Little is known of Lafitte’s early life, but records show that by 1809 he and his brother Pierre appeared to have established themselves in New Orleans, Louisiana. They started a blacksmith shop that was actually serving as a depot for smuggled goods and slaves brought ashore by bands of privateers. From around 1810 to 1814 this group probably formed what would become Lafitte’s illicit colony on the secluded islands of Barataria Bay south of the city. Holding privateer commissions from the republic of Cartagena (in modern Colombia), Lafitte’s group preyed on Spanish commerce, eventually disposing of its plunder through merchant connections on the mainland.
Barataria Bay was a very important approach to New Orleans, so much so, that the British offered Lafitte $30,000 and a captaincy in the Royal Navy for his allegiance during the War of 1812. Lafitte agreed to cooperate, but then, warned Louisiana officials in New Orleans. Instead of believing him, Gov. W.C.C. Claiborne summoned the U.S. Army and Navy to wipe out the his colony. Some of Lafitte’s ships were captured, but his business was not destroyed. Lafitte continued to try and convince the U.S. of his unwavering loyalty by offering aid to the forces of Gen. Andrew Jackson in defense of New Orleans if he and his men could be granted a full pardon. Jackson accepted, and in the Battle of New Orleans (post to follow), Jackson personally commended Lafitte as “one of the ablest men” of the battle; Pres. James Madison issued a public proclamation of pardon for the group.
As soon as the war was over he went back to his pirate ways, and in 1817, with nearly 1,000 followers, he organized a commune called Campeche on the island site of the future city of Galveston, Texas, where he served briefly as governor in 1819. From there he continued his privateering against the Spanish, and his men were commonly acknowledged as pirates. When several of his lieutenants attacked U.S. ships in 1820, official pressure was brought to bear on the operation. As a consequence, the following year Lafitte suddenly picked a crew to man his favourite vessel, “The Pride,” burned the town, and sailed away—apparently continuing his pirating along the coast of Spanish America (the Spanish Main) for several more years.
Around 1820, Lafitte reportedly married Madeline Regaud, possibly the widow or daughter of a French colonist who had died during an ill-fated expedition to Galveston. They had his only known son, Jean Pierre Lafitte.
Lafitte continued to patrol the shipping lanes around Cuba. In November 1822, he made news in the American press after escorting an American schooner through the pirate-strewn area and providing them with extra cannonballs and food.
In February 1823, Lafitte was cruising off the town of Omoa, Honduras on his 43-ton armed Colombian schooner named General Santander. Omoa was the site of the largest Spanish fort in Central America, built to guard the Spanish silver shipments from the mines of Tegucigalpa to overseas destinations. Lafitte attempted to take what appeared to be two Spanish merchant vessels on the night of February 4. It was cloudy with low visibility. The Spanish ships appeared to be fleeing but, at 10:00 pm, turned back for a frontal counterattack against Lafitte’s ship. The Spanish ships were heavily armed privateers or warships and returned heavy fire.
Wounded in the battle, Lafitte is believed to have died just after dawn on February 5. Many historians have noted that he could have died later but there really isn’t any evidence to when or where. He was supposedly buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras. The Gaceta de Cartagena and the Gaceta de Colombia carried obituaries that noted, “the loss of this brave naval officer is moving.” No American newspaper published an obituary of him. Regardless of when or where he died his legend continues to be hugely popular in the Louisiana area.