This account of the activities of the infamous pirate Pierre Rameau was written by Edwina Grace Damonte Fredricks nearly 100 years ago. It was found in the Louisiana Digital Archives as a transcription project of the Works Progress Administration.
Pierre Rameau "The King of Honey Island" Emerges From the Dim Past
By Edwina Fredricks
The domain of the king of Honey Island has been until recently a hideout for fugitives from the law. Few know what its depths contain. A man who wished to disappear could lose himself in the Honey Island swamp as completely as if he had journeyed to the Brazilian jungle. With a gun, a fishing pole, a pirogue and a dog he could lead a primitive existence and be able to protect himself from the panther, bobcat, wild hog, Louisiana brown bear and snakes which inhabit this great swamp.
But the swamp awakens at nightfall, and the fear-ridden man who seeks concealment there will wish himself back in his prison cell or even stretched at the end of a rope. Strange cries will assail his ears- the screech owl, the specter-like query of the hoot owl, the croak of the bullfrog and tree frog and the blood-chilling scream of the panther.
Now, as in the old days, sections along the river and certain spots of high land are inhabited, but with this difference: The inhabitants of today are industrious and honest folk who fish, hunt and raise live stock for a living.
A white ribbon of concrete highway cuts through the center of the swamp, further violating one of the last great havens for wildlife still existing in Louisiana. Motorists, hurrying to and from the Gulf Coast along this highway, give scarcely a thought to the mystery that lies beyond their vision, and few realize that within this swamp once flourished one of the most daring and successful robber bands that ever operated in America.
The Best Known Pirates
Who has not heard of Jean and Pierre Lafitte, their daring piracy, the price put upon their heads by Governor Claiborne, and their subsequent pardon, granted for their assistance in the defense of New Orleans against Sir Edward Packenham's British soldiers? The Lafittes had many historians and as a consequence few people realize that the Lafittes formed but a small part of the number of daring, cruel, lawless men who operated in and around New Orleans in the 1800s.
Pierre Rameau, one of the most daring and colorful robbers in the history of American outlawry, flourished in the same years that the Lafittes were accomplishing their successful depredations on ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
Had the engagement between the forces of General Andrew Jackson and General Edward Packenham resulted in a British victory, the name of Rameau would have outshone that of the Lafittes in dark luster; for Rameau rendered the same type of service to the British that the Lafitte furnished Jackson.
Born In Scotland
A dashing, handsome fellow, born Kirk McCullough in Scotland, Rameau practiced his profession of robber and slave thief in Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas, bringing his lot into New Orleans for disposal. His base of operations and hide-out was on Honey Island and his band was known as the Chats-Huants (the Screech Owls).
In the swamps and along the lonely trails he was Pierre Rameau, but to the wealthy merchants and politicians in now Orleans he was "Colonel Loring," a cultured gentleman and soldier whose mysterious comings and goings were not investigated so long as their dealings with him were so profitable. He danced at the most exclusive balls of the wealthy Creoles and many a timid heart fluttered at the attentions of the handsome officer 'just home from a trip to his mines in Mexico!"
Louisiana, at this time, was a fledgling state, and the victim of a malady recurrent in its history. Lawlessness had insinuated itself into business and government. Anglo-Americans were cordially despised by the Latin Creoles, and four men cared to help the Americans fight their war with the British.
It was not until General Andrew Jackson, a typical Anglo-American came to rule the city with his rough, resolute and imperious will, that the heyday of the pirate and robber drew to a close, and the male populace of New Orleans was fused, in the host of defensive battle, into a city of American patriots.
Battle of New Orleans Challenges The Pirates
The careers of Rameau and the Lafittes reached their zenith in the decade prior to the Battle of New Orleans. In this historic event, Rameau met dishonor and death; Jean Lafitte and his band were honored as patriots. But, professionally, all found the ways to easy wealth closed or unprofitable and vanished from the American scene.
From Barataria Bay on one side to Honey Island on the other, New Orleans was hedged in with a cordon of outlaws. Rameau and the Lafittes divided the coast between them; to the westward of the Mississippi were the slave baracoons and outposts of the Lafittes. Eastward, along the bay of Saint Louis, Pearl River and in the heart of Honey Island, the mysterious Rameau operated.
Unlike the Lafittes, who never pretended to be anything better than dealers in stolen goods, Rameau sought the society of persons of influence and culture, and played the part of a fine gentleman so well that he became a great favorite at balls and soirees.
Swamp Trails The Most Dangerous
We must remember that in those days there were no roads, no trains. A traveler came to New Orleans along narrow trails; or, if he lived along the Gulf coast, he made the trip by sailboat through Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain. The best defined trail led from the west shore of the Bay of Saint Louis in a direction somewhat west of North through a wild country to the wilder region of the upper Pearl River.
This trail, which was known as the Blackwolf trail, had been a highway for the Indians as far back as tradition went, a road which led from their hunting grounds to tho breezy bluffs of the gulf, where they spent the hot season bathing, fishing, eating, smoking. But since the coming of the white man, the highway had been put to other uses: soldiers, horses and cannon; caravans of settlers, oxen, mules.
