An unexpected side effect of the First Seminole War materialized 200 years ago this week as pirate raids surged on the Gulf of Mexico and the lakes near New Orleans.
This article continues a series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s need of naval support for his movements caused a serious shortage of ships and personnel at the New Orleans naval station, the primary U.S. Navy base responsible for suppressing pirate activity on the Gulf. Commodore Daniel T. Patterson informed Secretary of the Navy B.W. Crowninshield that the business people of New Orleans were worried:
Encouraged from my extreme want of men, piracies and acts of violence have been renewed upon the commerce of this port, in the Lakes between this and Mobile, and even in this river. It is therefore extremely desirable that I should have men enough to dispatch in open boats, as occasion may require, in the river and Lakes, for their suppression. The Merchants of this place entertain considerable apprehension for the safety of their vessels passing through the Gulf, least from the taking possession of Pensacola by Genl. Jackson, the Capt. Genl. of Cuba should be induced to make reprisals. [I]
Patterson had committed the USS Enterprise and USS Surprise to Jackson’s operation. The former cruised as far south as Tampa Bay looking for an arms shipment on its way to the Seminoles and Red Stick Creeks, while the latter took part in the attack on Pensacola. This left him without enough men to crew the USS Firebrand, leaving her unable to operate against the pirates who then frequented the waters off the Balize or mouth of the Mississippi River.
Principal among these pirates were the brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte (or Laffite). Jean Lafitte directed the marine operations of their enterprise from Galveston Island on the Texas coast while Pierre handled the commercial side of their family business. Their fast sailing sloops and schooners were the scourge of the Gulf and – despite their service under Jackson during they Battle of New Orleans – they did not hesitate to raid American merchant ships.
The fear that the Spanish would raid U.S. flagged ships in reprisal for Jackson’s capture of Pensacola and St. Marks was very real in the summer of 1818. No one knew what the Captain-General of Cuba would do and whether war would erupt between the United States and Spain.
Numerous examples of ships from New Orleans being taken by pirates during the summer and fall of 1818 are found in both naval records and U.S. newspapers of the time. The taking of the schooners Hector and Fish is a good example:
The New-Orleans Gazette of Oct. 23, mentions that the schooners Fish and Hector, from that city where they were owned, bound to Campeachy, had been captured by cruisers belonging to the piratical establishment at Galveztown. The crew of the Hector have not been heard of since their capture, but the captain, and three men of the Fish, were put on shore near Campeachy, and the pirate informed the Governor that they had been smuggling on the coast, in consequence of which they were put in prison where they remain. It is stated that a profitable trade which had been carried on between New-Orleans and Tampico, Campeachy, and other ports on the Spanish Maine, has entirely ceased in consequence of the depredations of those pirates, and that many runaway slaves have found shelter at Galveztown. [II]
The Secretary of the Navy, B.W. Crowninshield, did not provide Commodore Patterson with extra vessels or men, instructing him instead to make use of the USS Enterprise when she returned from her cruise in support of Jackson’s campaign.
No estimate is available of the shipping losses suffered during and immediately following Jackson’s 1818 operations in Florida.
This series will continue.
For a fun look at stories of Jean Lafitte’s lost treasure, please enjoy this 6-minute video presentation:
[I] Commodore Daniel T. Patterson to Secretary of the Navy B.W. Crowninshield, June 6, 1818, Secretary of the Navy, Letters Received, National Archives.
[II] New Bedford Mercury, November 20, 1818.