The Pirate House Revisited
(for part 1, read The Pirate House and Jean Lafitte)
… primary evidence of pirating in 1807
Finally, there has been uncovered what I believe to be definitive evidence that the fabled Pirate House in Waveland, long a favorite of legend and mystery, was properly named. It is still missed by those who have loved our history, even though it was demolished by hurricane Camille years ago.
To begin, a confession is in order: for several years, we have had in easy reach the identity of the occupant in 1807 of this famous house, but his name was ignored because it was believed that his house was located in Pass Christian.
An in-depth study of the Englis papers, referred to in other articles as simply “the Spanish letters,” reveals the error of the assumption. It is now apparent that it was the house of one Antoine or Antonio Peytavin. It was seized by the Spanish authorities for slave dealing.In addition, two other facts have jumped off the two-hundred-year-old communications. One has to do with contraband slaves being at “Chucopulu,” the Choctaw name for the land that includes present-day Bay St. Louis. Another clue concerns three gunboats being stationed on the coast “west of the point of the Bay of St. Louis” for an extended period.
Taken together, they give us the person, the general area and then the pin-point locus. They point to a single scenario: Peytavin had been dealing slaves from a house in 1806 and 1807 from what became celebrated in modern times as the “Pirate House” in Waveland.
Conclusion, with Gaps
Such is the new conclusion. It cannot be accepted at face value without much explanation. Much of what follows is background to this conclusion. There will still be questions, certainly, and perhaps many doubts. It is presented here with the knowledge that there are gaps and that not all the evidence is compelling.
There is no information to show that Peytavin owned the house. In point of fact, we probably will never find a deed to this property; if any existed prior to 1853, it would have been lost in the courthouse fire at Gainesville.
Some reliable information is found in court records, however, primarily those of the United States Supreme Court. We do know that one Louis Boisdore had been granted the land where eventually was built the Pirate House. He was also given much more, amounting to over 100,000 acres. Originally, his grant described land spanning the entire coast of what is now Hancock County, from the Bay of St. Louis to the Pearl River. His claim was a grant made by Spanish governor Miro in 1783. It was confirmed in 1808 and a map was drawn in 1810. Later, in court actions of 1830, it was declared that Louis Boisdore had inhabited the land for many years. Although Boisdore’s claim was eventually reduced by the courts to 1,280 acres near the river, his ownership of the larger part was accepted prior to the decree.
Importantly, the evidence is firm in stating that the land was inhabited. The Supreme Court’s words cannot yield to misinterpretation: “The additional testimony adduced to us proves incontestably that this claim has been inhabited, and a part of the land kept under cultivation, upwards of forty years.” (United States v. Boisdore, 1850. 52 U.S. ((11 How.)) 63)
There are a number of possibilities to explain why Boisdore may have been the owner even though the Spanish letters identify Antonio Peytavin as the occupant. There may have been a deed of transfer, never found. Peytavin may simply have had the use of a house belonging to his related-by-marriage friend, by lease or simply by permission. We will probably never know.
A noteworthy connection is found in the genealogy of these families. At least in one instance, the Peytavins and the Boisdores intermarried. In another record, it is revealed in the baptism in 1796 of Louise du Bousquet Peytavin, whose parents were Jean Baptiste Peytavin and Louise Boisdore. One of the sponsors was Antoine Peytavin, recorded as “merchant resident of the city of New Orleans.”
This was the man whose house was said to be “seized” by Spanish Commandant Pellerin.His offense was the trafficking in contraband slaves. He was a Frenchman living in Louisiana, and trespassing in Spanish territory.
There are 142 pages of such letters, covering the period 1764 to 1813. They are difficult to read, partly because of awkward translations and perhaps poorly understood handwriting, some of which was written by semi-literate people. The fact that the information conveyed is usually without rejoinder by the addressee makes full understanding problematical.
Nonetheless, a new reading reveals the clues into a subject about which we have had only word-of-mouth tradition and speculation. Printed and preserved, these hard-based facts trump legend and fantasy.
