A review by Chris Gray for Preview.
Jean Laffite is one of those classic rogues — dashing, enterprising, more than a little shady — without whom American history would be lot more boring. Now, thanks to the recent book “Jean Laffite Revealed,” it’s come to light that the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and unofficial Galveston founding father spent nearly the last 50 years of his life living under an assumed name in North Carolina.
The authors, the mother-daughter team of Beth Yarbrough and Ashley Oliphant, picked up Lafitte’s trail as a long-running local legend in their hometown of Lincolnton, N.C. Confirming it, though, became an odyssey that found the duo digging through courthouse basements in seven states, “and multiple stops in each state,” says Oliphant.
“This was a tough research project,” she adds. “We spent lots of hours in dusty basements of courthouses in the rural South, and hours and hours of poring over huge ledger books.”
History remembers Laffite as a pirate in the central-casting mold, and in fact his life formed the basis of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1938 film “The Buccaneer,” which was remade 20 years later starring Yul Brynner as Laffite. Yet despite the inevitable Hollywood distortions, “Laffite himself really was a larger-than-life character,” swears Yarbrough, “and so somewhat deservedly, the legends have grown up around that.”
Probably born in France, Laffite was undoubtedly a smuggler par excellence. (Oliphant and Yarbrough have chosen to spell Laffite’s name the same way he himself did, with two f’s and one t, though many others prefer “Lafitte.”) Along with his older brother, Pierre, by the early 19th century Laffite had established a virtual fiefdom in the Barataria swamps south of New Orleans, where their crew filled warehouse after warehouse with ill-gotten seafaring gains: spices, rugs, leather goods, furniture, fine china, crystal and more. Other ships they raided contained human cargo.
“I think that’s the part of it that we really want to emphasize with our research: This was a bad guy,” says Oliphant. “He was responsible for hundreds, if not probably thousands, of enslaved people being stolen and resold into that awful institution. That was a very large part of his business.”
Despite Laffite and his men’s assistance to Gen. Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans (which secured them presidential pardons), within a few years they had exhausted the Louisiana authorities’ patience. At that point, the Laffites relocated to Galveston Island, where they founded a settlement called Campeche.
They ran their operation out of the island until 1820, when the Americans caught up with them again. Laffite burned most of Campeche on his way out of town but left a lasting impression that has been passed down through the Jean Lafitte Hotel, now an apartment building; the now closed Lafitte’s Beat gift shop; and one of the island’s more entertaining (if cheesy) tourist attractions: the Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast museum on the Strand.“Jean Laffite Revealed”
“I think he realized very quickly in Galveston that it was not going to work, as evidenced by how short lived that operation really was,” says Oliphant. “It was very shortly after he was forced out of Galveston that he really sort of went on walkabout in the Gulf.”
Here is where Oliphant and Yarbrough’s research diverges from conventional history. Many historians believe Laffite perished in the mid-1820s, shortly after Pierre’s death, either from illness or in battle. But the authors of “Jean Laffite Revealed” believe an old friend from New Orleans helped Laffite lie low in Cuba until emigrating to Mississippi around 1830. He began going by the name Lorenzo Ferrer and got into the cotton business, continuing to keep a low profile.
In Mississippi, Laffite/Ferrer also made the acquaintance of the Hendersons, an influential family with deep roots in the Lincolnton area; he eventually followed them there. What follows hits the high points of what happened next, but it’s worth buying the book to read the whole fascinating story in full.
“All of a sudden he was buying houses, he was buying land, he was loaning money, he was forming lodges, he was signing public petitions, he was making speeches and giving toasts,” says Yarbrough. “So that, to us, points to the fact that the old Laffite personality finally felt safe enough to emerge again after many years of insulation and invisibility and fear of discovery.”