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Printed September 17, 2019

The elusive story of pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte

He left his legend behind in Texas, along with gold

By Janice Edwards/ The Bulletin

Not much wildlife stirring in the heat across the river, but the salt grass is beginning to change from green to gold – a harbinger of fall. Some things in the rhythm of life here continue to be as they should.

But some things are elusive, unexpected events which surprise and delight the senses and the soul if you are willing to look for them. Take for instance, the 50 or so Wood Storks cavorting in the low trees just across the San Bernard river on a recent evening.

Though Wood Storks are indigenous to the area, we had only seen one previous to this experience. But there they were, a whole passel of them, swooping in on their 5-foot-plus wing-span to picnic across the river. In the morning, they were gone – disappearing in the dawn like low fog melting in the sunlight - a little elusive gift from the powers that be.

While we all knew the Wood Storks had been there, they quietly disappeared without a trace, making you almost doubt what you know you experienced. That is kind of what I felt like tracking down our legendary local Corsair, Pirate and Privateer – Jean Lafitte.

How much of this man’s story is historical fact? And how much is legend? After researching and reading about him now for over a year, I’ve concluded that Lafitte was a wizard slipping in and out of historical fact just like he slipped in and out of illicit ports of call - always avoiding the hard questions.

Information about Lafitte, like all good pirate stories, is part legend and part history plaited together so tightly that I could never really separate the two with any degree of accuracy.

So, this tale of Lafitte will take on the two vital ingredients of any good treasure story: The story is plausible, and it fires your imagination. Captain Jean Lafitte’s ghost bid me to shift in and out of the shadows with him and his story. So, fly your Jolly Roger, check your sword at the door, grab a glass of grog and settle in for a sail on The Pride.

The beginning of Jean Lafitte’s life - like the rest of it – is shrouded in mystery. Depending on which source you believe, Jean Lafitte was born Jan. 24, 1776, or 1780, or 1782, or 1790. But in fact, no authenticated record of Jean Lafitte’s birth has ever been found.

However, in 1813, when Lafitte applied for a French privateer commission, he claimed to be 32 years old, and if that were true, he would be about 35 years old during his plundering years in Texas.

According to Jean Lafitte’s journals (which are controversial themselves), Jean Lafitte is of Jewish descent through his maternal grandmother, Maria Zora Nadrimal.

And in Harold I. Sharfman’s book, “Jews on the Frontier: An Account of Jewish Pioneers and Settlers in Early America,” he accepted the fact that the Lafitte family was of Jewish descent and that they were Marranos - Jews who converted under pressure to Roman Catholicism in the 14th century, but who continued to practice Judaism secretly.

His maternal grandfather was French, and his grandmother was Spanish. His grandmother and Jean Lafitte’s mother fled Spain for France in 1765 to escape the Spanish Inquisition – but not before his grandfather, Abhorad, was put to death for practicing Judaism.

In his journals, Lafitte describes his childhood in the home of his grandmother, who was full of stories about the family’s escape from the Inquisition. He was raised in a Kosher Jewish house and eventually married Christina Levine, who was Jewish and from Denmark.

Let’s talk a bit about Lafitte’s journals mentioned above because that connects Jean Lafitte to Texas, too.
The Lafitte Journal, written in French, has been around for some time, but its authenticity is hotly debated by scholars.
Some scholars accept it as fact – while others debunk it as forgery. The problem with verifying it is the distinct lack of verified Lafitte writing samples.

The most reliable genuine Lafitte documents are two short manuscripts from the library collections of the Republic of Texas from when Mirabeau B. Lamar was President, and they are currently held by the Texas State Archives.

The paper used in the journal, though, would be authentic for that time in history. And Lafitte’s connection to Texas gets even tighter, as the original manuscript was purchased by the former U.S. Senator (D-Texas) and Texas Governor, Price Daniel Sr., in the 1970s and is on display at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty, Texas.

Translated versions of the Lafitte Journal have been in print since the 1950s. So, it seems Lafitte left more than gold and treasure in Texas – his thoughts are left here for us to ponder.

(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)