Jean Lafitte
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THE LEGACY OF JEAN LAFITTE IN SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from TRUE WEST, Dec., 1979, p. 26ff;
Beaumont ENTERPRISE, Feb. 5, 1984.
Source: New York HERALD, as reprinted in Galveston DAILY NEWS, "Story of Lafitte," April 28, 1895.

Deep in the southwest corner of Louisiana lies a region once famed in American history as the "Neutral Strip." This forty-mile-wide stretch of wilderness and marsh land, principally in present-day Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, become a geographic entity in 1806 when the boundary between Spanish Texas and the United States was in dispute. In that year Spanish General Simon Herrerra and the American General James Wilkinson of Louisiana concluded the "Neutral Ground Agreement," whereby the Strip was left unoccupied by troops and law enforcement officials of either nation, and the agreement remained in effect until 1821.

Although a few legitimate land hunters settled there, the Strip soon became notorious for harboring the lawless elements and social outcasts of two nations, that ilk of humanity to whom piracy appealed and who became indispensable to the slave-trading and buccaneering activities of Jean Lafitte. It was also destined to retain its share of Lafitte legendry and folklore for most of a century.

Bounded on the west by the Sabine River and on the east by the Calcasieu (the Arroyo Hondo, or "Deep River" of the Spanish), the region is noted for its many deep, cypress-lined and moss-draped bayous, its marshy lowlands, and live oak-studded "cheniers," or marsh ridges, in the coastal or southern sector, and for its pine forests and hardwood bottomlands in the northern sector. Only a sprinkling of white settlers and slaves were living there by 1820. Elsewhere small bands of the fast-vanishing Attakapas tribe, led by Chief Calcasieu (or Crying Eagle), roamed the coastal confines, along with countless alligators, deer, bears, and black panthers.

By 1817 the privateers of Jean Lafitte and his predecessor, Luis de Aury, were capturing numerous Spanish slavers off the coast of Cuba. The pirate's barracoons, or slave pens, on Galveston Island were often swelled beyond capacity, containing a thousand or more African chattels. Many buyers came to the island to buy slaves at $1.00 per pound, and three brothers, John, Rezin, and James Bowie, were among the pirate's best customers. In 1853 John Bowie recorded in "DeBow's Magazine" that the brothers, who channeled their illicit slave trade via Black Bayou on Lake Sabine or via the Calcasieu to Lake Charles, realized a net profit of $65,000 in two years time from the sale of 1,500 Africans in Louisiana.

Then Lafitte learned that he could multiply his profits by marketing slaves direct to the Louisiana cotton and sugar cane planters. By December 1817, he had built two slave barracks, or camps in the Neutral Strip, one on Contraband Bayou, a tributary of the Calcasieu, and another at Ballew's Ferry, ten miles north of Orange, Texas, on the Sabine River. The latter site was later occupied by one of Lafitte's shipmates, Richard Ballew, who obtained a one-league land grant from the Mexican government and operated a Sabine River ferry crossing.

There were numerous early settlers of the Strip who sailed on Lafitte's ships, including Henry Perry, Pierre Guilotte, Henri Nunez, Jean Baptiste Callistre, Charles Cronea, Captain James Campbell, and Capt. Arsene LeBleu de Comarsac. By 1815 the latter had built his cabin at a point where the Calcasieu River intersected the Old Spanish Trail.

After Lafitte was driven from the Island, LeBleu became a rancher and cattle buyer. He drove his herds from Texas to New Orleans via the Old Spanish Trail, and his home became a well-known way station, or "stand," for the Texas cattle drivers along the Opelousas Trail. There were other Calcasieu residents, such as Charles Sallier, Michel Pithon, or Michel Trahan of Lake Charles, who were intimately acquainted with the old pirate and furnished his crews with beef and vegetables when their ships were in the Calcasieu River. It was their descendants who have perpetuated the legendry of Jean Lafitte in Calcasieu Parish (then St. Landry) almost to the present day.

In Lafitte's era, there were four tidal lagoons (two have since succumbed to natural and man-made channel routing) on the lower Calcasieu River, and the buccaneer could navigate the stream with the skill of a bar pilot. The largest, Calcasieu Lake, some fifteen miles in diameter, is encountered shortly after entering the Calcasieu Pass. The next two, Trahan's Lake and Indian Lake, have since disappeared, being little more than wide places in the stream; and the fourth and most beautiful, Lake Charles, was a two-mile, oval-shaped tidal lagoon, lined with moss-draped cypresses and willows, and a few log cabins dotted its banks. In Lafitte's day there were still a few Attakapas warriors living along the river. Today Lake Charles, La., is a thriving university, manufacturing, and seaport city of about 125,000 population.

In 1866 a traveler described the legacy that the sea rover had bequeathed to the Calcasieu region in a long article in the Galveston "Weekly News," as follows:

"This river was at one time the nest of the celebrated Lafitte and his band of pirates. Hackberry Island, in Calcasieu Lake, is pointed out as their naval depot, though it must have been deeper than now. An elevation on the river is to this day called Money Hill, and is pointed out as the spot where Lafitte buried his money. For fifty years the people of the country have occasionally been digging for it, but the proprietor has stopped it. Contraband Bayou is also pointed out as having had a depot at its head for the stowing of the goods these pirates smuggled into the country and also as a depot for the African slaves they imported."

Money Hill was also known as Barb's Shellbank, the site where the old Sallier house originally stood until 1841, when it was moved on rollers to the outskirts of Lake Charles. Around the turn of the century, this Acadian home, later remodeled, was believed to be the oldest residence still standing in Calcasieu Parish.

If the early inhabitants of the Strip held Jean Lafitte in high esteem, he reciprocated by showering them with luxuries of a type rarely seen on the frontier. In his journal, Lafitte made many references to the Neutral Strip and its residents, noting that "the Sabine and two other small rivers, the Calcasieu and the Mermentau, also served for transporting goods as far as Alexandria (La.)." Lafitte confessed that "many Negro slaves, gold, and jewels which I have given to my friends living near the Calcasieu . . . were stolen by some of my men who had revolted."

His journal also confirms that some of the Strip's residents who served Lafitte may have kept their families with them on Galveston Island. Certainly Capt. Jim Campbell's family lived there during the pirate era. Upon abandoning the island commune and dividing the property in February 1821, Lafitte wrote that "most of the families went north near the banks of the Sabine River."

Probably the oldest legend along the Calcasieu River was perpetuated by the descendants of Charles Sallier. A minor French aristocrat once living in the shadow of the guillotine, he and others reputedly escaped to Spain, and about 1811 engaged Jean Lafitte for a princely sum to resettle them in Louisiana. Months later, as the Barataria Bay pirate cast anchor in Lake Charles, the refugees watched in awe as dozens of Attakapas warriors scampered into dugouts, paddled out to the warship, and began scaling the gunwales. When the frightened Sallier dashed below decks to apprise Lafitte of the hostile intent, the buccaneer replied:

"Calm yourself, my dear sir, for they are my friends and will do my slightest bidding. The last time I was here a party of them undertook a trip for me on a mission of great importance to a settlement of Acadians in the (Bayou) Teche country."

Sallier borrowed a Creole pony from the Indians and scoured the countryside, but he found no site that appealed to him as much as the Barb Shellbank, later to be called Money Hill. He bartered trinkets to the Indians for the land and built his home there, of solid cypress, where it remained until the house was jacked up on log rollers and moved to Lake Charles. It would be four long years before Sallier would see the Barataria corsair again.

According to Sallier, a French agent contracted with Lafitte, following the Battle of New Orleans, to hurry to Bordeaux, France, on a top secret mission. During June, 1815, at the end of the famed "One Hundred Days," Lafitte one night loaded aboard a score of sea chests which contained the Emperor Napoleon's personal fortune. In the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, the emperor had hoped to avoid retribution by escaping to Louisiana, but when he failed to arrive at an appointed hour, Lafitte sailed away from Bordeaux without him.

One old Napoleonic warrior who reputedly also escaped on that voyage was Michel Pithon, who had fought for France in every battle from Austerlitz in 1805, Moscow in 1812, to the Battle of Paris in 1814. Again in 1836, Pithon fought in the Texas Army for some months, later rearing a large family at Lake Charles during his old age, where he also died at age ninety-seven in 1871. Having been a personal friend of the Galveston buccaneer, Pithon was a walking history book about Lafitte's voyages to Calcasieu Parish.

Early in September, 1815, Sallier was startled one morning to see a "strange, clipper-built schooner," bearing a massive spread of canvas, glide up the river to the Barb shellbank and cast anchors overboard. He was apprehensive at first, for a large complement of men scurried about the decks, where the muzzles of twelve brass ship cannons frowned their metallic belligerence. Soon two men came ashore, one a heavy-set man with a brace of musket pistols in his belt, and the other "a tall, dark man with a black mustache" and carrying a sword in hilt. The former was Lafitte's half-brother Alexandre, commonly known by the alias of Dominique You. It was a happy reunion for Sallier and a few of the other transplanted "aristocrats," who quickly supplied Lafitte with tons of fresh vegetables and beef, and later reveled for a week, gorging on the best of French brandies, wines, and Spanish cigars, aboard the pirate ship.

But Lafitte was as unpredictable as he was close-mouthed, and one morning Sallier awoke to find that the buccaneers had sailed away. It was later rumored that the schooner anchored again at a marsh ridge downstream near Trahan's Lake, where Lafitte and his henchmen carried some of Napoleon's sea chests ashore and buried them in the marsh.

Many months elapsed before Sallier saw the corsair ship in the Calcasieu again. This time Lafitte sailed north to Lake Charles, where his crew encamped for several weeks on the high bluff where later the H. C. Drew Lumber Company sawmill was built. Again his crew buried a large sea chest on the shores of the lake. While half of the pirates moved slave coffles and contraband booty overland to Opelousas and Natchitoches, the remainder scurried about for provisions of corn and beef, painted and caulked the hull of their ship, and repaired guns, rigging, and sails.

On this occasion Lafitte's ship had been in dire danger of attack as he prepared to enter the Calcasieu Pass, for he found that the New Orleans revenue cutter "Lynx" was engaged in antislaving patrols between him and the mouth of river. Relying on the brand of cat-and-mouse tactics that only pirates employed so well, the buccaneer schooner hoisted reserve sails and headed for the open sea. There Lafitte waited for darkness, then circled the cutter, and blanketed by fog, sailed into the Pass the following morning, leaving his pursuer baffled.

True to his tendency to act on sudden impulse, the pirates broke camp one morning and sailed away so abruptly that Lafitte left his favorite slave cook, Catalon, asleep on the shore. Sallier took charge of the young Negro for several months, and when Lafitte returned to the Calcasieu at a latter date, Sallier bought the slave for the price of two sides of beef.

Emancipated in 1865, Catalon survived in Calcasieu Parish until about age 94 but, having witnessed murders over the search and division of Lafitte's gold, the old man became notably silent about his former master's activities.

There was another ex-slave named Wash who died at Lake Charles in 1880 at age 104. Born in Africa, Wash was one of the slaves who as a young man had been sold by Lafitte on Galveston Island. Wash deserted his former owner in Kentucky and made his way south to Louisiana, where he attached himself to a new master. In general Wash's accounts of Lafitte agreed with those of Pithon and Sallier. One such tale related that Lafitte, whose ship was laden with booty from a particularly successful expedition, once entered the Calcasieu River while under pursuit by a large American frigate. Lafitte posted sentries at the mouth of the river to watch the warship's movements, and put half of his crew to work burying treasure in the vicinity of the Barb Shellbank. The rest built a clamshell fort, moved the guns ashore, and then they sank their leaky ship, with a portion of its decks still awash, nearby in the river.

Time passed, the American frigate sailed away, and the buccaneers returned to Galveston Island on a new schooner purchased at Lake Charles.

Some years later, two old Acadian Frenchmen, while scavenging aboard the hulk of Lafitte's old vessel, discovered two chests of silver plate and bars which had been overlooked by Lafitte's old cutthroats. The Acadians hastily removed the chests downriver to the vicinity of Cidony's Shipyard, where they buried them on a marsh ridge. Oldtimers of that vicinity believed that the old Acadians eventually returned and claimed their treasure, for in later years, beneath a curiously-marked cypress tree, a fresh excavation was found, the bottom of which was still filled with rust and imprints where the two sea chests had formerly lain buried.

As late as the 1890's, the remains of Lafitte's old fort at the Barb Shellbank could still be seen. Long known as "Dead Man's Lake," it consisted of a small depression in the soil (which trapped rain water), about 100 feet by 50 feet in size, and separated from the main stream by a levee of clam shell.

If during the last years of his life, the ex-slave Wash became as close-mouthed as a pirate, it was because of a murder he claimed he had witnessed. Only one of the many misdeeds known to have been perpetrated by greedy treasure hunters, it is best retold in old Wash's own words:

"A long time ago when I first came to this country and was living out on the prairie, east of Lake Charles, there came three men from New Orleans a-riding big American gray horses. These gentlemen went to where the court house now stands and stuck a curious looking instrument into the ground. It looked like a broomstick, and had a sharp iron point to make it go into the ground easy. On the other end was a curious little contrivance that looked like a watch, only it was a lot bigger, and had a little finger inside that never wanted to keep still . . . . Finally at last it pointed them to a big green knoll right on the banks of Contraband Bayou."

"When they stuck it down on top of the knoll, it stopped pointing and commenced a-rustling around every which way like a dog hunting a rabbit in the brush. Then the gentlemen knew that was the right place, and right there, about three feet under the ground, was an iron chest, three feet long and two feet wide, with a whole lot of gold inside. Well, they got two sacks of gold and tied the ends together, and threw them across the back of one of the horses, and came away and camped near my house . . . . 'Fore God, I swear that I saw with my own eyes three men go into them woods on Contraband Bayou, and never but two came out of there, and they brought the other horse to carry the gold!"

"About a week after that a darky come down along the bayou fishing. He saw where some digging had been going on . . . . and he saw a lot of green bottle flies. That scared him awful and he went and told a white gentleman. The two of them went back and dragged the bottom of the bayou, underneath where the darky saw the flies, and brought up the body of the other man, with an iron bake oven tied around his neck. They buried him on the green knoll where the money was found."

"Yes, sir, that's the God's honest truth! And that's why there ain't no more known about that big pirate than there is. People were afraid to open their mouths those days unless it was to eat. There's that old Catalon that died here about four years ago. Why, that poor old darky was scared to death of his life most of the time, because everybody knew that he was one of Lafitte's cooks and knew more than anybody else alive about where the money was buried."

Whether or not old Catalon, or Wash, or Charles Sallier, or Michel Pithon, or even old Captain Arsene LeBleu ever knew where any of Lafitte's gold was actually buried is, of course, a matter of sheer conjecture.

From time to time the writer has been asked if this or that particular Lafitte legend were true. Yes, they were nearly all "true" to the extent that they were originated by people who knew Lafitte or some of his men, or at least claimed that they did. Most of the treasure legends had two things in common----the burial or search for buried treasure at some remote spot on the coastal Gulf Prairie, usually a marsh chenier, and nearly always, the existence of a "patron" or apparition----an eerie light to lead the gold hunters astray, or a big rattlesnake with fangs bared, perhaps a cutlass-swinging skeleton, or some other ghostly creature whose assignment was to guard the pirates' money.

And perhaps "truth" did stray occasionally from its path, having no obligation to do otherwise, but there are two vital ingredients of a treasure legend that cannot be taken so lightly --- one being its plausibility, and the second, a need to fire imaginations, the hearer's or reader's interest, passions --- and even greed --- to fever pitch. Jean Lafitte left Southwest Louisiana a rich legacy of legends!

Copyright 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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