A review of the history of the Louisiana Purchase may help put some of the information into perspective. While Spain had already had control of the Gulf Coast portion of West Florida, she had lost “the Isle of New Orleans,” thus becoming subjected to practices allowed by her neighbor, having to do with the acceptance of privateers and pirates. Included among them were the likes of some business and government leaders who owned ships which they allowed pirates to use, and even a few who themselves became pirates.
There are other articles on this web site about the Pirate House, including a couple on the person named Jean Blanque of New Orleans. He was one of those pillars of the French colonial community who chose to ally himself with pirates. Another was Bartehelemy Lafon, who sailed with Lafitte after 1815. I mention Blanque here particularly because I do not think the discovery of the Peytavins necessarily eliminates him from possible complicity involving the Pirate House. His character still fits the legend of the “lord of the pirates” who mediated between Jackson and the Baratarians in 1814-15.
The first Major Clue: 21 Blacks at Chucopulu
The message which attracted more than usual attention came from Don Juan Morales, Spanish Superintendant of West Florida, based at Pensacola. Dated December 4, 1806, it is long and somewhat confusing and is therefore synopsized here. The full text may be found in the Appendix.
It tells of Morales having been informed by Benito Garcia, master of a small ship of commerce along the coast, that twenty-one contraband slaves would be disembarked at the port of Pascagoula. Garcia had offered to apprehend them, and Morales had given permission. He added that Garcia may also apprehend the contrabandists and conduct them to Pascagoula.
A follow-up to the letter of Morales came a few days later from Pellerin, Commandant at Pass Christian. It was here that a major clue, having to do with the locus of events, came about. It was the mention of a place named “Chucopulu.” Meaning “bad grass,” it was the Choctaw name for the coastal area near the Bay of St. Louis. The source is the following letter from the Commandant of the District of the Bay of St. Louis.
Juan Bautista Pellerin, Pass Christian, to Vicente Folch, Number 16, December 14, 1806.
The master of the Schooner “Carmen” Bentio Garcia has informed me that on the 14 of the present he took as contraband on the Chucopulu coast twenty-one blacks including men and Women, in Virtue of the Commission and Authorization that he has from the Señor Interim Intendant don Juan Ventura Morales of which I copy and send enclosed to you.
[Signed] Juan Bautista Pellerin
House of Peytavin Seized
On July 12, 1807, the house of Peytavin was seized. The Spanish authority had found that he was trafficking in slaves. This comes from a report by Pellerin, signed at Pass Christian. It was the source of the mistake in assuming that Peytavin was at Pass Christian. On further examination, it is now realized that Pellerin was simply signing his own location, as that was his seat of administration. With the information about Chucopulu in hand, it is now evident that Peytavin’s house was not at Pass Christian, but somewhere on the other side of the bay.
At the same time, the schooner of a free black named Carlos was seized with its “inventory.” Mention was made of Peytavin transporting blacks to Baton Rouge. This involved the frigate of Augusto Lafontaine. Mention also was made of two blacks and a black woman who came from the cargo of blacks of the frigate. One woman had already died.
It is unfortunate that the quote which follows does not offer more detail. It is, however, a statement of some meaning and is therefore included herewith.
Year of 1807. Testimony of the declarations of contraband of 21 blacks from Jamaica and landed near Bay St. Louis of the Jurisdiction of that Province of the western Florida where they were captured.
[signed] Francisco Gutierrez de Arroyo
[signed] Ventura Quiroga
What is notable is that the slaves were from Jamaica, and that they were being transported illegally to Louisian through the Spanish West Florida.
On August 5, 1808, it was reported that in May three gunboats anchored off the west point of the Bay of St. Louis, and stayed for about two months till July 8. The translation is as follows:
In the month of May three Gunboats anchored off the west point of Bay St. Louisandthey stayed there until July 8 last, these did not commit any assaults only forced the Masters of three little Schooners anchored in at Pass Christian to show their documentation threatening them with registering their ships if not; immediately showing their Passports and knowing them as Spanish they were respected.
