Jean Laffite was an elegant scoundrel who, with his band of pirates, plundered British, American and Spanish vessels in the early 1800s while operating out of his stronghold at Barataria Bay, south of New Orleans.
Laffitte was born in Bayonne, France, probably in 1780 or 1781, the son of a French father and a Spanish mother. With his parents and his older brother, Pierre, the family emigrated to Espanola and then to the Louisiana Territory, arriving around 1804.
Laffite and his brother were quick studies when it came to the wide-open style of capitalism practiced along the American frontier, getting involved in piracy and smuggling and eventually organizing a sophisticated fleet of “privateers” that preyed on shipping along the Gulf coast and in the Caribbean.
When Louisiana Gov. William C. C. Claiborne put a $500 reward on Laffite’s head, the flamboyant pirate responded by posting signed wanted posters offering $1,500 to anyone who delivered Claiborne to Baratria.
The British sought to enlist Laffite on their side in the War of 1812, but he instead opted to fight alongside the Americans, helping Andrew Jackson secure victory in the Battle of New Orleans. As a result, he was pardoned for his maritime crimes by President James Madison but warned against further piracy from the Louisiana Territory.
He later took over Galveston, Tex., and established a new base of operations there for several years before being run out.
With his brother, Laffite continued pirating around Central American ports. He died around 1821, possibly on the Yucatan Peninsula.