A federal grand jury in New Orleans reported in July 1814: "Piracy and smuggling are ... long established and ... systematically pursued by many of the inhabitants of this state and, particularly, of this city and vicinity."
When the War of 1812 ended, in fact, "the opportunities for capable and industrious buccaneers ... in the Gulf of Mexico underwent a sudden, remarkable expansion," according to a study by historian John Smith Kendall.
Practically all of Spain's colonies in America were in rebellion and the leaders of the uprisings found it useful to use so-called privateers—independent seamen licensed to make war on behalf of a particular country—to attack Spanish shipping. Pirates found the situation to their liking whether or not they were working for a rebel government.
"The owners and masters of the [privateer ships] that had played havoc with the British merchant marine during the war [if 1812]... set sail [at its end] for such Spanish-American ports as were in the hands of insurgents," Kendall writes.
Many people in the United States disliked Spain on general principles and usually sympathized with the rebellious colonies. As a result, the U.S. federal government did little to combat what turned into outright and obvious piracy.
"As a whole, our people declined to believe the facts even when American vessels mysteriously vanished. ... Not till 1840 can it be said that the last pirate had been hunted down and exterminated in the Gulf of Mexico. Even after that date there were sporadic incidents of more or less piratical character," Kendall says.
He gives the example of a man named Desfarges, who was hanged as a pirate in 1819. He had served under Lafitte at Barataria and Galveston and in August 1819 signed an agreement under which Desfarges became commander of El Bravo, a vessel owned by Lafitte and described as a "Mexican corsair."
Lafitte instructed Desfarges to capture ships "from the West of the stream" (the Mississippi River) and to bring them exclusively to Lafitte's lair at Galveston, where the spoils would be divided.
Unfortunately for himself, Desfarges paid little attention to his instructions.
He looted a ship near the mouth of the Mississippi and several people were killed. Desfarges was captured by an American warship and he and 16 members of his crew were taken to New Orleans.
Lafitte hurried to the city and planned to set fire to the Cabildo, where the men were being held, but his men got drunk and torched the wrong building.
Then the pirate king went to Washington, D.C., where he still had some influence after his gallantry in the Battle of New Orleans, and tried to wrangle pardons for the men. He got one young crewman off, but the rest had to suffer the fate of pirates before and after them.
Desfarges and the rest of his men were sentenced to be hanged. Desfarges was the first to feel the noose. He was hung from the yardarm of a U.S. warship anchored in New Orleans. The rest of his crew, despite some legal maneuvering, were hanged before the year was out.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.