Jean Laffite is a household name around South Louisiana, even if we don’t spell it like he did. There’s Lafitte’s Treasure Casino right off the Grand Coteau exit on I-49; Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Acadian-Cultural Center and the Lafitte Oaks on Jefferson Island, where the pirate is said to have buried some of his treasure.
But the big mystery is not where Laffite decided to hide his gold (or how to spell his name). It’s whether he faked his death in the 1820s and lived out the rest of his life under a new identity in both Mississippi and North Carolina.
Jean Laffite Revealed, written by mother-daughter team Ashley Oliphant and Beth Yarbrough, was published by UL Press on March 15. Taking a fresh look at the myths and legends surrounding the pirate, the book illustrates that Jean Laffite was much more than just a privateer and smuggler — finally giving him the attention and notoriety he so deserves.
The Americanized version of the pirate’s name has two “Ts,” but both Jean and his brother, Pierre, were known to spell their last name with two “Fs” in signed documents, so that’s what the authors chose to go with in chasing down Jean’s rumored life disguise in North Carolina.
“It all started with a persistent local legend that sparked an itch we were never quite able to scratch,” write the authors in the “preface.” Oliphant and Yarbrough are from Lincolnton, N.C., where Laffite is believed to have lived undercover as Lorenzo Ferrer for 35 years after faking his death in the Caribbean.
Written as historical nonfiction, the book reads like a mysterious adventure tale, taking readers from the bayous around New Orleans to Galveston, Cuba, Mississippi and, eventually, North Carolina. The authors weave stories of Freemason plots, double agents, jail breaks, faked deaths and murder along the way.
Jean Laffite Revealed begins with the pirate’s murky origins in either France or Spain and moves into the bayous south of New Orleans, the home for his highly profitable smuggling operation. Laffite operated after the Golden Age of Piracy, considered by historians to have ended in 1720. Unlike their predecessors, by the early 1800s, Laffite and his brother, Pierre, had government authorities, legislative import acts and tax collectors to contend with. They used their blacksmith shop on Bourbon Street in New Orleans as a cover for their illegal empire.
While the Laffites lived in the French Quarter, they worked on a remote set of islands in Barataria Bay, south of New Orleans. Jean had taken the helm of a band of pirates when the U.S. found itself at war with the British crown in 1812. The British approached him in 1814 to join their side in what would become known as the Battle of New Orleans, which raged after the hostilities of the War of 1812 formally ended.
Laffite pretended to be on board to buy himself time to notify his home city of the British military’s plans. New Orleans wanted nothing to do with the pirates and went as far as to clean out their warehouses of stolen goods, confiscate ships and burn their headquarters in Barataria to the ground.
The Laffites evaded capture, though, and Jean finally used his connections inside then-U.S. General Andrew Jackson’s circle of friends to convince him to work with the pirates. Laffite would ultimately provide 7,500 flints for guns and 1,000 pirates for manpower while Jackson promised to reward him with prisoner releases and pardons.
It might be a stretch to say the Laffites were responsible for the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans, but Jackson thanked the brothers publicly, and they were invited to attend a grand parade and ball. The celebration didn’t last, though, as the Laffites were left without a base from which to operate and close to penniless.
Texas had been on the pirates’ radar for several years, and it was in 1817 that Jean took control of another pirate’s operation in Galveston. The settlement of Campeche was like a new Barataria, and the Laffites used the Sabine River to move slaves and merchandise back and forth to New Orleans. Things were good for about a year before a hurricane took out the settlement and Laffite reportedly began to lose control of his men. The brothers departed Galveston in 1820 and are believed to have relocated to the Yucatan peninsula.
Pierre died in 1821 in Mexico, while Jean was jailed in Cuba, where he faked an illness and escaped from the hospital. It is uncertain what Jean did next, and the most widely accepted theory is that he passed away somewhere in the Yucatan in the 1820s.
But the authors don’t believe that for a second. They picked up his trail in 1830s Copiah County Mississippi, where cotton was becoming king. Their research suggests he was using the name Lorenzo Ferrer by this time and working as a land speculator. It was in Mississippi that he met the Henderson family of Lincolnton, N.C.
The handsome Frenchmen with trunks of gold became a local legend in Lincolnton — and for good reason. “Loranzo” Ferrer, age 55, appeared on the 1839 tax roll in Lincoln County. He had a beautiful woman, Louisa, by his side and was the talk of the town riding with her down main street. He inserted himself into local society by joining a church, paying taxes and becoming treasurer of the Freemason lodge. One of his first recorded business deals involved the Henderson family, who would remain his friends and possibly his cover until his actual death.
Laffite’s legend in Lincolnton involves a possible son by Louisa, an alleged murder at a plantation, an argument with another Frenchmen also living undercover and a sword with his initials hidden in plain sight.
The authors present much evidence throughout the book — from handwriting samples to tax records — to prove the Lincolnton legend is true. But perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence is Jean Laffite’s will.
I’ll spare you the spoilers, but will say Jean Laffite Revealed is a wild ride until the end and is sure to kickstart your interest in the legend of Laffite and a history of piracy.
The authors of Jean Laffite Revealed will be at Beausoleil Books May 25 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. for a discussion and book signing. Tickets are $10 and available via Eventbrite.