Jean Lafitte is the famous and well-loved privateer of Louisiana history. His 'kingdom' was on the island(s) of Barataria, near the Gulf of Mexico, in modern Lafourche and Jefferson Parishes.
Lafitte was born in Bordeaux, France on an unspecified date, and later moved to Louisiana, where he operated as a privateer, often hired out to small Latin American nations. He was not a killer, and often allowed the passengers of the boats he raided to leave to safety or join him. Actually, the standard of living at Barataria was very high, and women were treated with utmost respect, for Lafitte made sure his men acted civilized.
He made his living by selling the stolen goods from his privateering at Barataria to the social elite of New Orleans, and it was not uncommon for erudite women of the early 19th century to be found buying precious goods in the middle of the swamp on a Sunday afternoon. His front was a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, run by his brother Pierre. From here Lafitte got the scoop about what was going on in the city.
But what makes Lafitte an American hero is his role in the Battle of New Orleans, the final battle in The War of 1812, and the last time in which foreign troops encroached on American soil. Lafitte had a policy that none of his men were allowed to attack American ships. Though he pledged no allegiance to any nation (He considered Barataria his nation), he admired American ideals of freedom and democracy very much, and did not want to hinder the progress of such a nation. Besides, up until that point, the US had basically allowed him to operate on their land, even though they knew where he was and was listed as an outlaw.
However, Lafitte was not liked by Governor Claiborne, who felt Lafitte made him look like a fool. When the British came to the mouth of the Mississippi in late 1814 under the command of the decorated general Edward Pakenham, they were looking for a less direct path into New Orleans. They sought out Lafitte, who knew every bayou and pass in the entire area, and at Barataria offered him $30,000 over dinner to help them sneak up on New Orleans. In an historic moment, he basically told them to F*** off, by pointing out that $30,000 was nothing to him, and that they were eating off of plates made of solid gold. The British left soon thereafter.
When Claiborne got news that Lafitte had met with the British, he jumped on the chance he had been waiting for for a long time, to attack Barataria with the US Navy. Lafitte and his men were stunned when the US warships opened fire on the island, completely destroying Barataria and all Lafitte had built.
But Lafitte's love for America was strong, and he realized that this must be personally from Claiborne, because he refused to believe the US would do this to him. At this time, New Orleans was pretty much under martial law under the command of General Andrew Jackson, with whom Lafitte secretly met and pledged the services and supplies of him men to fight in the impending battle.
The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815, which was actually after the Treaty of Ghent, but word had not yet gotten to the two armies who met at Chalmette plantation. There is no proof that Lafitte himself was actually at the battle, but it is well-known that his men provided weapons, supplies, manpower, and intelligence to the small army defending New Orleans, which was made up of a small number of US soldiers, Tennessee Volunteers, local Indians, and local plantation owners and even some slaves.
The battle was an enormous victory for the US, largely due to Lafitte's support and especially the supplies and intelligence. The British army, many of whom were fresh from defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, lost over 2000 men out of 10,000-11,500 that day, including Pakenham. American losses were a mere 71 (actually the number ranges anywhere from 8-71, depending on the account) out of between 3500 and 5000.
After the battle, Lafitte received full pardon from the US government, and with Barataria destroyed, he went out to look for work elsewhere. From this point on, Lafitte literally disappeared from the pages of history, like a true adventurer, although many men closely associated with him were involved in an ill-fated plan to save Napoleon from his exile on St. Helena, but Napoleon died before they got there. Lafitte's right-hand man, Domonique You is buried in New Orleans' St. Louis Cemetery.
Today, Lafitte is a well known hero in Southern Louisiana. The main highway in St. Bernard Parish bears his name, and much of the museum at the Chalmette Battlefield National Park is devoted to him. There is also a Jean Lafitte National Park and Museum in Thibodaux, LA. The sports teams of the University of New Orleans are aptly called 'the privateers.'Finally, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop exists to this day, although it is now a famous New Orleans barroom.
Jean Lafitte has also been twice immortalized in Hollywood, in the 1938 Cecil B. DeMille classic 'The Buccaneer', and the 1958 remake starring Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson. Both are excellent movies, although they fudge quite a bit of history in order to end the movies the way they do (There was no love affair between Lafitte and Claiborne's daughter, who had died years before of yellow fever, and Lafitte's men never did attack an American ship). There is also a large body of literature and even a few songs written on the subject of Jean Lafitte and his legendary role in helping to save what was then the most important port in the United States.