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What do we know about legendary pirate Jean
That will be the question posed and answered
in an upcoming series offered by the Calcasieu Parish Public Library system.
The first class, set for Nov. 5, will discuss
"Lafitte: The Myth and the Reality." The second class, to be held
Nov. 12, will discuss "Lafitte on Screen: Yul Brynner" and "The
Buccaneer." The third and final class, Nov. 19, will cover "Lafitte
The program, which is free and open to the
public, will be held at the Iowa Library, at 107 East First Street. Dr. Cheryl
Ware will conduct the program, which will run from 6 p.m. to 8 p. m. on
Tuesdays in November.
"I decided to go with Lafitte merely
because I thought it was something that spoke to this area specifically, mainly
Southwest Louisiana, but also other areas along the Gulf Coast, such as
Galveston and Barataria," said Cornell Thomas, director of the Iowa
Lafitte, the man:
"Colorful, but deeply complicated."
That's how Brandon Shoumaker, genealogy
associate at the Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library,
"You can think of him as a Wyatt Earp
who built his own legacy, and even stories that have been retold by historians
are things that he wrote himself and sold to the public," Shoumaker said,
adding that Lafitte built his own legacy, in a way.
"The stories of treasure, the stories of
him saving the United States at the Battle of New Orleans, these things kind of
build him up to be larger than life. It's a neat story. Who knows how much of
it is actually true?" said Shoumaker.
Lafitte and other outlaws frequented the Lake
Charles area. During his time, the region was considered "No Man's
Harvey Downs, also a genealogy associate at
the Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library, said before the
Louisiana Purchase, it wasn't always clear who owned certain tracts of land, as
France and Spain had both laid claim to Louisiana at different times.
For this reason, Downs said neither nation
patrolled the area, not wanting to overstep their bounds. According to legend,
Lafitte took advantage of this by using Lake Charles as a point of trade and
using the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers to hide from authorities.
Charles Sallier, an early settler of Lake
Charles, is also said to have had contact with Lafitte, as recorded in his diary.
However, for those still looking for
Lafitte's rumored treasure buried along the Contraband Bayou, you may be
"There's a whole legend about him
burying his treasure here (in Lake Charles), but that's false. Pirates would
never bury their treasure … What they usually did when they would get any
bounty or ‘booty' was split it up among the pirates on the ship, and usually
they'd go to a port, and they'd spend it all drinking and stuff like
that," said Downs.
Lafitte participated in the Battle of New
Orleans during the War of 1812, assisting the fledgling United States in
suppressing an attack by the British on the city. Lafitte did this, even though
the British were after him at this point.
"I think he believed he was ultimately
doing something good," Shoumaker said. "However, in modern times,
looking back, I think you can say he wasn't doing very much good at all, but he
was a product of his time. He did what he had to do to survive … He did some things
to give back, as with the Battle of New Orleans and helping the United States
against the British – some say for personal gain."
Despite the many gray areas concerning
Lafitte's real life, his legacy endures. He is mentioned in articles dating
back to the 1800s in The Times-Picayune, the Lake Charles American
Press, the Opelousas Courier and more. One writer even claimed to
have interviewed the great-grandson of Lafitte, although no name is given for
him. The identity of Lafitte's parents and descendants remains a mystery filled
with countless conjectures.
"I know one of his sons died in New
Orleans as a young man due to a yellow fever outbreak in about 1831,"
Shoumaker said. "There's still conjecture about who his parents are. We
don't even know for sure who he came from in the first place, and his name
could even be a made up name."
All that we know about Lafitte – be it true
or false – is celebrated annually in Lake Charles at the Contraband
Days Festival, including the traditional takeover of the town and the
ceremonial walking of the plank by the Mayor of Lake Charles.
There is also a local group called the
Buccaneers, who perform local historical re-enactments, including those during
the Contraband Days Festival. Each year, the group chooses one member to reign
as the local Jean Lafitte. This year's Jean Lafitte is an Iowa resident. More
information on the Buccaneers is available on their Facebook page.
"Just in listening to the tales that
have gone on (about Lafitte) in each little area (of Louisiana) – and that's
not that much – look at all of the conflicting stories… To those that come here
seeking more information, the interpretation is left up to you as to who he
really is," said Armajean Declouet, genealogy associate at the the
Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library.
More on the program:
The classes are based on the book LaFitte the
Pirate by Lyle Saxon. The course is part of a pilot program in the
"Readings in Literature and Culture" (RELIC) series by the Louisiana
Endowment for the Humanities. RELIC was created to advocate reading, literacy
Dr. Cheryl Ware, the program instructor, is a
retired Professor of English at McNeese State University.
Those interested in attending the program are
encouraged to pre-register, as space is limited. Originally, only 20 slots were
available, but the number has been increased to 25 due to local interest in the
program. To sign up, call 337-721-7101 or visit the Iowa Library.
Attendees are encouraged to show up 15
minutes early to pre-register. Light refreshments will be available.
For more information on Lafitte, contact the
Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library at 337-721-7110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
There will also be several books on display
at the Iowa Library throughout the program, including Barataria: Battle of
New Orleans, and The Pirates Lafitte. These books will be available