Thursday, August 14, 2008

Something a Little Different

We all grew up on the movies and books of pirate treasures and for most of us this is the first thing we knew about buried treasure. It’s definitely harder to find pirate treasure, or any other treasure, than they show in the movies but if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

Most of us don’t have the opportunity to hunt for pirate treasure because the good stories always involve someplace like Cocos Island that most of us will never be able to get to although Cocos Island is well worth the research time if you are interested in pirate treasure. This story is a lot closer to home for most of us and might peak somebody’s interest.

One of the more famous and intriguing pirates was Jean Lafitte. You could say that pirating was in Jean Lafitte’s family. His oldest brother, Alexander, was a privateer long before Jean was old enough to sail. Another brother, Pierre went into business as a smuggler with Jean before Jean branched out as a pirate. As smugglers, their headquarters was a small island near New Orleans known as Grande Terre. They later moved their headquarters to Barataria Bay on the island of Baratria to escape the enforcement of the Embargo Act of 1807.

The island’s main inhabitants were current and former pirates and the island was governed by the pirates and eventually by Captain Jean Lafitte. Of course, Captain Lafitte had to shoot and kill the man in charge before he could become the reigning chief of the island, all in a days work I suppose.

Jean and his brother Pierre were very prosperous in their smuggling endeavors, owning stores and warehouses in New Orleans that they used to “move” some of the smuggled goods. Jean eventually branched out as a pirate and operated several ships at a time.

In 1813 Jean Lafitte and his brother were arrested on the orders of the Governor of Louisiana but the Lafitte’s had plenty of money and hired the best (and most expensive) lawyers and were acquitted of the charges. In 1814 Jean Lafitte and his minions, known as the “Baratarians”, offered their services to General Jackson to help fight off the British during the war. In exchange for their help they received U.S. citizenship.

Sometime around 1817 Jean Lafitte was run out of New Orleans and was forced to move his operation to another location. That location turned out to be Galveston, Texas, a spot Jean Lafitte named “Campeche”. He operated out of this base until 1821 when the U.S. Navy was sent to remove him from Galveston. Instead of putting up a fight, Captain Lafitte agreed to leave the island on his own accord and was given a deadline of March 3, 1821. Just before that deadline Captain Lafitte left Galveston, TX in his flagship, the “Pride”, which was said to be loaded down with “immense amounts” of treasure. Two other of Lafitte’s ships sailed with him and Lafitte burned everything in the settlement when he left.

Lafitte’s treasure has never been accounted for. There are stories that he buried several caches of treasure on the islands of Grande Terre and Baratria, especially on the property that was known as the Destrehan Plantation. Legend has it that the ghost of Lafitte walks this property during nights with a full moon in order to guide someone to his treasure. I guess if you are afraid of ghosts then you won’t be looking for this treasure anytime soon. There's a full moon right now, anybody up for a treasure hunt? If you don’t like ghosts then you may not want to look for any of Lafitte’s treasure. There are several stories that "ghost pirates” are seen standing or sitting on the ground near where some of Lafitte’s treasures are supposed to be.

Ghost ships have been seen and heard at sea by men working oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and Lafitte himself was seen on one of the ships of a “ghost fleet” that was said to have been seen just before hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

As a kid Lafitte spent a lot of time exploring the bayous and wetlands south of New Orleans and probably knew these areas better than anyone else at the time. He transported his smuggled goods using these bayous and wetlands and the legends say that he hid several caches of gold and jewelry in this system of waterways around Barataria Bay, especially on “Contraband Bayou”, a curious name to say the least.

There is a hill in the area once known as Barb’s Shellbank and now goes by the name of Money Hill that is said to contain some of Lafitte’s treasure. Money Hill, I wonder why it was given that name? Several people have dug into this hill over the years but so far, no treasure has been found, or so they say. The name had to come from somewhere!

Even more treasure stories abound about the area around Galveston, Texas and the bay. Legend has it that Lafitte buried a lot of treasure on or around the island of Galveston itself, especially at the far edge of Galveston Bay and West Bay. Lafitte was supposed to have made several trips to the mouth of Clear Creek where he offloaded treasure from a large ship onto a smaller boat and took it upstream, only to return later with an empty boat. Lafitte even married while in Galveston but his wife died in 1820 and was supposedly buried under his house with a large quantity of gold. Lafitte’s house would have been located on present day Water Street between 14th and 15th. Anybody want to dig up a street?

There are even other stories that say Lafitte was caught in a hurricane in 1826 and that the part of his treasure he had on board at the time was lost at sea either off the coast of Yucatan or in the waters very near Galveston, TX.

I should point out that Jean Lafitte and his brother, Pierre, were known to have made $65,000.00 in just two years while on Grande Terre island. I know that’s not much now-a-days but in 1815 that would have been a LOT of money. Lafitte would have had plenty of money to hide somewhere.

And as a side note, there are legends that say Captain Lafitte had been in charge of hiding the treasure owned by Napoleon, you know, the guy with his hand in his shirt. Captain Lafitte was to have moved Napoleon’s treasure to a safe spot where it was hidden and then rescue Napoleon from his exile however the rescue never happened, apparently due to some timing issues. I don’t have much information on this but I’m sure you can find some if you are interested.

Now for the intriguing part, those of you that like conspiracy theories will appreciate this. According to the history books, Captain Jean Lafitte was killed during a battle with a British sloop in 1823. This would make it kind of hard for Lafitte, his ship and treasure to go down in a hurricane in 1826! Even better is the existence of the Journal of Jean Lafitte. Yes, that’s right, a journal. One that Jean Lafitte supposedly didn’t start writing until 1845, twenty-two years after he allegedly died! Here we go again!

The paper this journal was written on was run through some tests by the Library of Congress in 1956. Their experts determined the paper was made no later than 1830. The original journal was purchased by Texas Governor Price Daniel in 1970 and is on display in the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty, Texas

The journal was written in French and has been looked at by several handwriting experts in an attempt to match the writing to known writings of Lafitte. As with most conspiracies, there are as many experts that say the journal is real as there are that say it’s a forgery. Maybe J. Frank Dalton was really Jean Lafitte! Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.

The journal has been translated to English and copies have been for sale since 1958. Jean Lafitte’s great grandson, John A. Lafitte, published the original translated journal. You can still buy copies of this book on the Internet. I know has one or more copies and Dogwood Press used to sell the book, just in case you want a copy.

The journal makes for an interesting read and anyone researching Captain Jean Lafitte or his treasures would probably appreciate having the book.

So there you have it, the possibility of pirate treasure in several different places, ghosts and ghost ships and, for those people who just have to have a conspiracy, you have another famous person that allegedly didn’t die when history says he did. What more can you ask for?

Pirate treasure, ARRRRRRRRRG!!! You knew I would have to do it sometime, right?


Jean Anderson said...

Thank you for a great "read". I too love this topic. As much the history behind as the storytelling of characters.

Clinton Hebert said...

Contraband Bayou is in Lake Charles which is over 200 miles away in South West Louisiana.