engaged in not very successful piratical actions off the coast of Cuba in May 1822. He also is reported to have been captured following a shipwreck on the Cuban coast in November 1822; supposedly, he was thrown in prison at Puerto Principe, but escaped with the assistance of some local friends. (There is no documentation whatever for this story, however.)






Among the demontrably non-factual stories about Jean, many of which he promulgated himself at various times, for his own reasons:

      • He shipped as 1st Mate on a French East Indiaman in 1802.

      • According to himself (in 1821), he had been a merchant in Santo Domingo 18 years before and there married a wealthy woman. He returned to Europe, but his ship was captured by the Spanish on the way and everything he had was stolen. He and his wife were marooned on a sandy islet but were picked up by an American schooner and dropped off at New Orleans. His wife died a few days after their penniless arrival. He claimed he had been a stout enemy of Spain for fifteen years (i.e., since 1803) in Santo Domingo.

      • He became a pirate based on Mauritius in 1803. He made a second cruise as an Indian Ocean pirate in 1807, transferred his operations to the West Indies, and began attacking British shipping in 1809.






Catherine Villars was also known as Jeannette. She was born about 1799 in New Orleans. She was a sister of Marie Louise Villars, who became the mistress of Pierre Lafitte, and was therefore presumably also a quadroon or octoroon [see above].

Known children of Jean2 Lafitte and Catherine Villars were:

  • 9. i. Pierre3 Villars; born November 1815? in New Orleans; baptized November 1815? at St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. The record states that he is illegitimate son of Catherine Villars & Jean Lafitte. Baptized by Father Antono de Sedella. (Not in Archdiocesan records.)






Generation Three

5. Pierre3 Lafitte (Pierre2, Unknown1); born before 1808? New Orleans, Louisiana; married Marie Berret (or Veret) circa 1827? New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana; date of death unknown but he was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, New Orleans.

In the 1830 city directory, he was recorded as living at 67 Barracks St, New Orleans.

Marie Berret reportedly was born in Baracoa, Cuba.

Known children of Pierre3 Lafitte and Marie Berret were:

  • 10. i. François4 Lafitte; born (date unknown) New Orleans, Louisiana.






A while ago, I received a note from Toni Langlais calling my attention to some additional information about this Pierre, son of Pierre. In Vol. 15 (p. 221) of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Sacramental Records, which covers the years 1822 & 1823, the following appears on p. 221:

LAFITE, Maria (daughter of Pedro [i.e., Pierre], native of Bordeaux in France, and Maria VERET, native of Baracoa on the island of Cuba, both residents of this city), baptized October 2, 1823, born September 17, 1823; paternal grandparents Pedro LAFITE and Juana DELAS, maternal grandparents Ambrosio VERET and Maria MAS. Sponsors, Antonio FERLA and Maria VERET. [Records of St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, Book B-33, p. 68]

So, this would have the elder Pierre (and presumably also Jean) born in Bordeaux instead of Bayonne . . . but considering how many different birthplaces the brothers cited over the years, we'll probably never know for certain. However, since Maria was born in September 1823, and there's no indication that she was illegitimate, the marriage date of Pierre and Marie Berret (or Maria Veret) should be pushed back to late 1822 — which also implies that Pierre's birthdate should be pushed back to about 1804 or earlier.

So: Who is Juana (or Jeanne) Delas, who is given as Pierre's mother, and therefore the wife or mistress of Pierre Senior? That's not a name I've seen before in connection with the Lafittes, so I'll have to work on that.






Sources

The historical material on this page originally was taken from Lyle Saxon, Lafitte the Pirate (New York: Century, 1930; reprinted by Pelican Publishing Co, 1989). Saxon also cites information from a lengthy article on Lafitte's abandonment of Galveston, published in United States Magazine and Democratic Review, July 1839, and from an article by George A. Pierce published in DeBow's Review in October 1851. I have not yet been able to obtain copies of these two articles. (It should be noted that Saxon was not in any way an academic historian and cites no original sources. Opinions of subsequent researchers regarding his work range from "generally reliable" to "historical fiction.")

To this base was added much additional information from William C. Davis, The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf (San Diego: Harcourt, 2005) — an excellent work from a leading historian, and one which I highly recommend.

Another recent source is Jack C. Ramsay, Jean Laffite: Prince of Pirates (Austin: Eakin Press, 1996), which, for various reasons, I have found not nearly as useful. He proposes several unusual (and unsourced) theories regarding the brothers' origins and early lives with I find unlikely.

I know there is still a great deal more information out there — especially in the publications of The Laffite Society, headquartered in Galveston — and I will try to locate them and update the information on this page as necessary. (Many of these are small press publications that are expensive and/or very difficult to find.)

I also know that descendants of either Jean or Pierre were claimed to have been identified in the early 1930s in connection with oil rights to various properties on Barataria, of which they claimed to be the legal heirs — but I haven't found descendants of those individuals, either. (This is the starting point for most of the claimed descents submitted to the Louisiana Genealogical Register, as described at the top of the page.) I do know, however, that before signing leases, oil & gas companies (as well as lumber companies and the U.S. Forestry Service) have long been in the habit of carrying out extensive forensic genealogical investigations by contracting with professional genealogists. This research is generally pretty reliable since it may be required as evidence in court. The reports resulting from such research, however, are proprietary and I'm not aware that any corporation has released its family research files for publication or other purposes. Copies presumably are provided to the lease-issuing families but occasional inquiries I have made about this over the years have never turned one up. Very frustrating.