Maison Rouge – The Site of the Home of Pirate Jean Lafitte
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.