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Jean Laffite's Espionage Mission

Jean Laffite was a well-known smuggler and privateer (considered a pirate by some) who operated in the Gulf of Mexico. A hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, Laffite undertook a secret espionage expedition in 1816 that traversed the Missouri Territory (later the Arkansas Territory) on behalf of the Spanish.

Lafitte was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in November 1815 at the same time that his friend, architect Arsene Latour, was in town to supervise the proofing and printing of Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814–1815. As a Spanish agent interested in Spain’s territory north and west of the Louisiana Purchase, Latour may have been instrumental in convincing the impoverished Lafitte to join him and in introducing him to Luis Onis, who ran the Spanish intelligence system in the New World from this city. (It may be more than coincidental, however, that, at almost the same time, Laffite’s brother, Pierre, had agreed to spy for the Spanish back in New Orleans.) Spain wished to recover some of its prior Louisiana territory and to blunt the United States’ moves into Texas, an expansion they feared threatened the trading hub of Santa Fe. Historian William C. Davis has argued that “Onis and his masters needed to ascertain the sentiments of the Spaniards and the Indians…, the extent of the Americans’ inroads, and what support, if any, filibusters could expect from the inhabitants. This was…[the] assignment, guised as a geographical survey—though the survey was real, for Spain needed to know about the defensible parts of the empire and its resources.”

In March 1816, using the pseudonym “Captain Hillare,” Lafitte left New Orleans and proceeded up the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Arkansas River and Arkansas Post (Arkansas County). He and Latour (traveling as “John Williams”) stayed there throughout the spring, fraternizing with Don Carlos de Villemont and Frederick Notrebe and garnering information from returning travelers and trappers. The local Creoles, they reported, “know the Americans and cordially hate them.”

By early July, the two spies were in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), where they associated with Francois Catejan de Vaugine and appear to have joined forces with Louis Bringier, a gold prospector who journeyed upriver to Crystal Hill (Pulaski County), where he stopped to prospect. Using keelboats and barges in their ascent, Laffite and Latour stopped at Daniel Wright’s below Little Rock (Pulaski County) and later stayed with Major James Pyeatt at Cadron (Faulkner County). At least some members of the expedition traveled to the Caddo River to prospect but abandoned the effort after being attacked by a band of Lipan Indians. Using the recent maps of Colonel Zebulon Pike (which they found to be inaccurate), the group continued upriver to the future site of Fort Smith (Sebastian County), on to a major Osage village near present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, and finally reached the limits of the Arkansas River’s navigability about eight days from Santa Fe. By November 5, Lafitte and Latour had returned to Arkansas Post, where they were able to gauge the region’s population by observing a local election. Late November saw their return by boat to New Orleans after a journey of over 1,500 miles.

The expedition’s report, written by Latour, warned the Spanish government of the inevitable westward spread of Americans, who have “strength of character, courage, and skill in the use of guns rarely seen among civilized people.” Noting that these adventurers would “gladly join any expedition that is proposed” toward Mexico, Latour opined that advance into Spain’s territory could not be prevented but might be delayed. Spain needed to fix her boundary as far east as possible, militarizing it to prevent American incursions and maintaining control of the Native American population. If time could be bought in this manner, Latour believed that the Union might fragment due to sectional discord, leaving Spain safely in possession of her colony.

Had this advice been acted upon, Arkansas’s subsequent history might have been strikingly different. An 1819 treaty with the United States did fix the Spanish boundary with the Louisiana Purchase at the Sabine River, but Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, and a surge of American migrants to Texas helped that province gain its freedom from Mexico in 1835–36.

For additional information:
Arthur, Stanley Clisby. Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover. New Orleans: Harmonson Publisher, 1952.

Carpenter Jr., Edwin H., ed. “Latour’s Report on Spanish-American Relations in the Southwest.” Louisiana Historical Quarterly 30 (July 1947): 715–737.

Davis, William C. The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2005.

Hodges, Dr., and Mrs. T. L. Hodges. “Jean Lafitte and Major L. Latour in Arkansas Territory.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 7 (Winter 1948): 237–256.

Samuel Pyeatt Menefee
Charlottesville, Virginia

Last Updated 5/25/2007

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