Deep in the cypress swamps and backwater bayous of southeast Louisiana lives a legend of a pirate-turned-patriot whose fabled deeds are revered in the Cajun communities which bear his name.
Residents of Jean Lafitte (pop. 1,657) and neighboring Lafitte (pop. 1,507) embrace stories of the swashbuckling buccaneer and opportunistic businessman who once commanded 50 ships and 5,000 privateers based in nearby Barataria Bay and helped the Americans defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815.
“The area was always called Lafitte, after the pirate,” says Mayor Timothy Kerner, 44, whose father led incorporation of the town of Jean Lafitte in 1974. The community of Lafitte remains unincorporated.
From Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours to Jean Lafitte Fishing Charters to the Lafitte Yacht Club and Lafitte Nails, businesses and organizations throughout the bayou herald the pirate’s name.
“Everyone around here says they’re related to him,” says Ray Ramogasse, 83, a retired fisherman and trapper who now leads tours at the Louisiana Marine Fisheries Museum. “Everybody wants credit. Everybody wants to be recognized.”
Still, not everyone ignores the darker side of Lafitte’s criminal enterprise, even though President James Madison pardoned him and his Baratarians after they helped Gen. Andrew Jackson and his troops win the decisive battle, effectively ending the War of 1812.
“He was a pirate,” says Dale Ross, 57, owner of Victoria Inn and Gardens. “He made people walk the plank.”
Ross, who grew up in nearby Marrero (pop. 36,165) and spent much of her childhood in her father’s local shipyard, moved to Lafitte with her husband, Roy, in the early 1970s to raise their family. In 1993, she created the Jean Lafitte Tourist Commission and later helped start three annual festivals to celebrate the region’s seafood, flora and waterfowl.
October’s Wings Over the Wetlands provides bird-watching tours during the peak of the fall migration; January’s Oyster Food Fest offers oyster-eating and shucking contests; and April’s Celebration of the Louisiana Iris coincides with the blooming of a local wildflower.
“You can work hard here and make a difference,” says Ross, explaining why she promotes her hometown on the bayou.
While the towns’ tallest tales belong to a pirate, seafood remains the largest industry. Fishing always has been a part of living on the bayou. When the French-speaking Acadians (Cajuns) settled in the area in the late 1700s, they provided for their families much as the American Indians had before them, by trapping and fishing.
The fishing industry has fallen on hard times in recent years because of frozen imports. However, residents continue to harvest shrimp, crab, oysters, catfish and crawfish from the surrounding lakes and freshwater marshes, and the bounty is served in local eateries such as Boutee’s Bayou Restaurant in Lafitte and at events such as the Seafood Festival, held each summer in Jean Lafitte.
Protecting the freshwater marshes along the Louisiana coast is critical to maintaining a productive fishery, says Walt Burgoyne, a naturalist and environmental educator at the Barataria Preserve of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.
“They are nurseries for the adult populations of fish, shrimp and crabs,” he says, noting that freshwater marshes make up about 80 percent of the 22,000-acre nature preserve a few miles north of the towns.
Preserving the alligator swamps and pirates’ legacy also is critical to maintaining the mystique of the towns which bear the name of Lafitte, who sailed away shortly after the Battle of New Orleans and was never heard from again.