Story & Photos By Katherine Adams
We all have read about legendary pirates in books. We know the type…swaggering, rum-swilling men with bad teeth, poor hygiene, an eye patch, and a parrot on their shoulder. They have gone down in history and folklore as master thieves, plunderers and murderers.
And these days, pirates have even enjoyed a bit of a revival with the popularity of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and its sequels. For the last several centuries, pirates have managed to remain in vogue in some way or another.
Art collector Jim Nonus has felt an inexplicably deep pull toward Galveston’s most legendary pirate, Jean Laffite ever since he was a boy growing up on the island.
“I have a sixth sense when it comes to Laffite,” said Nonus. “I have a thread of interest in him that has haunted me my whole life.”
‘Haunted’ could be the right word to describe Nonus and his lifelong affinity with the adventures and legends of Jean Laffite. “When I was a young kid, I had two recurring dreams about pirates,” said Nonus.
“One of them was a terrible nightmare. That dream was about two grubby pirates who would come to my bed, put me in a sack, and take me to their ship. It was terrifying. I had that dream over and over. And then I had another one, about having a swordfight over a lady in an ice blue satin colonial style dress, in a mansion with a chandelier near a spiral staircase. I had that one over and over, too.”
Nonus said he never knew why two pirates were dragging him to a ship, nor did he ever find out the identity of the lady in the blue satin dress. But this deep consciousness about Laffite and the events surrounding his life have remained central to him. Years passed, and Nonus said his mother showed him the site of the Maison Rouge, thought to be Laffite’s headquarters in Galveston back in the early 1800s.
“I was just drawn to it,” said Nonus. “Then later, when I was in college, I worked at UTMB in the basement of Old Red, and I passed the Maison Rouge property going and coming. I was fascinated by it always.”
These days, Jim Nonus has quite a collection of amazing Jean Laffite period newspaper articles. “It’s more of a body of documents that needs to stay together,” he said.
“I have a Laffite signature from 1818 which has been qualified by a collector and matches other signatures. It’s definitely in 190-year-old ink. I found an original signature in a book at the Louisiana Notarial archives. And I have old newspapers that report Laffite’s death in 1823. I have studied the history of Laffite I have a lot of things that might be of interest to a museum.”
Nonus said he has studied the history and genealogy of Jean Lafitte and his brother, Pierre during their time in New Orleans and Galveston. “Jean Laffite considered himself a privateer, not a pirate, and he operated under a ‘letter of marque’ given to him by Simon Bolivar, which gave him authorization to act on behalf of Cartagene,” he explained.
“He preyed upon enemy ships in the Gulf of Mexico which were also enemy ships of the U.S. He thought he was doing a legitimate job. That ‘letter of marque’ made him an extension of the country’s navy, and he split a percentage of what they brought in. He eliminated enemy ships, took them over, and sold all the goods.”
The presence of the French in America goes back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. “The defeated French generals were exiled from France and came to Philadelphia and Boston,” said Nonus.
“They petitioned the U.S. government to buy land in Alabama for an agricultural community. They got the property in the Alabama territory, previous land of the Creek Indians. But they sold it to investors right away and used the money to fund fields of asylum for exiles from France. It was called the Champ d’Asile. It was a place to stop in New Orleans for provisions.”
Nonus said the men reportedly stopped there in waves of a few hundred at a time, and he has a newspaper article of the time that refers to these men and predicts that more will be coming.
“Jean Laffite was in Galveston by this time, and he was very kind to these generals,” continued Nonus. “They marched along the Trinity River for six days and started building a fort around 1818. They wanted to put Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, on the throne of Mexico. His brother had put Joseph on the throne of Spain, but he had been deposed as Spanish king. But he’d been very popular and very kind to the people, so they liked him and the French wanted him to be king of Mexico.”
The French generals failed to get Mexico away from Spain, so Napoleon’s brother was never king of Mexico. In the end, Champ d’Asile was abandoned just in time for the hurricane of 1818.
Jean Laffite’s original home site, located at what is now Harborside between 14th and 15th Streets, was the first substantial home ever built in Galveston. The Maison Rouge had 12 gables, and a cupola on top for a cannon to signal ships.
“He burned it when he left around 1820 and the Hendricks Castle was built on the remains of the Maison Rouge. The Hendricks Castle remained standing until Hurricane Carla, although some say the staircase that remains could date back to the original Maison Rouge,” said Nonus.
