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:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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 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.)

The following information comes from a 1909 entry in the Louisiana Encyclopedia, published by the Southern Historical Association in Atlanta, GA, and edited by Alcee Fortier, Lit. D. 

"Smugglers.—European wars, in the closing years of the 18th century, developed a class of men who had become expert in the practice of privateering, and in the early years of the 19th century privateers, claiming to operate under French letters of marque, infested the Gulf of Mexico, Spain's commerce being their object of prey.

The headquarters of these privateers were the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, but these islands were captured by the British in 1806, and in Feb., 1810, the privateers were driven out. They then transferred their base of operations to Barataria bay (q. v.) on the southern coast of Louisiana. a spot well suited to their purposes.

The island of Grand Terre was fortified, and on Grand Isle they built dwellings and storehouses, and even paid some attention to agriculture. About the time they were driven from their island haunts the province of Columbia declared itself to he independent of Spain, and the government of Cartagena granted letters of marque to the privateers, who then lowered the French flag and hoisted the standard of the new republic. This change was easy, as the band was composed of men of all nationalities, cosmopolitan in their notions of allegiance.

The first official notice of the acts of the "Smugglers of Barataria" in Louisiana was on Sept. 6, 1810, when Thomas E. Robertson, then secretary of the Territory of Orleans, issued a circular, announcing the arrival of two cargoes of slaves via Barataria bay, though both goods and slaves had previously been smuggled into New Orleans through Bayous Lafourche and Teche.

During the Spanish domination the officials conducted themselves as though they believed there was nothing really wrong in smuggling, and it was therefore perfectly natural that the people should take a similar view of the matter, They could buy goods more cheaply from the smugglers than elsewhere, hence they did not hesitate to give encouragement to the illicit trade.

The Baratarians now became bolder and more active in their operation. Through the Lafitte brothers, Jean and Pierre, who acted as their agents in New Orleans, orders for goods were placed with as much publicity as though they were being bought from agents of authorized and legitimate trading houses.

Jean Lafitte subsequently became the chief of the Baratarians, and under his skillful leadership, his arts of finesse, the smugglers reached the zenith of their greatness in 1813. On March 15 of that year Goy. Claiborne issued a proclamation concerning the "banditti" who had on Lake Barataria "armed and equipped several vessels for the avowed purpose of cruising upon the high seas and committing depredations and piracies on the vessels of nations at peace with the United States, and carrying on an illicit trade in goods, wares and merchandise with the inhabitants of the state."

He commanded them to disperse, but the smugglers paid no heed to his proclamation. On April 7 legal proceedings were begun in the U. S. district court against Jean and Pierre Lafitte, for the violation of the revenue and neutrality laws of the United States, but, as it is a hard matter to secure a conviction where the strength of public opinion is in favor of the defendant, the prosecution was barren of results.

About this time the band became widely known as the "Pirates of Barataria." They were charged with carrying the black flag and of attacking the merchant vessels of all nations, but there was no evidence that this was true. They admitted that they were smugglers, though they persistently denied the charge of piracy, claiming that they attacked only the ships of Spain, which nation was then at war with both France and Colombia.

On June 23, 1813, a British sloop of war attacked two privateers under the lee of Cat island, but the Englishman was driven off. In October a party of revenue officers seized some smuggled goods near New Orleans. They were fired upon by a small detachment of the Baratarians and one of them was wounded. This and other highhanded proceedings drew forth from Gov. Claiborne another procla-
mation on Nov. 24, offering a reward of $500 for the capture of Jean Lafitte, who in turn offered a reward of $15,000 for Claiborne's head.

In Jan., 1814, the smugglers had another skirmish with the revenue officers, and again came out ahead. Claiborne appealed to the legislature for men and means "to disperse those desperate men on Lake Barataria. whose piracies have rendered our shores a terror to neutral flags." But the legislature refused to act. Several expeditions sent against the outlaws by the United States accomplished nothing. because the people who were in sympathy with the smugglers always managed to find means to warn them in time. One of these expeditions arrested both the Lafittes. but they effected their escape, and the writs were returned endorsed "not found."

Finally, however, public opinion began to waver, then to array itself against the Baratarians. In July of 1814, a grand jury found indictments against two captains—Johnness and Johannot—for piracies committed on the gulf, and against Pierre Lafitte as accessory. Lafitte was shortly afterward arrested and committed to jail in default of bail.

The same jury called on the people to aid in removing "the stain that had fallen on all classes of society in the minds of the good people of other states." On Sept. 2, 1814, the British brig Sophia appeared off Grand Terre and a small boat, bearing Capt. Lockyer. another naval officer, and a captain of infantry, came in to shore with a packet of papers addressed to "Mr. Lafitte, Barataria." It contained, 1st, an appeal of Col. Nicholls to the. people of Louisiana to assist in restoring the province to Spain; 2nd, a letter to Lafitte, offering him. $30,000 and a captain's commission as inducements to enter the British service; 3rd, a proclamation of Capt. Percy of the sloop Hermes; and 4th, a copy of the orders under which Lockyer was then acting.

Lockyer, with his companions and crew, was detained on the island until the following morning, when Lafitte asked for 15 days to make up his mind. Scarcely had the British emissaries left the island when Lafitte wrote to Mr. Blanque, a member of the Louisiana legislature, as follows: "Mr. Nicholas Lockyer. a British officer of high rank, delivered to me the following papers, two directed to me, a proclamation, and the admiral's instructions to that officer, all herewith enclosed. You will see from their contents the advantages I might have derived from that kind of association. I may have evaded the payment of duties to the custom house; but I have never ceased to he a good citizen; and all the offense I have committed I was forced to by certain vices in our laws.