Little trails, meandering and less distinct, came into the Blackwolf trail on its way to the gulf, and he was an alert and experienced woodsman who could go among those entangling paths without bewilderment. In those days all of the ways of the wood were ways of danger.
Self-reliant freebooters rode beneath the pines and wide-sproading oaks. Treacherous and savage as were the Indians, they feared the "riders" and were glad to slink away whenever these cavaliers made their appearance.
Pearl River, as far up as Honey Island, afforded a waterway by which vessels could bear the plunder of the "riders" to New Orleans, by way of the Rigolets and Lake Pontchartrain. No small part of the traffic of the city at that time of lax government and corrupted politicians came from this and similar sources.
New Orleans Surrounded by Pirates
With the Lafittes on one side and the confreres of Pierre Rameau on the other, New Orleans was fed by streams of ill-gotten wealth.
Scrutiny of Rameau's methods reveals that he and his Chats-Haunts did their boldest and most remunerative work at a long distance from their headquarters on Honey Island. While it is true that no traveler or settler was entirely safe in its vicinity, this band obtained the greater part of their booty and slaves from Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas.
This policy greatly aided wealthy and influential men in New Orleans to offer Rameau protection so long as the civil and military government was almost paralyzed in Louisiana, and those very protectors controlled, directly or indirectly, the government itself.
Politically powerful friends of Pierre Rameau exerted themselves to have "Colonel Loring" attached to Jackson's staff when that officer prepared for the defense of New Orleans against the British, and fortified their recommendation with the statement that "Loring" knew the whole country as a sailor-pilot knows his chart and was, besides, an officer of varied and successful experience in the service. General Jackson denied the request, and Rameau, returning to New Orleans from no one knows where, was just in time to be informed of Jackson's peremptory refusal.
"I do not need more staff officers or more officers of any kind," said the general. "If 'Colonel Loring' desires to fight for New Orleans, let him report to me at once with a gun."
Learning of the Lafitte's rejection of the British general's offer of pay to lead the attacking force to a strategic position against Jackson's army, Rameau communicated with the enemy and found no difficulty in obtaining the favor of General Packenham, who recognized him as one who had done him a great and dangerous service years before. Moreover Rameau brought with him perfect maps and drawing of all American defenses and full descriptions and reports of all the troops under Jackson and the probable order of their distribution.
Wounded During the Battle
Rameau was critically wounded in the Battle of New Orleans and fled the battlefield. Wounded in the body and in both arms, he still had the use of his feet and made his way to the nearby plantation home of a Creole friend whose wife and family had been sent there for safekeeping in the erroneous belief that the British would attack from another direction.
Battle of New Orleans. Image from a recent history book
There Rameau was pursued by a former associate named Vasseur, who had suffered at his hand in earlier days and who left the pursuit of the fleeing British to others and bent his steps in the direction taken by Rameau to settle his personal grudge.
Entering the parlor of the plantation home where Rameau was being attended by the ladies, Vasseur, in his wild wrath, draw a dagger and sprang at Rameau, shrieking, "Die, Pierre Rameau, die, die!" But Pierre Rameau had heard such commands before.
"Fool," was all he said; and raising with the promptness of a steel spring, he kicked the little man through the open doorway.
Vasseur arose, put his hands to his crushed chest, tottered for a few paces and sank to the earth, still in death. Rameau turned and passed through the house without a word and was soon lost in the depths of the wood.
There his body was discovered and brought to New Orleans by one of his Creole associates and interred in a heavy brick tomb under a spreading oak. His grave for a time bore a tablet with a simple description, the words with which this article began:
"The domain of the king of Honey Island has been until recently a hideout for fugitives from the law. Few know what its depths contain. A man who wished to disappear could lose himself in the Honey Island swamp as completely as if he had journeyed to the Brazilian jungle. With a gun, a fishing pole, a pirogue and a dog he could lead a primitive existence and be able to protect himself from the panther, bobcat, wild hog, Louisiana brown bear and snakes which inhabit this great swamp.
"But the swamp awakens at nightfall, and the fear-ridden man who seeks concealment there will wish himself back in his prison cell or even stretched at the end of a rope. Strange cries will assail his ears- the screech owl, the specter-like query of the hoot owl, the croak of the bullfrog and tree frog and the blood-chilling scream of the panther.
"Now, as in the old days, sections along the river and certain spots of high land are inhabited, but with this difference: The inhabitants of today are industrious and honest folk who fish, hunt and raise live stock for a living.
"A white ribbon of concrete highway cuts through the center of the swamp, further violating one of the last great havens for wildlife still existing in Louisiana. Motorists, hurrying to and from the Gulf Coast along this highway, give scarcely a thought to the mystery that lies beyond their vision, and few realize that within this swamp once flourished one of the most daring and successful robber bands that ever operated in America.
Pirates in St. Tammany