It is probable that “Pass Christian” referred to the ship passage through the Gulf waters rather than to a city.
The above quote is confusing but also arouses suspicions. My interpretation is that these were not Spanish ships; after all, they were being reported within the network of the Spanish authorities, and presumably would have been reported as such if known. It is doubtful that they were ships of the United States; if so, they would have been identified. The location mentioned is important; so is the length of time. This leaves the choice that they must have been pirate vessels guarding the Pirate House. Whatever the identity, masters of the three ships would not have spent two months anchored offshore for no good reason. The chances are that they were protecting – not investigating – a place important to them.
The mention of Chucopulu, when combined with information about three ships west of the bay, is to this writer a new and compelling perspective. The suggestion of the Pirate House cannot be ignored as imaginative.
Three ships stationed at a given place would suggest the guarding of a waterway. It is known that the geography of the coast has changed only minimally over the last two centuries. Although small, the nearest inlets west of the bay were the natural ones near the Pirate House. The earliest map we have of the area is found in connection with deeds of the Fremaux tract dated 1849. The land measured 1,620 feet along the beach in present-day Waveland. Three houses are shown, two small and one larger. The latter is believed to have been the Pirate House, approximately 270 feet east of the inlet to the pond. Besides the fact that this house has been identified by tradition over many years, there is primary evidence that the inlet and the pond were used by boats from outside: even now, a large quantity of ballast stone can be found on the premises.
I believe that the three ships were guarding the Pirate House.
Who was Peytavin?
AntoinePeytavin has been found to have been a planter with a plantation upriver from New Orleans. He was born in Marseilles, France, in 1749. His father was Enrique Francois Peytavin, also called du Bousquet. His mother was Antoinette Rigolet, born in Province. One genealogical record of Antoine shows he had only one brother, Charles, born in 1759, but another indicates that Jean Baptiste Dubousquet Peytavin was born of the same parents, in 1769.
As noted above, this latter mention has particular importance because his daughter is the one who married a Boisdore. She was known as Louise or Louison.
Antoine was one of several Peytavins who were planters in south Louisiana. They appear to have been well-connected, with successful plantations in the area of Convent in St. James Parish as well as in Assumption Parish and around Bayou Teche.
Antoine died on February 18, 1836.
Not much else is known of the early Peytavins. There is a good account of a descendant, John Ludger Peytavin, born 1859 in St. James Parish. An accomplished person, he was a noted attorney and author, and the owner of a plantation called Ancient Domain. It is recorded that his father was an only son. Other than that, the record reveals nothing of his ancestors.
The letter books of Louisiana Governor W.C.C. Claiborne list one Augusta Peytavin as Captain of the 6th regiment of Orleans in 1809. I have no other information about him.
Suits, Slaving and Other Endeavors
The Peytavins were involved in a number of court actions, but mostly they involved small amounts of claims, some having to do with slave transactions. There is even one case in which Antonio sued the estate of Simon Favre, having to do with a slave having been purchased who had a “disability,” i.e., being a runaway.
All of the plantations had slaves during the period studied, and there are records that the Peytavins had 218 known transactions dealing in slaves. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s slave data base furnishes some details of each record. The Notarial Archives in New Orleans also reveal a number of Peytavin sales of slaves beginning as early as 1790, and perhaps earlier. As the data base does not go past year 1820, there is no way to count transactions beyond that date.
Besides Antoine, other Peytavins are listed in the slave exchanges, notably Jean, Francis, and Duriblon (brother Charles), but a large majority of the sales were in the name of Antoine or Antonio.
The 218 figure for the Peytavins is not high by other standards, compared to Jean Blanque at 335. However, there can only be speculation as to how many slaves were brought in clandestinely who never made the data base.
