As New Orleans grapples with the legacy of slavery and racism embodied in the city’s statues, monuments, street names, and other public displays of honor, the name “Lafitte” has somehow escaped notice. That’s a mistake because Jean Lafitte, and his less famous half-brother, Pierre, were prolific slave smugglers.
The Lafitte brothers’ early lives are obscure, but Pierre likely arrived in New Orleans in 1803 and began smuggling slaves in the winter of 1805-1806, when he sold 11 people he had bought in Baton Rouge, then located in Spanish West Florida. The foreign slave trade was illegal in U.S. territory, but across the border, Spanish subjects could lawfully import people from Africa.
The next year, Pierre traveled to Spanish Pensacola, bought more enslaved people, and again shipped them to New Orleans.
The slave smuggling business expanded in 1809 when Jean joined his brother in the Crescent City and the two found a new source of enslaved people: French privateers commissioned to attack Britain, France’s enemy in the Napoleonic Wars. The Lafittes set up in Barataria, resupplied the privateers, and moved their captured goods and people into Louisiana.
In 1811, new privateers arrived bearing commissions from Spanish American governments seeking their independence from Spain. Between 1809 and January 1814, the Lafittes sold some 550 people brought to them by privateers.
After the Battle of New Orleans, at which their contributions were modest, Jean and Pierre set up shop in Galveston, Texas — and continued smuggling enslaved people.
At first, the Lafittes made buyers come to them and they arranged transportation, sometimes by sea and sometimes through the bayous. Later, the Lafittes built a shelter near the Sabine River to sell slaves closer to Louisiana. James Bowie, famous for his knife and his later role at the Alamo, was a buyer.
Jean and Pierre quit Galveston in 1820, but they didn’t quit slave dealing. The next year near Havana they captured a ship with 200 enslaved people aboard. Slave smuggling was lucrative and the Lafittes refused to give it up.
Neither brother has a statue, but the Lafitte name is ubiquitous along the Gulf Coast. There are the towns of Lafitte and Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, whose residents are connected by a drive down Jean Lafitte Boulevard. A division of the National Park System is called Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. A few years ago, Lafitte Greenway linear park, which runs along Lafitte Avenue, opened with hopes of urban revitalization.
Private establishments named after Lafitte in the city include the Lafitte Hotel and Bar and the Jean Lafitte House, as well as Café Lafitte in Exile and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar.
Also, the University of New Orleans sports teams are the Privateers; until 2017 they were cheered on by Lafitte the Instigator, an alligator mascot named for Jean.
“Pirate” is the epithet most often applied to the Lafittes, and their defenders respond that they were actually privateers. But the Lafittes’ privateering activities revolved around slave smuggling.
There’s room for debate about how historical figures are remembered. Andrew Jackson, for example, has a complex legacy. He owned slaves, put off the slavery issue as president, and approved Indian Removal, but he also encouraged the expansion of democracy, upheld the integrity of the Union, and protected New Orleans from invasion. Though his statue in Jackson Square originally celebrated the Battle of New Orleans, in 1862 Northern troops who conquered the city remade the statue’s meaning by adding the words “The Union must and shall be preserved.” That, too, is part of Jackson’s legacy.
There’s no such ambiguity with the Lafittes, however. They were unrepentant slave traders, skilled at manipulating international conflicts and borders to their advantage. Yes, the Lafittes of legend are lovable rogues, but the reality was far different, and as the reckoning continues over who makes a proper namesake, the truth of the past must come first.
David Head is an associate lecturer at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of "Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic."