Saturday, July 23, 2016

Jean Laffite: More About My Invented Ancestor


The always gorgeous Jason Momoa as
Jean Laffite in Comedy Central's Drunk History
My father was a story-teller of the first order. In fact I come from a long line of storytellers so it should come as no surprise to anyone that I turned into a storyteller, too. But Dad... Dad was shameless and woe betide the most gullible of his children, because it has gotten me into trouble more than once. This all started somewhere around third grade when we were given an assignment to make a family tree. I pestered my mother for information until she met the limit of her patience. Then she told me to go ask my father, who was downstairs working in his woodshop.

Dad was almost always working in his shop, but he usually was willing to take a break. On this occasion he got out a huge sheet of plywood and one of those weird, flat carpenter's pencils that he always used and he drew me a family tree. It was a thing of beauty. It was also pure balderdash but who cares? I wish I still had it because I know I was descended from a lot of incredible people. The most impressive one (to a third grader) was Jean Laffite the Pirate! Oh, the thrill of having such an illustrious ancestor.

Maison Rouge ruins in Galveston
Eventually I came to the disappointed realization that I really wasn't Jean Laffite's great-great (how many greats?) granddaughter. I can't remember what my teacher thought of my family tree, but my teacher that year was a nice lady who knew my parents, so she probably just rolled her eyes and though, “Oh, Tino!” So, great-grandpa-less, I made my way in the world. But Jean Laffite was never very far from my daydreams.

The first time I went to Galveston, Texas, I drove past some interesting ruins in an overgrown field, and slammed on my brakes when I saw a sign identifying the ruins as the remains of Jean Laffite's Maison Rouge. At that time there was no fence around the ruins like there is now, and you could wander through them, which I did, listening for ghosts. Over the next couple of years, I visited the site a few times and someone told me that it was haunted by a pack of black hounds from hell with flaming red eyes, who one could hear howling on moonlit nights. I actually went there a few times at night, but apparently the ghostly hounds chose to take those nights off.
Laffite's Blacksmith Shop when I first saw it on Bourbon Street in New Orleans

As it is today, a popular night club

Inside, the original hearth has been preserved
Later, in New Orleans, I encountered Laffite's Blacksmith Shop which was in ruins. Both the Laffite brothers, Jean and Pierre, had trained as blacksmiths and when they first came to New Orleans from France they opened up shop there. Eventually they found privateering to be far more profitable, but they maintained their blacksmith shop as cover for their new enterprise. These days the shop, which is on Bourbon Street, has been converted into a nightclub. I have not been there since, but it looks good in the pictures.
The Olde Absinthe House before renovation. Jean and Pierre Laffite met
with Andrew Jackson on the second floor to plan the Battle of New Orleans
The interior when the meeting took place
The sign today

The front today

Downstairs bar today
Also in New Orleans on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville is Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House which has been in operation since 1806. It is said that it was on the second floor of that building that the Laffites met with Andrew Jackson to discuss strategy before the Battle of New Orleans. That whole story is pretty fascinating. In the War of 1812, the British had attempted to recruit Jean Laffite but, being French, and thus considering the British a natural enemy, he wanted no part of that. Jackson, weary from the Indian Wars and carrying 2 bullets inside him, headed for New Orleans and, seeing what was available to him as troops, knew he needed artillerymen. Who better for that than the notorious Laffites?
Laffite's signature on a letter to the President

By the way, I doing research, I see that most places spell the name of the brothers “Lafitte” but if you look at the letters that Laffite himself wrote, he always signed it “Laffite” thus I have chosen to use that spelling.

After the Battle of New Orleans, the Laffites received full pardons for past sins from the President, but it didn't take long for them to go back to their old ways. As the United States became more united and new laws were passed, Jean no longer felt safe in New Orleans so moved operations to the wild frontier of Texas, settling in Galveston.

Sketch of Laffite from the description
by someone who knew him
There is a popular story that, after the Battle of Waterloo, Jean and Pierre had a plan to capture Napoleon from Elba and bring him to New Orleans. The truth is, it is hard to know what is fact and what is folklore where Jean Laffite is concerned. As I was doing research I came across two descriptions from people who had actually met him. One, a man who was at the Battle of New Orleans, described him as “six feet tall, uncommonly handsome, and a powerful build, with black hair and eyes, very attractive to the women who followed him wherever he went.” The second description came from a lady who met him when, she estimated, he was about forty. She wrote, “he was over six feet tall, exceptionally handsome with a fine figure, thick black hair just touched with gray, long side whiskers, and hazel eyes.” She also made note of the fact that he was with a lady “of voluptuous proportions” who kept her eyes on him. He is said to have been fluent in French, English, Spanish, and Italian, too.

We know from other writings that both he and Pierre had many mistresses and Jean had at least one daughter. There is much speculation about whatever became of him. Some say when things got too close in Galveston, he buried his gold, set Galveston on fire, and moved on to the Yucatan. Others say he moved to Illinois where he lived under another name and wrote a journal. I have read parts of the journal and, while it is exciting, I am pretty sure it is fiction.

