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For more information, contact the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in New Orleans, (504) 589-3882.

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In the footsteps of Jean Lafitte
From the bayous of Barataria to the back streets of New Orleans, the search for the pirate Lafitte takes some unexpected turns

Published: Mar/Apr 2002
Story and photos
by Carolyn Thornton

The Barataria Preserve unit of Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve is a nature lover’s paradise. According to legend, the area was used as Lafitte’s smuggling headquarters.
One of the least known and understood of our national parks is about as elusive and mysterious as the pirate from whom it takes its name. Divided into six units across south Louisiana, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve interprets the diverse history and culture of Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta region. Yet the wily pirate is rarely mentioned.

The French Quarter

“There’s little documented about Lafitte in New Orleans, so he isn’t mentioned on our tours,” said Dan Brown, ranger at the park and preserve’s headquarters in New Orleans.

Instead, the center’s interactive exhibits give an overview of Delta folkways from regional dialects to the wealth of wildlife. Free morning French Quarter walking tours concentrate on the city’s history, architecture or people. Passes are handed out at 9 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis for the 9:30 a.m. tour. Seasonal demonstrations might cover cooking, crafts or music.

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street is a well-known New Orleans landmark, although it’s not certain the famous pirate had anything to do with the building that dates from the 1780s.
The best-known landmark in town is a French Colonial cottage at 941 Bourbon St., known as Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. It’s not certain that Lafitte was associated with this building, but it dates from the 1780s. Farther along at 234-240 Bourbon, the Old Absinthe Bar has a plaque outside claiming Lafitte was a patron. He certainly wouldn’t recognize the place today, with its island palm decor and tropical fish swimming in aquariums.

The Battle of New Orleans

Lafitte was a French privateer, an individual licensed by a government to prey on enemy ships. But Louisiana Gov. William C.C. Claiborne considered him a criminal and offered a reward for his capture. The crafty Lafitte doubled the bounty for the head of the governor.

During the War of 1812, the British tried to bribe Lafitte in exchange for his assistance in fighting the Americans. Perhaps to protect his smuggling operation, Lafitte revealed the plot to Claiborne and offered the use of his men and arms. Commander of the Americans, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, didn’t trust Lafitte, but needed the munitions and arms he could supply. As a result, the Americans won the Battle of New Orleans fought at Chalmette. Later, President Madison pardoned all who had fought for the American victory, which turned the pirate Lafitte into a patriot.

“He was mainly running messages for Andrew Jackson,” said ranger Wanda Lee Dickey at the Chalmette Battlefield. “Jean Lafitte never saw action (in the Battle of New Orleans) as far as we know. Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner might have (in the movie ‘The Buccaneers’).”

At the Chalmette Battlefield unit of the National Park, six miles from the French Quarter, cannons mark the Rodriguez Canal where Jackson positioned his motley troops of Indians, Germans, Acadians, Americans, regular militia, free men of color, and the pirates. In the end, Jackson’s army of 4,000 had suffered only 13 casualties. British casualties numbered 2,000 among their 5,400 men, including their commander Maj. Gen. Edward Pakenham.

Today, a driving tour follows the action and goes past the Chalmette Monument that honors the American victory. The Creole Queen riverboat makes daily stops for ranger-led tours, and there are periodic living history programs.

Smugglers headquarters

The Barataria Preserve in Marrero represents the primordial Louisiana, where alligators lie submerged amid lavender water hyacinths and salvinia (tiny aquatic fern). Giant palmetto fronds seek sunlight in the dense undergrowth of ancient cypress trees. Knobby knees from the cypress root systems protrude from the soggy bottomlands.

When the national park was established in 1978, it took the name Jean Lafitte from a state park that had previously been located here. South of these sinuous waterways, Lafitte had based his headquarters for his Baratarian smugglers who controlled waterways from Pensacola to Galveston.

“There are stories that Lafitte would auction slaves within the boundaries of Barataria. Anyone who tried to capture him here would get lost,” said ranger Jack Henkels.

Now the Barataria Preserve is a haven for nature lovers. Boardwalk trails meander through the lush vegetation. Rangers lead programs on birdwatching, iris identification and moonlight canoe treks. Children’s programs emphasize preservation of the environment with topics on weather, wetlands, forests and endangered species.

The strongest evidence of the pirate’s presence can be found outside the boundaries of the Barataria Preserve. Towns named Lafitte and Jean Lafitte flank Bayou Barataria, which is from a French word suggesting dishonesty at sea. The folk history of Lafitte is charmingly presented through 12 animated panels in the new Jean Lafitte Visitors Center. Pirates in Action puppets dance amid smuggled treasure, fight in the Battle of New Orleans and celebrate victory.

Acadian culture

The remaining park units focus on Acadian culture. The Acadian Cultural Center at Lafayette gives the most in depth history of the 10,000 Acadians expelled from Nova Scotia during 1755-85. More than half died. Survivors adapted to the harsh environment of the Mississippi Delta’s backwaters, where they remained largely isolated until oil was discovered here in 1901.

The Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center at Thibodaux shows how Cajun music, food, language and culture differ from other places. Each Monday at 5:30 p.m., the center hosts an open jam session. Cajun and zydeco concerts are held beside Bayou Lafourche, weather permitting, the first Sunday of each month. Folk craft programs demonstrate how boats and nets are made. Gallery space has held everything from Smithsonian shows to local art.

Music is at the heart of the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center at Eunice. Every Saturday, the center hosts music and dancing at 3 p.m., followed by a cooking demonstration in a small studio. Occasionally artisans demonstrate their crafts. Exhibits explain the Cajun history and customs. It all sets the scene for the Saturday evening Cajun music radio show that’s broadcast live from the Liberty Theater next door.

While the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve has little to do with the pirate, he remains an important part of Louisiana’s folk history.

“Many of the wild tales concerning (Lafitte) seem to have come from the man himself,” wrote Lyle Saxon in “Lafitte the Pirate.” “This is probably the key to his mysteriousness.”

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.



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