Besides Antoine Peytavin’s ownership and management of a plantation, he had other ambitions. Charles Gayarre, his History of Louisiana, describes an offer made by Peytavin in 1788. It seems the Bonnet Carre levee on the German coast needed repair. He proposed that he would endeavor to heal the crevasse if given a loan for $16,000, with the proviso that ownership of the land was to be his afterward. The offer apparently was not accepted.
Slave dealing was lucrative in those years before and shortly after the purchase, but still Peytavin had financial problems in his old age. It is recorded in Claiborne’s Biographical Sketches that his business “failed in March 1813 a victim of economic depression brought on by Napoleonic wars.”
More problems occurred at least partly as a result of the Panic of 1819. The foreclosure suit states that his plantation had “a good stand of cane and was well equipped to produce sugar.” Nonetheless, he lost both the plantation near Donaldsonville and his home in New Orleans.
The 1831 Journal of House of Representatives of Louisiana narrates a failed attempt to build a new statehouse in 1825. Peytavin, well into his 70’s, contracted to do the construction, but as it did not meet the satisfaction of the legislature, he was not paid in full for the work.
Partnership with Reynaud
In New Orleans Peytavin formed a partnership with Jean Reynaud, who was born in Marseilles about 1760. Reynaud was married at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans in 1784.
Their partnership, known simply as Reynaud & Peytavin, is said to have been formed in 1806, but the slave data base records that together they bought Jose, age 27, in 1802. [Some detail is relevant. The seller was Joseph Collins, who figures prominently in the Spanish letters. He claimed that he brought Jose to the city “from the USA,” and that he was a Cimarron, i.e., a runaway. Collins was one of the officials in Spanish West Florida.]
Reynaud & Peytavin’s business activities were claimed to have been in houses, plantations, slaves, ships, credits and merchandize. Perhaps so. But it may have been a cover for illegal slave importation.
Problems in Slave Dealing
In addition to the information in the Spanish letters about Peytavin’s problems, we have other accounts from Claiborne. It is known that Claiborne detested the concept of slavery, but was restricted by circumstances in his dealings. In his letters, there are examples of Peytavin running into the wrath of the governor, who wrote of “so barbarous a Traffic.” [Letter dated January 1, 1804.]
In Claiborne’s letter of November 1, 1804, he advised the New Orleans mayor and city council as follows: “With respect to Breach of Faith and violation of Public Security committed by Mr. Peytavin, I have taken the best measures in my power to prevent the Mischief which his conduct might occasion.” A footnote to this passage says it was “probably Joseph Antoine, who had imported some Negro slaves and sold them after having promised Claiborne that he would not.”
Another letter, unfortunately without a date, says that Peytavin’s slaves were from Jamaica, confirming an earlier statement of origin. He was scolded by Claiborne, who demanded that Peytavin make certain that none of those sold were of bad character. Claiborne threatened legal action, worrying that that Peytavin had “dispatched some to Interior of Country.” A footnote reads, “Probably Joseph Antoine, who had imported some Negro slaves and sold them after having promised Claiborne that he would not.”
Peytavin according to Davis
William C. Davis in The Pirates Lafitte identifies Peytavin’s father as being the main player in the slave market, saying little more than the following: “Then in 1807 Enrique the Chevalier de Peytavin drew the eyes of the authorities looking into the unlawful slaves being smuggled into Baton Rouge. Peytavin and his family did a lot of slave buying and selling, and if an operator of his scale attracted attention, it could hardly make the efforts of smaller entrepreneurs like Laffite any easier.”
The end note for the above gives a reference to page 105 of the Guide to the Materials for American History in Cuban Archives, by Luis Marino Perez.I have examined that book, finding that page 105 refers to buddle number 1807, consisting of 41 pieces. Those papers are in Havana, not easily available to me. However, there is a brief paragraph in Spanish which indicates and inclusion of an official warrant for Peytavin to look into the secret introduction of the cargo of Negroes to the port of Baton Rouge.