So that is probably more than you wanted to know about my famous invented ancestor, but it has been fun writing about him. In fact, there is every reason to believe I'll be doing more of that—he's too good a character to waste.

Thanks for reading.

34 comments:

  1. Hi Kathleen - thanks for coming by my blog ... fascinating to think your father created so many interesting ancestors for you - and yes Jean Laffite sounds an ideal hero for a young girl ... lovely story - cheers Hilary

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    1. My dad was quite a character. It took me years to get over losing my famous ancestor until I realized I never lost him at all.

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  2. I love the old vs new photos. It's great they preserved the hearth and the character of the old buildings. It's so sad when they just rip 'em down.

    Your dad sounds like a card--and very creative.

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    1. Yes, Dad was quite a character. I love the restoration of those old buildings. My dad was a carpenter so I know he would love them, too.

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  3. Hi, Kathleen!

    I thoroughly enjoyed the history lesson, stories and then and now pictures of the buildings once occupied by your adopted great-great-? grandfather Jean Laffite. They did a terrific job of preserving and restoring those structures and turning them into popular eateries and watering holes. You are a brave woman to visit the Galveston ruins of his home in the dark of night hunting the hounds from hell.

    Your post leaves two mysteries unsolved. First, how is it that Jean Lafitte spelled his own name incorrectly? :) Second, if you are in no way related to the famous pirate and privateer, then how do you explain the fact that his handwriting is an exact match of yours? :)

    Have a wonderful week, dear friend Kathleen!

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    1. Hi, Shady, nice to see you back here. Yes, I wonder why the difference in the spelling of his name. I'm not sure about the e similarities in handwriting. New Orleans, especially, has done a great job in restoring their old buildings.

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  4. That is fascinating! I wish someone had invented ancestors for me. I remember growing up and always feeling like my families story was boring...actually, there really wasn't one. I wanted my ancestors to be cool.

    Great pictures, too!

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    1. Thank you. It took me a few years to appreciate it--for awhile I was just confused!

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  5. Oh what fun.
    My father made an oyster look garrulous and I know nothing about his family or his background. A pirate would have been such an amazing addition to my knowledge chasms...

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    1. You can always make up your own history, you know. I won't tell.

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  6. I like the idea of inventing my ancestors. Yours was exactly the person I would have chosen. Loved seeing the old buildings. Inspiration for some excellent settings.

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    1. Yes. It's sort of thrilling being "related" to him!!!

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  7. At least your teacher knew of your father's propensity for making things up. You couldn't be blamed for that.

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    1. Yes, that came in handy. My mother was a good friend of her sister so I'm sure she had heard stories.

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  8. Our second Mardi Gras here in Lake Charles, Contraband Days, is based on Jean Lafitte having supposedly buried some of his treasure near-by. I have put his ghost in Under A Voodoo Moon and had fun doing it. Great post.

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    1. Hi, Roland. I read about all the places he is supposed to have buried treasure. If all the buried treasure in this country was ever found we'd all be crazy rich!!!

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  9. Call him an "adopted ancestor" then. :D
    I think our fathers would be good friends - mine used to make up so many stories that I'm still discovering the truths 20 years on. My favorite (which he categorically denies ever telling) was the one about Al Buquerque, the great man whom the city was named for. I believed in him for years and cried when I learned the truth!

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    1. LOL! That's hilarious and sounds like something my dad would say. He used to tell us about his "adventures in darkest Africa" and we were fascinated. It was years later when I was watching an old Tarzan movie and thought, "Hmmm, this seems familiar."

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  10. Very entertaining story, Kathleen. I love the photos and the history lesson. I don't know much about my ancestors so I think I'll make some up too.

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    1. I highly recommend it, Skye! Thanks for visiting.

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  11. Who wouldn't want an ancestor like this? What a character!

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  12. Eh, claim whoever you want. Maybe he's the ancestor of your heart . . .if not your reality.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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  13. Great story, Kathleen - your father with his imagination and sense of humour sounds like the sort of Dad we'd all love to have.

    Susan at
    Travel, Fiction and Photos

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    1. He wasn't perfect but he was awfully entertaining at times.

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  14. Fabulous post! Thank you for sharing. It made me smile to imagine your father telling you tall tails.

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    1. He certainly told a lot of them!!! Thanks.

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  15. This was incredibly entertaining :) I wish I knew more about my ancestors.

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    1. See, that's the advantage of just making them up!!!

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  16. A wonderful post to read, Kathleen, and I think it would be interesting to have a pirate in the family tree. . .I was impressed that you got to see the old ruins before they were updated. I think we had some one interesting in our background on my dad's side, because my grandmother who was trying to map our family tree, stopped when she discovered some unsavoury character back there somewhere. . .she wouldn't divulge it either. . .

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    1. Isn't that interesting that she stopped doing research and kept it a secret? There was always a legend in my family that our Great-grandfather Valentine changed his name after fleeing here from Canada because he killed a man. Turned out it was true!!!

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  17. I had never heard of him, so it was very interesting and informative. My mother always told me Elizabeth Barrett Browning was my ancestor. I'd want to fact check that before bragging about it.

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    1. I don't believe she ever had a child so she wouldn't be a direct ancestor but you never know.

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