Monday, February 07, 2005

Jewish pirates save Louisiana

Jean Lafitte's diary states he was born in Port-Au-Prince, Saint Domingue, in 1782. His mother died the next year, so Jean and his siblings were raised by their grandmother, the Sephardic Jew Zora Nadrimal. She told them of her flight from Spain to France with their mother to escape the Inquisition, which tortured and murdered their grandfather Abhorad. (The brothers later falsely claimed the Bordeaux region of France as their birthplace to snag French privateering credentials.)

The family lived a peaceful life in Santo Domingo until the Slave Insurrection of 1791. The Lafitte/Laffite brothers escaped to Martinique where they purchased a Letter of Marque (makes it kosher to seize and loot enemy vessels). Jean married a Danish Jewess, Cristiana Levine, and after four profitable years of privateering the family left for France with everything they owned. On the way their ship was taken by a Spanish Man of War. They were stripped and dumped on a sand cay; days later an American schooner picked them up and took them to New Orleans where Cristiana shortly died of exhaustion and fever.

Meanwhile Jean's brother Pierre, also a privateer, was busted for smuggling. The now indigent brothers briefly worked for U.S. Customs and then got back into pirating. Jean bought this blacksmith shop (built 1772) to front his evil businesses. Pierre and Jean were joined by their brothers René/Renato Béluche and Dominique You, former artillery gunner for Napoleon. They built a headquarters in Barataria Bay.

Captured Spanish vessels were maneuvered into the bay and, by 1811, Barataria was a thriving community with 32 armed warships, more ships than in the entire US navy. Businessmen from New Orleans arrived at night to buy pirates' loot. The operation was so huge, it affected the economy of the whole Gulf. "New Orleans banking declined and it was apparent that Laffite was monopolizing Louisiana's import trade and the commerce of the entire Mississippi Valley." (Jews on the Frontier)

In 1814 Great Britain dispatched an armada and 8,000 men to take Louisiana. Sure of success, they brought along a complete civil governmental staff to rule over the soon-to-be established Crown Colony. The officers offered Lafitte 30,000 pounds sterling and a commission in the British Navy if he would guide their troops through the maze of waterways to New Orleans. Lafitte had traveled the bayous for years and knew them better than anyone; he had even mapped the navigable waterways within 10,000 square miles of delta.

Lafitte pretended to accept the British offer but instead sent word to New Orleans that invasion was imminent. In exchange for a governor's pardon he and his buccaneers would help defend the city.

With more than two thousand men under his command, Lafitte could perhaps have turned back the British himself. But instead of accepting Jean's help, governor Claiborne let a Commodore Patterson attack Barataria. Patterson destroyed the settlement and stole loot worth half a million dollars, claiming it as spoils of war -- though none of it was ever seen by the government. He rounded up and imprisoned all the pirates he could find.

The governor's smugness was brief: reliable sources confirmed that the British were coming; within days their Armada arrived. Andrew Jackson, Commander in Chief of New Orleans, had almost no men or ships and so, amusingly, Claiborne was forced to free the imprisoned pirates (the "Hellish Banditi" as Jackson called them). He needed them desperately.

Jean and Pierre guided the American forces through the marshland maze. An assortment of 4,000 Tennesseans, Choctaw tribesmen, free blacks, Creoles and of course pirates defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Although James Madison gave presidential pardons to Jean Laffite and the buccaneers, their loot, surprisingly, was not returned. They were penniless yet again.

Some of the pirates began peaceful lives along the shores of Barataria Bay. The Lafittes, however, went back to piracy. Brother Dominique You was hired to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena and bring him to New Orleans, though Napoleon's death interfered with this plan substantially. Pierre and Jean sailed to Texas and established a colony of privateers off the coast of Galveston. Roger Kamenetz called it a "utopian pirate's den."

Later, Jean became a labor leader in St. Louis. In 1847 he met with Marx and Engels and, admiring their work, opened an escrow account in Paris to help them. There is evidence that Lafitte tried to introduce Marx to the young Abraham Lincoln.

Jean, who had substantially financed one of the earliest synagogues in Louisiana, is buried (perhaps) in a Jewish cemetery in Metairie. (More).

