Sunday, January 26, 2020

Pirates In St. Tammany

Before the Pirates of the Caribbean there were the pirates of the Crescent City. The two best known pirates south of the lake were well-acquainted with St. Tammany in many ways, but one was a scoundrel and the other was a hero. 

For the details, we turn to an article written in 1976 by my favorite feature writer, Polly Morris of the News Banner. The text of her article about Pirates Jean Lafitte and Pierre Rameau follows:

THE TALE OF TWO PIRATES 
By Polly Morris

In the early 1800's two tall men were well known in St Tammany. Both were famous and infamous, daring and debonaire. They both laughed at the law and left tales of buried treasure behind them.

In all the world could there never be two men so alike, yet so different. One was a blonde, the other a brunette. Both were suave, sophisticated, and "well-dressed." And they were welcomed in the best salons and drawing rooms in New Orleans. One of them was also welcome in St Tammany. The other was feared and hated.


The two men must have brushed shoulders in New Orleans but their parallel lives parted in St Tammany. Probably they discreetly avoided each other in both places. Nor could
they ever have been best friends.

REBEL AND RASCAL

Pierre Rameau had taken a French name, but he looked nothing like the swarthy Frenchmen. He was a big man with a blonde beard that had a coppery hue. His peculiar grey eyes were shadowed, by thick black brows. His real name was Kirk McCullegh. He was well-­born and well educated...and well accustomed to duplicity.

In New Orleans he was Colonel Phillip Loring who lived in a mansion in the best part of town. He was absent much of the time because he had mining interests in Mexico that demanded his attention.



During his absence from the city, he changed into different person, because he was then Pierre Rameau, the King of Honey Island, and the leader of bloody cutthroats that raided by land or by sea in four states. Rameau's fast boats, fast horses, and fearless men burned and killed and robbed to keep his coffers filled with stolen treasures and costly merchandise.

THE SCREECH OWLS

This lawless band was known as "Chats-huantes", or screech owls, for their secret signal in the swamps was the shrill wavering cry of the screech owl. In New Orleans there was also a collection of screech owls that were different from the desperados. They were reputable businessmen who met at a club called the Chats-huante so exclusive that it too was almost secret. Only these men knew that the esteemed Colonel Loring was also Pierre Rameau and they kept their secret well. Not out of loyalty but because they shared his guilt and his profits.

THE TRAITOR

Despite the veneer of respectability, Pierre was pure pirate at heart. He was a merciless killer who tortured men to make them tell where their gold was hidden. He once tied the victim to a chair and set the house on fire, hoping to burn the man alive.

When Jackson came to New Orleans to defend the city against the British, the elegant Colonel Loring offered his services, expecting an honored commission in the Army. To his indignation, the doughty General was not impressed. Loring was welcome to fight, but that was all. The Colonel covered his surprise well and accepted the humble offer with apparent good grace. But under the well-fitted waistcoat beat the hot heart of the blackguard Pierre Rameau.

Once behind the lines he carefully observed the defenses and ascertained the strength of the British forces The Scotland born son of a rebel had always played a winning hand, and he always intended it to be that way. He would tell his St Tammany screech owls of his decision.

He slipped away during the night and went to Sir Edward Packenham, the British commander. He gave Packenham the plans of the "enemy" defense and joined with the British fighting forces. For once in his life, he lost. His riddled body was found the day after the battle of New Orleans. He had died fighting against the city that had admired him as one of their own.



JEAN LAFITTE

The other tall man was welcome in St Tammany, for Jean Lafitte was a favorite everywhere. He was strikingly handsome, with hazel eyes and a silky black mustache. He was strong built, but slender and supple as a rapier. He stood over six feet tall in his highly polished boots of the softest leather, and his olive complexion made his white teeth even whiter when he smiles, which he seldom did.



Jean Lafitte

Nevertheless he was a charming person especially with the ladies. He was born, he said, in 1780 in the Basque country in St. Malo in Marseilles.  He was the son of Bourbon aristocrats or French peasants. He deliberately confused his friends, either in jest, or to cover up his past. He and his brother Pierre must have had money because they bought a blacksmith shop and operated it with slave labor. Jean was the gentleman type who was at ease in the best social circles, but Pierre preferred the tawdry waterfront taverns frequented by seamen.

A BUSINESS PROPOSITION


Some of the seamen that Pierre met were also smugglers. They came to the blacksmith shop and met Jean. They needed a banker and an agent for their smuggled goods. Jean Lafitte agreed, because at that time smuggling was not frowned upon by the populace. Only the government officials who carefully looked the other way.



The Blacksmith Shop

From banker to boss was an understandable event, and soon Lafitte was spending about half of his time in the hideout at Barrataria. He was respected by the men, and wanted to protect them, and himself. So he immediately demanded that the loot be legal, so as not to anger the United States 'by taking American ships.' He obtained a letter of marque from the tiny Republic of Cartagena which authorized him to seize Spanish ships. This action made him and his followers into privateers, which was very acceptable at that that time.

Even the United States, which had only a small navy, had over 1,000 privateers during the Revolution.

Under Lafitte's expert guidance, the Barratarians expanded their operations, and Lafitte, as their agent, became known on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It is said that his ships came up Bayou Lacombe, and that there was a warehouse where the First National Bank now stands.

And there was supposed to be a house in Madisonville where Lafitte spent extended visits. He is supposed to have treasures buried in an island in Lake Borgne. And no doubt, he knew Honey Island where he and Rameau never collided, either by a gentleman's agreement or because of honor among thieves.

AVOIDS BLOODSHED

Maybe Lafitte avoided Rameau because he knew that Pierre was a cold-blooded killer, for Lafitte was a man who tried to keep out of trouble. Although he was an expert with a sword or pistol, he seldom resorted to violence. When he did it was because he deemed it necessary.

He hanged one of his men for molesting an American ship and shot another through the heart because the man said he was a pirate. But the picture of Lafitte boarding a ship with a dagger between his teeth, or making people walk the plank, is not true In fact, he was probably a poor seaman, because he stayed on shore as much as possible.

When war came to Louisiana, the British sought out the man they believed to be a pirate without principles and offered  him $30,000 and a commission to fight with them against the United States. They did not know that he was also a patriot who dearly loved his adopted country, even if he broke the laws against smuggling.

Lafitte cleverly played along with them until he learned their plans, then he went to the U. S. officials and betrayed the British and offered his services.

THE PATRIOT

The reply to Lafitte's offer was a raid on Barrataria, which was fortunately quite a failure. General Jackson in Mobile scornfully called Lafitte and his men hellish bandetti, but the gentleman smuggler waited with patience. He would not sell out his adopted county, even if it rejected him.

Later the privateer met with Jackson and the General changed his mind. Perhaps he admired the boldness of a man who still strode the streets in defiance of a price on his head from the Governor. Perhaps he felt he had more courage than the dapper Colonel Loring, because he put Lafitte in charge of two important batteries. After the battle was over, Jackson changed his tune from hellish bandetti to "gentlemen of courage and fidelity."




The tale of two tall men of Tammany ends. The two who were so alike...so different. One walked boldly erect, one sneaked out to the swamps of Honey Island. One served his country, and one sold it out to the enemy. One's bullet riddled body was found on the wrong side of the ramparts of the city that respected and admired him.


But both were men who well knew St. Tammany.


That was the end of Polly Morris' article about the two pirates.

See also:

Gold Coins Found in Honey Island Swamp

 Jean Lafitte, Gentleman Pirate


 The King of Honey Island

 

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Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.