"In short, sir, I make you the depository of the secret on which perhaps depends the tranquillity of our country: please to make use of it as your judgment may direct. I might expatiate on this proof of patriotism, but I let the fact speak for itself."

The only direct favor asked was the "amelioration of the situation of my unhappy brother," who it will he remembered was then in jail on an indictment of the grand jury. The morning after Blanque received the letter, the following advertisement appeared in one of the New Orleans papers : "A reward of S1.000 will he paid for the apprehending of Pierre Lafitte, who broke and escaped last night from the prison of the parish. Said Pierre Lafitte is about 5 feet 10 inches in height, stout made, light complexion, and somewhat cross-eyed, further description is considered unnecessary, as he is very well known in the city. ***  The above reward will be paid to any person delivering the said Lafitte to the subscriber.    J. H. HOLLAND, Keeper of the Prison."

The escape of Pierre Lafitte just at the time Blanque received the letter may have been merely a coincidence, but at any rate he was not recaptured. He joined his brother at Barataria. and soon after, another letter to Mr. Blanque enclosing one to Gov. Claiborne, offered the services of the Baratarians, to defend the state against the British invasion then imminent.

Claiborne called a council, consisting of Commodore Patterson, Col. Ross and Gen. Villere to consider the offer, and .Gen. Villere, commander of the Louisiana militia, was the only one who voted to accept their services. At that time an expedition against the smugglers was in preparation. It was now pushed forward with more vigor and on Sept. 16 the fleet, under Patterson. with Ross' troops on board, appeared before the entrances of Barataria bay.

After a sharp fight the "pirates" were driven from their stronghold, 3 vessels bearing the Cartagenian colors, 7 cruisers, and some contraband stores were captured and some of the band taken prisoners. The two Lafittes escaped up the Bayou Lafourehe to the German coast and warned the people there of the movements of the British. 

General Andrew Jackson On The Scene

A remnant of the band gathered on Last island, some 60 miles west of Barataria, but the days of the smugglers were over. About this time Gen. Andrew Jackson appeared in New Orleans to take command of the troops for the defense of the city. Jean Lafitte sought an interview with him and again tendered the Services of himself and his men to aid in protecting the state against the British forces.

Although Jackson referred to them as "hellish banditti" he subsequently accepted the offer. and his report of the battle of New Orleans said: "Captains You and Beluche, lately commanding privateers at Barataria, with part of their former crews and many brave citizens of New Orleans, were stationed at Batteries No. 3 and 4. The general cannot avoid giving his warm approbation of the manner in which these gentlemen have uniformly conducted themselves while under his command, and of the gallantry with which they have redeemed the pledge they gave at the opening of the campaign to defend the country. The brothers Lafitte have exhibited the same courage and fidelity : and the general promises that the government shall be duly apprised of their conduct."

What a change had come over the spirit of Jackson's dream ! On Sept. 21, 1814, the Baratarians were "hellish 'banditti and pirates"; on Jan. 21, 1815, exactly four months later, they were "privateers and gentlemen." He evidently kept his promise to see that the government was duly apprised of their conduct, for on Feb. 6 President Madison issued a proclamation granting amnesty to the smugglers.

In this proclamation he said: "It has long been ascertained that many foreigners, flying from dangers of their own at home, and that some citizens, forgetful of their duty, had cooperated in forming an establishment on the island of Barataria near the mouth of the Mississippi for the purpose of clandestine and lawless trade. The government of the United States caused the establishment to be broken up and destroyed; and having obtained the means of designating the offenders of every description, it only remains to answer the demands of justice by inflicting exemplary punishment.

But it has since been represented that the offenders have manifested a sincere penitence; that they have abandoned the prosecution of the worst cause for the support of the best; and particularly that they have exhibited in the defense of New Orleans unequivocal traits of courage and fidelity. Offenders, who have refused to become associates of the enemy in war upon the most seducing terms of invitation, and who have aided to repel his hostile invasion of the territory of the United States, can no longer be considered as objects of punishment, but as objects of generous forgiveness. It has therefore been seen with great satisfaction that the general assembly of the State of Louisiana earnestly recommend these offenders to the benefit of a full pardon. *    *

Every person claiming the benefit of this full pardon, in order to entitle himself thereto, shall produce a certificate in writing from the governor of the State of Louisiana, stating that such person has aided in the defense of New Orleans and adjacent country during the invasion thereof as aforesaid."

The president also recommended that all suits, indictments. and prosecutions for fines, penalties and forfeitures against persons entitled to this full pardon should be stayed or dismissed. Thus were the Barataria smugglers finally disposed of, though some of them sought other lands and there continued the calling, which seemed to have for them a strange fascination.

For a long time the islands about Barataria bay were believed by many to conceal some of the "pirates' treasure." Searching parties tried repeatedly to unearth this treasure-trove, and even yet there are some persons who believe the islands contains a portion of the smugglers' ill-gotten gains.

Pirates and Smugglers

Click on the images to make them larger and more readable. 


See also:

Gold Coins Found in Honey Island Swamp

 Jean Lafitte, Gentleman Pirate

 The King of Honey Island



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