For a dramatic though goyishe rendering of this story see the 1958 movie The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner (see left) as Jean Lafitte, Charles Boyer as Dominique You, and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson.

For a good list of references:

And I love the book Jews on the Frontier by Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman, which I first encountered when my band was playing for B'nai Brith week at the Blumenthal Center in Little Switzerland and in which I first read the story of Jean Lafitte.

I also posted on Lafitte at Jewish Pirate Update!
NEW UPDATE: an article on a new book coming out on Sephardic Jewish Pirates!

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At 7:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my lord! we didn't learn about this in my early republic class - I think the historians like to say that the battle for new orleans was the first event that showed the military perspicacity of the young andrew jackson on the national stage, blah blah, add metaphor here. Apparently he just knew where to find the pirates.

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Claude Covo-Farchi said...

Quite an interesting story you have here. And quite an interesting site too. I'll be back. Thanks for visiting and adding me to your reads.

At 11:33 PM, Blogger Craig said...

Quite an interesting and enlightening post. I'm kind of stuck in the 19th century myself and am particularly intriqued by Lincoln's connection with Karl Marx. Did Marx visit St. Louis? Or did Lincoln go to London? Now as I understand it, the Cajuns of Louisiana were known as Acadians before Longfellow kicked them out of Nova Scotia. How many Cajuns lived in and around Barataria?

At 8:55 PM, Blogger miriam said...

I loved your post and linked to it. Fascinating. I'm coming back.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Miss Templeton said...

Hello Pratie Place

Just posted a link to this in Dave Riley's Life of Riley blog (look for my comment) as part of my "let's start talking about the history of New Orleans" campaign.

Now I find that YOUR blog is one I would like to spend more time with! Do let me link to you in my own blog and perhaps we can chat about North Carolina fiddling and other things.

At 1:47 AM, Blogger Marc said...


I am interested in the possibility of Lafitte being a Jewish pirate. I have plans to write a play about it at some time in the future. But, I haven't really found any sound evidence that he may have been Jewish. In fact, I have read that there is a record of his baptism (which probably means nothing in a world where being an "out" Jew might not have been the safest career move). So, I am just wondering where your information comes from so that I can try to verify it.


At 7:29 AM, Blogger melinama said...

I have finally linked this post to my later one on the Lafitte diary. At the time the book on the diary was published, the curator of the collection published a very even-handed (I thought) assessment of the pros and cons of the diary's being real. It had not been scientifically tested. Some people have said flatly that it's a forgery but nobody has presented any source to me.

At 8:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have family who has lived where Jean Lafitte settled in Louisiana sfor over 200 years. My people migrated here before this was America, and my French roots tie me to jean Lafitte. He was not Jewish. I am not Jewish, amd the same blood of lafittes flows through me. I am an authentic native Baratarian, we fought for New Orleans, and none of us are Jewish. My family is authentic Creole and Cajun, none of this is tied to any Jewish religion. Our people traditionally are Roman Catholic. There is absolutely no reason why Jews should attack our heritage this way and try to disprove one of our famous family members. It is disgrace to all who call Lafitte our brother and friend. I grew up swming in the bodies of water where Lafitte sailed his boats and I grew up being told the stories of his life... he was not Jewish.

Our people are French, we are from Acadiana, we originally moved from France West, but refused to bow to the British Crown and for that we were deported, killed, forced into labor etc...

While Jewish people would like to believe Jean Lafitte was jewish, he most certainly was NOT, as has been debunked by local Lafitte Historians.

The internet is a great place, but it is also a great place for rumors and undereducated guesses like this.

Jean Lafitte was not Jewish. And it is somewhat of an insult to have your family name and blood, constantly attacked by Jewish people trying to prove he was Jewish when he was not.

At 12:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Anonymous (above) protest too much!

Pirate Jenny

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous: 12:13PM
Just read an article written by Jean Lefitte's family member living either in New Orleans or Switzerland, can't remember the exact address with enough historical and family info to prove he was a Jew. It was pointed out in the family's genealogy.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...Jean bought this blacksmith shop (built 1772) to front his evil businesses...

