Who was Jean Lafitte?

A depiction of Jean Lafitte from "Lafitte the Pirate" by Lyle Saxon, published in 1930.
A depiction of Jean Lafitte from "Lafitte the Pirate" by Lyle Saxon, published in 1930.
A depiction of a meeting house for pirates in New Orleans from "Lafitte the Pirate" by Lyle Saxon, published in 1930.
A depiction of a meeting house for pirates in New Orleans from "Lafitte the Pirate" by Lyle Saxon, published in 1930.

What do we know about legendary pirate Jean Lafitte?

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 in Louisiana."

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 Library.

Lafitte, the man:

"Colorful, but deeply complicated."

That's how Brandon Shoumaker, genealogy associate at the Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library, describes Lafitte.

"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 Land."

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 disappointed.

"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."

The legacy:

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 and culture.

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 genstaff@calcasieu.lib.la.us.

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 for checkout.

For more information on this and other programs, visit the Iowa Library web page at www.calcasieulibrary.org.

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