No matter your age or at what point you became acquainted with the colorful history of the Bayou State, it is almost certain that you’ve heard the names of William C.C. Claiborne and Jean Lafitte.
Claiborne has a state building and a north Louisiana parish named after him, while Lafitte’s name can be found on a National Park and a small hamlet in Jefferson Parish. However, despite their legendary status, the two clashed in one of the most infamous tales of political power, popularity and influence in the state’s history.
Claiborne was a native Virginian who had become active in politics after moving to the developing new state of Tennessee. Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre were French-born smugglers who had brought their particular brand of business to the West Indies before settling in Louisiana in 1804. Once ensconced in the state, they set up a base of operations in Barataria Bay and began steadily raiding ships off the coast.
According to Lyle Saxon’s book, Lafitte the Pirate, the brothers’ criminal behavior was well known within New Orleans. But both the citizenry and the authorities were too busy buying their products at bargain prices to worry about the finer points of the law.
However, when an ambitious group of militia attempted to stop the Lafittes from seizing a ship, a gunfight ensued and a soldier was left wounded. Gov. Claiborne, who had already been irked by the blatant lawlessness of the pair, issued a proclamation calling for Lafitte’s and offered a $500 reward for whoever turned the pirate in.
The next day, Lafitte went into New Orleans for his normal business transactions and did not alter his routine despite the posters all over the city calling for his capture. “The Creoles could not but admire his indifference to danger,” Saxon wrote. “When he was seen perusing the proclamation and smiling, they were amused by his nonchalance.”
On Monday morning, New Orleanians awoke to find new proclamations all over the city next to Claiborne’s. Lafitte had virtually copied the language of his own arrest warrant, but instead offered a $1,500 reward for whoever would arrest Gov. Claiborne and bring him to Barataria.