Complete bunk. There is no historical record of Lafitte ever owning property in the Vieux Carre (a/k/a the French Quarter). Property records exist for the French Quarter going back to the original land grants. Easily verified by going to the Williams Research Center ( in the Quarter. They can also confirm or deny any other fact on this website, which I would definitely do before assuming anything here is based on fact.

At 7:20 PM, Anonymous comic carolezpdj said...

Acadiana is a portion of Louisiana and was born when someone accidentally typed an extra A on Acadian. The prostesting Blogger just blew any creds she might have had making this mistake. The Acadians were in Acadia not Acadiana when they fled to Louisiana.

At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Frederick Cohen Henriques said...

This is a link to an interesting story about a descendent of Lefitte's. I think it was referenced in an earlier comment. Check it out.

I think I am related to a pirate too. Moses Cohen Henriques was his name. Plundered Spanish Galleons!

At 9:01 AM, Anonymous PirateQueen said...

I am also related to Jean Lafitte in a somewhat oblique manner and our family receives an annual (small) compensation for the mineral rights to lands held by his estate. There is much conflicting "evidence" regarding his origins and activities but, officially, the story has never included Jewish origins. That said,I have heard a speaker who specializes in Jewish Pirates speak and he did include Jean Lafitte in that list. His "evidence" seemed as credible as any other "evidence" we currently have regarding LaFitte. It makes no difference to me. He was a complex character with a rich and varied life and connections. Being part Jewish just makes him even more so. Thank you for adding more "fuel to the fire" regarding this very interesting person.

At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, "Anonymous" shows her astounding ignorance when she states that because her family is Catholic, they could not once have been Jews. Sephardic Jews converted in vast numbers to Catholicism during the inquisition years and the majority wound up Catholic in the end.

Secondly, "Anonymous" does not even have the grace to be ashamed of her bigotry and racism. She states she is insulted to be of Jewish ancestry. But her ancestor, Jean Lafitte would be disgusted with her.

At 11:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This IS another Jewish fairy tale, right. Lafitte a Jew, Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, Oh yeah, revisionist history at its finest.

Don't anyone who writes this crap criticize those that deny the Jewish holocaust.

Same process, different folks, same lie. LMAO.

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Rosemarie said...

I find your reading very interesting, as growing up I was raised as a Trinidadian of Portuguese decent, but on my fathers death bed he told me many Portuguese were Jewish.since then I have been doing alot of research on the history of Jews, find that they were not given credit for how far they have brought mankind.

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in Lafitte Louisiana, which is located in the territory of Barataria were Jean and Pierre stayed most of thier lives. Jean never owned land by deed. Pierre was a land owner for 3 months in New Orleans. He could not pay for the Blacksmith shop so he had to give it back. In all my 50+ years I have never known the Laffites to be Jews. I am not saying this is not possiable, but, my bloodline and my husbands goes back to some of his privateers and they never mentioned practicing the Jewish relgion. It may be that you have the wrong Laffites. There are alot of Jeans and Pierres. The piratres spelled their name Laff Ite where all others spell it Lafitte or Lafite. Jean the pirate was burried at sea. Him being other places is just not so. This was to get people off his trail. Pierre was burried around Mexico. My husbands ancestor was Nat Chicgizola who was 3rd in command. He was with Jean when he died. There is so much wrong info at there. So sites even have them as being Creoles. Some are but not the pirates.

At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

goodness site

those french who were forced to leave acadia
it was a cold force- yes
however lets give a credit ,t some english officer who juggle the rules
and forced them out to avoid
camp slaugher

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many Spanish, Arab and Italian Jews have names that are the same as their countrymen. Not all Jews are named Goldberg. There are many books written on Jews escaping the Inquisition, which last 300 years and spread to Latin America and Mexico. To this day, descendants of many of them don't know their Jewish origins. Fear. My cousin married a Mexican Catholic woman who never knew they were Spanish Inquisition Jews. He would go to her mother's house on Friday and Saturday evenings, the Jewish Sabbath, and she would be performing Jewish Sabbath customs. He asked her why she did those and she said she didn't know, they were handed down in her family. HIs inlaws are practicing Catholics. He did his inlaws' geneol. and found they had been Inquistion Jews from Spain. For those who have a problem with Jewish blood, remember, Jesus was a Jew. For those who simply doubt it, do your DNA. Tribal DNA is available and will even tell if you belong to Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jews.