“The Maison Rouge housed carriages and horses, and had 10-foot tall arches.” And its presence in Galveston never ceased to enthrall Jim Nonus, who never stopped feeling spellbound by its long-ago occupants.
“I have a lot of period newspapers relating to Galveston from 1817,” continued Nonus. “I have a paper publishing a letter written in 1816 during the Mina expedition. They had led expeditions to take over Mexico and prey upon Spanish ships. The Mina expedition ended in death for a lot of them in Mexico.”
All were out to take a piece of Mexico’s vast wealth of resources, so the Spanish enlisted the help of the Laffite brothers to spy on these expeditions that were disrupting commerce between Mexico and Spain. “One newspaper reports that Laffite died in 1823 off the coast of Cuba in a skirmish with the British. Pierre died in Cozumel in about 1821,” he explained.
Pierre Laffite was often arrested and jailed for his involvement with the feared pirates. Jean also repeatedly had warrants for his arrest.
Accolades from Andrew Jackson and eventually a presidential pardon for both men made them famous. Jean Laffite’s assistance to American troops during the Battle of New Orleans turned the tide of public opinion in his favor.
“They forgave him for all that he’d done before and he was considered a hero,” continued Nonus. “His men helped win the battle for the Americans. They furnished the army with gunpowder and flints, and fought against the British. Then, because some of his men were accused of piracy again, public sentiment changed against him. Some of his men stood trial and were hanged. Laffite left New Orleans just devastated with the change in peoples’ opinion toward him. He left in disgrace, with this sort of “After all I did for you” feeling.”
Jim Nonus said that his deep-seated connection to Jean Laffite and the time in which he lived has been a continuing motivator – even an obsession – in his life.
“I’m one of the founding members of the Laffite Society and I’m the current president,” he said. “I have my own personal opinions about the Laffite saga, but I know I have some kind of sixth sense about finding things that are associated with him.”
From the Gulf of Mexico to the vast, untouched web of waterways to New Orleans, Jean Laffite’s name was legend even in his own day.
The photo was taken of the Lafitte Maison Rouge site between 14th and 15th on Harborside by Pat Jakobi. The site has since been cleared of many of its vines, but it was still deeply shaded when this picture was taken. The day was overcast and, with the combination of cloud cover and foliage, the camera was set accordingly for a dimly lit place. After taking a few photos (which didn’t turn out as well as she hoped), Pat took one more before leaving. At that moment, the sun came out, overexposing the background and slightly increasing illumination in the foreground. This photo is the result.
In August of this year a Galveston coastal landmark, the 61st Street Fishing Pier reopened, a much-awaited happening by local and state anglers. John Menna, owner, says the Pier is just as it was before the storm.
Counting the rock groin leading out and the pier structure, anglers can place their bait offerings all the way out to about 1,000 feet from the shore. It has a 130-foot T-head at the end.
Twenty-four-year-old Bill Schaaf wasn’t deterred from planting roots in Galveston because another shrimper tried to run him off. When Schaaf, his wife, Josephine, and his two small daughters, Elena Jo and Catherine, arrived on the island in 1948, one of the first places they visited was the docks where the shrimp boats unloaded their catch. Schaaf was interested in starting his own seafood business. One morning, while the Schaafs and Josephine’s father, Steve Sekul, stood looking over the docks, they were approached by a worker from another seafood company. According to Schaaf, the man approached his father-in-law and told him to take his family back to where they came from if they were interested in getting into the seafood business. There were already enough people in the business he said; they didn’t need any more competition.
Schaaf didn’t go back to Iowa. “I needed a job and to provide for my family.” He previously worked as third assistant engineer aboard merchant marine ships; away from his family for six to eight months at a time. He decided that now was the time to stay at home and take care of his growing family. Josephine was originally from Mississippi and had experience in the seafood industry through her family. Her job was to teach Schaaf the seafood business.
Schaaf’s first quota in shipping shrimp was 300 pounds per day. During the heyday of his company, Schaaf was handling up to 17,000 pounds of shrimp per day. Schaaf Seafood grew to become Southeast Packing Company and a major seafood shipper in Galveston.
Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 22, headquarters for Southeast Packing, also became a retailer of seafood, and Schaaf began his unplanned entry into the restaurant business. When there was shrimp to be processed, workers were not allowed to take their customary one-hour lunch breaks. “Once you start working shrimp, something that is perishable, you don’t stop,” said Schaaf. In an effort to keep breaks at a minimum, Josephine would cook and feed the men. Shrimp were in abundance and every once in a while she would fry up some shrimp or make gumbo and the crew would take a 15-minute break to grab a quick bite to eat. One day, Josephine decided to sell a fried shrimp sandwich called a “Po’ Boy,” something not often seen around here at the time. And so, the first Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant was born in 1970, in a room no bigger than 6’ X 10.’ Josephine had one small fryer to teach a few people how to bread the shrimp and make Po’ Boys. They used recipes from her mother and sisters to make the tartar sauce; everything was homemade.
