Pirates of the Mississippi: The Lasting Legacy of Jean Lafitte

Pirate—and culture—hunting on New Orleans’ Westbank

Driving down Jean Lafitte Boulevard, the main road of tiny Lafitte, Louisana, it’s easy to forget that you’re less than 20 miles from New Orleans. It’s just across and downriver from the French Quarter, but in Lafitte, you won’t find 18th-century mansions with ornate ironwork or perfectly restored Creole cottages. Instead, you’ll see modest homes sitting high on stilts, protection for when the water in the bayous and canals surrounding the hamlet rises after rain or storm surges. Pirogues—light, flat-bottomed boats that might be described as a Cajun canoe—sit on lawns and in truck beds. There’s a good chance you’ll spot men in white rubber boots—a staple for shrimpers (some locals call them “Swamp Nikes” or “Cocodrie Converse”)—in rocking chairs on front porches and brown pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird, perched on pylons and dock.

Native Americans have lived in this area for thousands of years, but the French didn’t begin exploring it until the early 1700s. But even then, with energy and resources focused on New Orleans, the outlying swamps were left mostly unexplored and unsettled by Europeans. This made them a perfect outpost for a particular breed of outlaw: pirates. And it was Jean Lafitte, the most famous—or infamous—pirate of them all, who would end up lending his name to this tiny town.

Jean Lafitte, Louisiana

Historians aren’t certain about the details of Jean Lafitte’s early years, or even the place of his birth. What’s for sure is that he was born around 1780 and, by 1810, he and his brother Pierre were running a New Orleans blacksmith shop, where they also dealt in smuggled goods. Eventually, the smuggling operation outgrew the building on Bourbon, and the Lafitte brothers set up shop just outside of town on Barataria Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico just south of present-day Lafitte. The Baratarians, with Jean Lafitte as their leader, were hugely successful.

Lafitte and his band of pirates stayed on in the swamps, dodging the U.S. Navy while they intercepted ships, took their cargo, and sold it at illicit auctions. Lafitte stayed at odds with the U.S. government until 1814, when President Andrew Jackson offered him a deal: In exchange for helping to fight the British, Lafitte and all of his men would be pardoned for all their piracy. Lafitte accepted and, in 1815, he and his men played a major role in the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans—and in the War of 1812.

Barataria Preserve in New Orleans, Louisiana

After the war, Lafitte continued as a smuggler and privateer, traveling throughout the Gulf and Caribbean. He died off the coast of Honduras in the 1820s, wounded while trying to capture Spanish merchant ships.

Life went on in the area surrounding Lafitte’s Barataria hideout, and soon what had been an illegal outpost of bandits became a settlement of Cajun fishermen, trappers and traders. The early Cajuns were joined by other groups who began to settle the area: Germans, Isleños (descendants of Spanish colonists from the Canary Islands) and Spanish Basques. They were joined by immigrants from the Balkans—especially Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast—who revolutionized Louisiana’s oyster industry.

This mix of Cajuns, Spaniards and Southeastern Europeans survived in the swamps by banding together, intermarrying and sharing resources and skills. The community they built has survived war, natural disasters (including Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina) and manmade disasters (like the BP oil spill). That Lafitte still exists is not only a testament to Jean Lafitte, the pirate-turned-war hero, but to the everyday Louisianans whose descendants live and work there today.


Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop

Built in the 1720s, this briquette-entre-poteaux structure has survived two Great Fires, the War of 1812, the Civil War and more than a dozen hurricanes. One of the city’s only remaining examples of French colonial architecture, it is reputed to be the oldest building to serve as a bar in the U.S. Can’t drop in because you’ve already made plans to take a French Quarter carriage ride? Don’t worry, Lafitte’s bartenders will bring cocktails right out to your buggy.

Laffite's Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans. (©Shawn Fink)

Café Lafitte In Exile

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Café Lafitte was located in the building where Jean Lafitte had his blacksmith shop. It was a popular destination for artists and bohemians, including Tennessee Williams, because of its laid-back, welcoming atmosphere. When the owners lost their lease and had to move down the street, they brought that atmosphere with them to this larger, more versatile space—the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the nation.

Voleo’s Seafood Restaurant

If you know about the history of the area, Voleo’s seemingly strange mix of Cajun and German cuisines makes sense. The menu lists Wiener schnitzel and a Bavarian Platter on the same page as Cajun catfish nuggets and eggplant shrimp Creole. The décor is similarly mixed, with keepsakes featuring biermadchens in dirndls and family photos with captions written in Cajun French comfortably sharing wall space with taxidermied game.

Voleo's restaurant in Lafitte, La.

Lafitte Tourism Information Center 

At the foot the Intracoastal Canal bridge, this is the first building you’ll see headed into town. Inside the restored Acadian cottage you’ll find a collection of mechanized puppets.you’ll find a collection of mechanized puppets. Built by Frank and Eve DuPont, known worldwide for their unique style of marionette performances, the puppets tell the story of Jean Lafitte in Barataria.   There’s also an exhibit on the history of Barataria’s oyster industry. Staffed by locals, the center isn’t just a place to pick up pamphlets on swamp tours and wilderness hikes; it’s also a place where you can experience first-hand the warmth and hospitality the people of Barataria are known for. 

Lafitte Tourism Information Center puppetry vignette of Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

Want to get an idea of what Barataria looked like when Jean Lafitte first arrived? Visit the Barataria Preserve, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. On this 23,000-acre area of protected wildlands, you’ll see egrets, cranes, pelicans and alligators in their natural habitat. You can also visit a prehistoric Native American village on the half-mile-long Bayou Coquille Trail. Go deeper into the waters of Barataria on an airboat swamp tour.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

Terri Simon Coleman
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