At 9:37 AM, Anonymous dedeuce2 said...

My great grandmother slep with Lafitte as a young girl, in exchange for a look at his pirate treasure stash,I am sure my great grandfather was not Jewish, not that there is anything wrong with being Jewish, as for his grave, it displays a German name on it, as for my great grandmother any from where Lafitte lived his last years would have known her as Dadeuce.

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might one possible point in support of the theory be his surname, Lafitte, which may well be a variation on Levy, as are Levin, Levine, Levitt and others?

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a native New Orleanian. The truth is NO ONE KNOWS!!! There is only speculation, rumor and assumptions. The beauty of the story is that he remains a mystery.

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am of Acadian/Cajun descent and have a long geneology traced back to France. I have also done genetic testing which claims I am not only of French descent, but my deep roots are Morroccan, Spanish, Jewish, Palestinian and Arabian, Italian.

The truth of the Lafitte story is yet to be known by me. As mentioned by others, MANY Spaniards, French in the Caribbean, and Mexicans were JEWS by blood. There is growing scientific and geneological evidence showing that many French who left France for the New World had escaped the Inquisition and were Jewish. Genetics tests are showing similar things of their descendants, like me. One does not need to practice a religion to have semitic blood running through her. I find it all interesting and open-ended. Except for the racism and ant-Jew bashing. Get a grip America- if you were told you were 100% Irish and your family got here before 1900, IT"S NOT TRUE. If you were told you were Cherokee, it MAY have a grain of salt but probably not. We have been mingling for thousands of years...and we are very rich and complex creatures.

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should now be 'relatively' easy to prove if Lafitte were Jewish or not -- if a living male Lafitte relative has a couple of simple DNA tests done. For instance, Family Tree DNA [I am not an employee, but have been tested by them], who did a lot of the research for the Natl. Geographic study of world-wide migrational patterns, has proven that those Jews who said they were from the Cohen family of ancient biblical priests are 65% of the time correct.

At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a descendant of Jean Lafitte. Jean died in 1823. when he died, Marx was only 3, being born in 1818. Lincoln at this time would only have been 14. Why would a privateer such as Jean try and share the ideas of a 3 year-old with a 14 year-old teenager? I think you have your facts mixed up. Some correction or research would be appreciated by all who may use this page as credible information.


At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Mary Ann Freedman said...

My brother, Ed Kritzler, author of Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, mentioned Lafitte's Jewish grandmother in his book. The book, however, focuses on an earlier period when the pirates and privateers were attacking the Spanish fleet. One that he followed was Moses Cohen Henriques, who assisted in the capture of the Spanish Silver fleet and became one of the founders of the first legal settlement of Jews in the New World - Recife, Brazil.

At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great-Great grandson of Jean Laffite,I would love to take a DNA test to prove it!
Please contact me !

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been told all my life that i am related to jean lafitte, by my dads side of the family. i would love to see how to prove that. i find it so interesting. my dad pronounced his name (layfayette) and my uncle pronounced his name lafitte.

how would you prove DNA with out any samples from him. i only have one male uncle left on that side of the family.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Ren Lallatin said...

My seventh great grandfather, Charles Childress Grayson, ran away from home in Alabama when he was 16 and sailed with Jean Lafitte. While at sea Grandpa was carefully educated in trigonometry and navigation by the very educated crew. Because of his education, he was hired as the first surveyor in the new republic of Texas. He was paid in land that later turned out to be very rich in oil. Grayson and Childress counties in Texas are named for him. We never knew quite how grandpa came to be living in Texas, but this history fills in a LOT of the missing details the family tended to gloss over!! ;)) My Grandma used to talk a lot about Galviston, and the place always seemed to hold a dear place in the family hearts. Now I know why!! Thank you so very much for this delightful and valuable history. I'll put in our family files.


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