Josephine passed away in 1986, but Schaaf continued with the restaurant and it continued to grow. “It seemed liked every year we had to make the fried shrimp section a little bit bigger; it started taking things over.” The Po’ Boy business had taken over a large room. In 1985, when Schaaf’s son King came home from college to help his dad, he realized there was inadequate seating. King’s idea to add seating upstairs — to fit a total of 100 people in the restaurant — was an immediate hit. “The first day we opened we filled all the chairs,” said King.
By 1986 Schaaf found himself in the restaurant business. He remained as owner until he sold the restaurant to Marion Distich in 1996. About five years later Tillman J. Fertitta of the Landry’s Restaurant chain purchased the restaurant. Schaaf’s original building was torn down and the present Fisherman’s Wharf now stands in its place.
Many of Galveston’s restaurants have a rich history and Fisherman’s Wharf is no exception: from a beginning shipping quota of 300 pounds of shrimp to a whopping 17,000 pounds of shrimp a day; from feeding a hungry work force so that shrimp processing could continue without a lunch break; and from a burgeoning restaurant famous for its Po’ Boys, to the now well-known Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant owned by Landry’s.
Bill Schaaf is proud of his roots and the restaurant’s meager beginnings. “You still have old timers who say the old Fisherman’s Wharf made the best fried shrimp and best Po’ Boys.”
Though tracks remain in the streets today, not many people know much about the old Galveston trolley system. The original ‘street railway’ started with one line in 1866 and was known as the Galveston Street Railway Company. The Railway Company, including cars and track, cost $33,000. The closed cars slowly made their way down Market Street — the first line of the new railway — on February 1, 1867. Mules were the source of locomotion.
Flake’s Bulletin, Galveston’s newspaper, in the Feb. 3, 1867, edition reported in its own words, “The completion of the first City Railroad will, we hope inaugurate an era of municipal enterprise and general go aheaditveness that will speedily develop our resources and hasten the time when we shall become a great city. The city cars are running full, fuller, fullest; crammed, inside, outside, steps, platforms and all are alive with joyous juveniles.”
“Street Railroads,” Evolution of the Street Car in Galveston from 1866,” recalls that riders of the original trolleys had to somewhat curb their exuberance. Inside each car was a sign that read, “Profane language, intoxicated persons, dogs and smoking in the cars or on the platform will not be permitted.” Tickets were 12 for a dollar or 10 cents each, however it didn’t take long before some riders were complaining the cost was exorbitant. One rider voiced that the Galveston routes were shorter than any other railroad in the U.S. They were cheap to build, but the fare was double of what New Orleans charged to ride on their trolleys. The routes had grown from the original Market Street to Center Street to the beach, and later lines running east and west on Broadway came into being. The Galveston Street Railway Company later dropped the fare to 5 cents.
The mule-power of the trolleys was slow, but generally reliable. The driver held a whip instead of a controller handle. Trolley riders needed patience to reach their destination. The mule followed the path in the center of the track without guidance from the driver. The whip got the mule going. No other enticements were used to keep the mule steadily plodding along. Stopping was accomplished by the driver applying the hand brake on the car. At the end of the line, the conductor unhitched the mule, led him to the other end of the car and re-hitched him. There is a story told of one particular mule that made three trips a day and then quit. His day was over no matter how much he was urged to keep working.
Pulling trolleys ruined a mule for any other type of work. Stopping was never accomplished by a pull on the reins. “Street Railroads” recalls that one could yell “whoa!” at them forever and they never heededThe mule-pulled Galveston trolleys were replaced by electric driven cars after 1900. Galveston trolleys have come a long way from the original trolley put into use in 1867. Even though the trolleys are not running because of damage sustained by Hurricane Ike, money has been promised for rebuilding the system. It won’t be trolleys pulled by mules down Market Street, but wouldn’t it be nice if a mule pulled just one car…just so memories of Galveston’s past could live on into the next generations.
More information about the history of the Galveston trolley cars can be found at the Rosenberg Library, 2310 Sealy Street, Galveston, TX 77550 or by calling 409-763-8854.