Davis, William C. The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf.

San Diego: Harcourt, 2005. 706p., hardcover. Index, illus, maps. $28.00. ISBN 0-15-100403-X.

In Louisiana, both historians — academic and “hobbyist” — and genealogists have long been interested in Jean Laffite (or Lafitte) and his brother Pierre, their activities around Barataria, and especially their part in the Battle of New Orleans. Over the years, beginning in the mid-19th century, many biographies of the Lafitte boys have been written, several “true” personal memoirs have been published, and a great many researchers have taken up one theory or another regarding their origins and eventual deaths. One of the best-known is Lyle Saxon’s Laffite the Pirate, published in 1930, but while it’s an entertaining book, Saxon’s sources are as questionable as any other author’s. With the publication of this new work, however, the whole Laffite story enters a new and more respectable phase.

A professor of history at Virginia Tech and director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, William C. Davis is best known for his long string of highly-regarded studies of Civil War subjects and biographies of wartime leaders, including such works as Lincoln’s Men, The Orphan Brigade, The Cause Lost, and The Battle of New Market. He also has recently published books on the Texas Revolution, the Natchez Trace, and the American frontier. (This is by way of saying that a reviewer must take Davis’s work seriously.) In The Pirates Laffite, on which he has been working for at least a decade that I know of, he strips the story of its encrustation of myths and wishful thinking (all those oil leases . . .) and returns to first principles. Delving deep into French departemental archives, he comes up with a very likely point of origin for the brothers — though he freely admits it probably will never be proven conclusively. He demonstrates that Pierre was in business in San Domingue and came to New Orleans with that island’s evacuated citizens in the 1790s, long before Jean arrived in Louisiana. He details the several occasions on which Pierre and some of his men were captured by U.S. naval officers, provides excellent documentation for their espionage activities in Texas on behalf of the Spanish government, and comes down in support of Jean’s reported death in the Caribbean in 1823 at the hands of ships from Capt. David Porter’s squadron. (Jean was almost certainly buried at sea, the reports of a grave in Yucatan notwithstanding.) And, of particular interest to family historians, he goes into the claims of Laffite descendants at considerable length, noting the probability of validity (or not) in each of several cases. As always, Davis’s style is a highly readable, perfectly understandable blend of careful scholarly writing with popular narrative technique. The footnotes at the back of the book, giving both source citations and discursive comments, fill more than 150 pages, while the extremely thorough bibliography runs another thirty pages. Amateur or otherwise, Laffite researchers have no excuse, now, for not going to the original documents. Davis includes a number of portraits of Jean (which may or may not be accurate) and includes reproduced signatures of Pierre, together with period maps and early woodcuts to provide context. In fact, the only thing missing in this volume is a genealogical chart (or several) summarizing all the names one finds in the text. (I may have to construct one myself. . . .) While this certainly won’t be the last word written about the Laffite brothers and their descendants, it should certainly be the first source consulted by anyone with an interest. Very highly recommended.

Published in: on 16 January 2010 at 9:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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