Battle of New Orleans: Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop

Stop 8 of 10 in the Battle of New Orleans tour

For many years, a bar called “Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop” has occupied this building at the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Philip Street. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was built between 1772 and 1791 as “a French Colonial Louis XV townhouse of briquette-entre-poteaux construction.”

Legend suggests that Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre Lafitte operated a blacksmith shop here as a “front” for selling goods and slaves they plundered on the high seas. However, author Stanley Clisby Arthur, who also served as regional director of the Survey of Federal Archives during the Depression, discovered that the name “Lafitte” never appeared in any of the property records for this structure. In his 1936 book Old New Orleans, Arthur concluded that the name “Lafitte” was misspelled and should have been spelled “Laffite”:

New Orleans’ notarial records, however, are literally filled with thousands of sales of slaves by brother Pierre. Jean’s signature appears only occasionally, but in each case the surname is spelled “Laffite” [and not “Lafitte,” which is the orthodox spelling] by the signatory.

In addition to this French Quarter location, the Lafittes resided on Barataria, an island located in Barataria Bay close to Grand Isle, Louisiana. This island was also called Grand Terre.

Jean and Pierre Lafitte and their privateers assisted Jackson and the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans. The Baratarians, as Jean Lafitte and his followers were called, had been approached by British officials to act as allies and waterway guides. Acting as leader of the "Frenchmen of Barataria," Jean Lafitte advised American authorities of the British offer, ultimately securing from Jackson promises of amnesty for past offenses in return for siding with the United States and committing his men to battle. Louisiana Governor William C.C. Claiborne eventually offered Jean Lafitte and his men a full pardon “should their conduct in the Field meet the approbation of Major General Jackson.” Before reaching that settlement, several complicating factors characterized the exchanges between Claiborne and Lafitte.

On September 4, 1814, Lafitte wrote Jean Blanque, a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, informing him of the British offer and including copies of the British correspondence. In exchange, Lafitte asked for the release of his brother Pierre who was locked up in the Calaboose, or city prison. Lafitte also wrote to Governor Claiborne, offering his services and those of his men to defend New Orleans. Lafitte asked Claiborne for a pardon for him and his men. “I am the stray sheep, wishing to return to the sheepfold,” he wrote.

Claiborne and his defense council voted to refuse Lafitte’s offer of assistance. The United States revenue officer insisted that Lafitte be removed from Barataria and his operations shut down. Coincidentally, Lafitte’s brother Pierre escaped from prison on September 6, 1814.

Less than two weeks later, on September 16, 1814, the Carolina, an American schooner with 14 guns under command of Commodore Daniel Patterson, and six gunboats left New Orleans, sailed down the Mississippi River and attacked Grand Terre, Lafitte’s headquarters. Lafitte's men, not knowing if the attacking fleet was British or American, took battle stations. The Carolina raised a flag offering pardon for deserters. The Baratarians abandoned their vessels without resistance. The Americans seized 8 ships, 20 cannons, and an estimated $500,000 worth of goods and captured 80 Baratarians, but not Jean and Pierre Lafitte.

General Andrew Jackson originally described Lafitte as a “hellish banditti.” However, Jackson finally accepted Lafitte’s help in December 1814 because of the ammunition, cannoneers, and knowledge of the area Lafitte could supply. The expert cannon fire of Jackson’s troops, including Lafitte’s Baratarians, contributed to the American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. So impressed with the artillery skills of Baratarian Dominique You at Battery No. 3, Jackson reportedly stated before the Battle: “I wish I had fifty such guns on this line, with five hundred such devils as those fellows are at their butts.”

On February 6, 1815, President Madison issued a Proclamation, granting a full pardon to Jean Lafitte and the Baratarians for their role in the defense of New Orleans, stating in part: “Offenders, who have refused to become the associates of the enemy in the war, upon the most seducing terms of invitation; and who have aided to repel his hostile invasion of the territory of the United States; can no longer be considered as objects of punishment, but as objects of a generous forgiveness.”

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