Jean Laffite’s Mobile

A reformed pirate struggles to make a respectable business deal in early 1800s Mobile.

A map of the times points out Montuse Tavern and “low and miry land” among other notable residences, roads and landmarks.

It was time for the pirate to settle the matter amicably and legally. He was respectable now, an acclaimed hero, and it would not do to revert to his tried-and-true swashbuckling ways. Doubtless Jean Laffite struggled with this new reality, but he was determined to turn over a new leaf — “return to the sheepfold,” as he told the Americans when he offered to help repulse the British at New Orleans. And so on April 24, 1815, with a presidential pardon in his pocket, the reformed buccaneer strode into the office of a New Orleans notary public to settle a nagging “controversy.” It regarded the sale of a ship “lying at Mobile,” where brackish water gently lapped her weathered hull.

A portrait of the notorious pirate Jean Laffite from the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, Texas. The subject was not amused.

Both Jean Laffite and older brother Pierre knew Mobile Bay well. From their base at Barataria Bay, just west of the Mississippi River’s birdfoot delta, they had regularly passed its mouth, and occasionally provisioned at Dauphin Island or worked up to town to sell stolen slaves. But the Gulf’s political situation had radically changed in just a few short years. Mobile was no longer Spanish. The Americans bloodlessly took it in 1813, and with the British defeat at New Orleans, federal power was ascendant.

Still, the little outpost on the muddy Mobile River looked much as it had during its Spanish period. Only a few hundred people of all colors lived there, a mixture of French, Spanish, Indians, blacks, Creoles and upstart Americans. The old colonial fort sprawled across the southern end of the settlement, obsolete and in the way. Its brooding ramparts stared blankly at a riverfront opened up to free trade by ambitious Yankee capitalists.

The Laffites almost certainly knew Montuse’s Tavern, a congenial place to puff a pipe or imbibe a little good cheer. It stood near the fort at the foot of Government Street (site of the Exploreum), flanking a long wharf that fingered across the marshy muck out to deep water. Both wharf and tavern were owned by Sylvain Montuse, who like the Laffites was a French refugee attempting to make his way. He was a considerate host, evidenced by the plank-hemmed clam-shell walkway that kept his guests’ feet clean outside and the multitudinous liquors that lifted their spirits inside. Wine, whiskey, rum, tobacco, oysters, fish, gambling and gossip were readily available there, all irresistible to roving men.

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As for the rest of the town, there was a bakery, a Catholic church fronting Royal Street, a hospital (where Bienville Square is now) and a scattering of houses. Some were imposing, featuring double-pitched roofs and wraparound, decked galleries. More common were plainer clapboarded dwellings slightly elevated on cypress blocks. Gardens and animal pens were ubiquitous, and in-season fruit trees delighted residents and visitors alike. An unkempt cemetery stood on the western edge of town (modern Cathedral Square), and beyond lay awesome expanses of forest and swamp that stretched away forever.

The waterfront bustled despite the small population. “Packet boats and other vessels are constantly running between this and New Orleans; passage about three days,” one American said. The variety of ships and boats was amazing — brigs, hermaphrodite brigs, brigantines, sloops, yawls, barges, keelboats, flatboats, canoes and even makeshift rafts.

Among the craft lazily rocking in the river during the spring of 1815 was a trim schooner named Adventurer. It was owned, at least partly, by Jean Laffite. That it had recently been engaged in illicit activity was a given. The Laffites had made their names as both pirates and privateers in the Gulf and the Caribbean. As pirates, they were outlaws to all nations, regularly smuggling slaves, cigars, liquor, jewelry, silks, satins, animal hides and other stolen items through southern Louisiana’s labyrinthine bayou country to Crescent City residents or wealthy upcountry planters. As privateers, they carried letters of marque issued by newly-minted Latin American republics that authorized them to capture Spanish shipping. It wasn’t always clear to their victims, nor to American authorities, which title the brothers were claiming on any given day.

But all of that was in the past. Laffite was no longer a freebooter, and it was logical that he sell the Adventurer for ready cash. Unfortunately, the deal went sour and an acrimonious dispute simmered between him and a New Orleans merchant named Edward Grant. Exactly what their relationship was and what the terms of the sale were are unknown. Grant was probably a part-owner of the ship. Laffite had been trying to keep the sale’s proceeds for himself — piratical ways were hard to curb! — but in an effort to live up to his new status, he agreed to arbitration with Grant, hence the trip to the notary. Two prominent New Orleanians were appointed to decide the settlement — one a justice of the peace and the other a merchant, with provision for a third as tiebreaker if necessary. Laffite trusted their fairness and signed in the manner he always did — first name abbreviated to “Jn” and a break between the double “f’s” and the “i” in the surname, with a circular flourish to finish. There is no record of how much he ultimately got, but he followed the law and proved himself a good citizen. It wouldn’t last, but that is another tale on another shore

John S. Sledge is the author of “Coursing the Furrowed Blue: A Maritime History of the Gulf,” to be published in 2019 by the University of South Carolina Press.

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