There seems to be an inconsistency about which of the Peytavins – Enrique or Antonio – was the central figure. Pellerin’s letter of July 12, 1807 mentions both, but it is clear in referring to Antonio as being the occupant of the seized house. Excerpts of that letter follow; the complete transcript is in the Appendix.
I send to your hands the Inventory of the Seizure of the house of don Antonio Peytavin that I delivered to don Juan Bautista Nicollet who is depositor of it and who has taken Charge of that which is expressed in the Inventory.
A Protest of don Enrique Peytavin regarding the Seizure of the named house, for you to decide that which is most convenient.
[Signed] Juan Bautista Pellerin
Evidently, Davis went to Havana to read the 41 pieces in the bundle, and it may be that Enrique was the real brains of the business. From the above, it is evident that it was he who lodged a protest, apparently on behalf of his son. The Davis analysis can be accepted as saying simply, the Peytavins were big players in the contraband slave business.
…All of Which Begs the Question, Why?
For the construction of a substantial house in a wilderness, workers and materials had to have been brought in from distances. Money would have been no more than incidental to the builder. There is no evidence that anyone else was settled for miles around the site. The building of such a house had to be a monumental task. Even allowing that the early construction was just a basic house, not the final product that became eventually a beautiful mansion, this was, after all, not built as a weekend home for recreation.
Owners of large plantations up and down the Mississippi River were crying for more slaves. They were making fortunes, but they wanted more. In the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson had outlawed the importation of slaves, modeling the charter of Louisiana after that of the Northwest Territories.
Some things were so important and so profitable as to make men risk their lives as well as their ships. And for such ventures, they needed privacy. Such was the condition offered by the house on the lonely, primitive beach.
Things had not been going well between the United States and Spanish West Florida. The letters tell of numerous problems for the Spanish authorities, some involving fire fights and injuries. Others describe American gunboats raiding Pass Christian and Cat Island and killing cattle of the Morin family. Indeed, in a letter dated November 12, 1805, W.C.C. Claiborne wrote concerning the general problem with actions of Spain, “The prospect of war between the United States and Spain is the constant theme of conversation; The Spanish Officers in our vicinity speak of it as an inevitable event.”
It was not Claiborne’s wish to seek trouble, and on May 22, 1806, he gave orders pertaining to a Spanish armed brig at Plaquemine, saying, “No impediment will be offered to the Spanish officers visiting the city, and they will experience friendly treatment due to the officers of a nation with whom the United States are in peace.”
There were others, however, who were willing to abuse such accommodation. These were called by the Spanish “corsairs,” and they included the likes of Peytavin, Blanque, Lafon, Lafontaine, and perhaps even the Lafittes.
Some risked much, like Peytavin. Some, like Blanque and Lafontaine lost their ships. One vivid example is detailed about the latter person in the text that follows:
Juan Bautista Pellerin, Pass Christian, to Francisco Maximiliano de St. Maxent, Number 27, July 12, 1807. GC 1807-07-12/002
[Margin Note by Addressee] “Transcript on 24 of July’
“I send to your hands the Inventory of the Seizure of the house of don Antonio Peytavin that I delivered to don Juan Bautista Nicollet who is depositor of it and who has taken Charge of that which is expressed in the Inventory.
Likewise the seizure of the Schooner of the free black Carlos with is corresponding inventory, being in charge don Josef Labat.
That of the Boat of Agusto Lafontaine without Inventory as it is completely ruined and underwater.
The proceedings practiced to conserve the Schooner of Cadet darbour.
Sending to you the declarations of the inhabitants of Biloxi that were with don Antonio Peytavin in transporting the Blacks of the Frigate of which it relates, to the Territory of Baton Rouge as appears by the declaration of don Francisco Missonet.
Likewise two Blacks and one black woman of the four that Came from said Frigate, for having died one black woman about a month ago which appears in the Information taken, which I also direct to you.
A Protest of don Enrique Peytavin regarding the Seizure of the named house, for you to decide that which is most convenient”.
[Signed] Juan Bautista Pellerin
[N.B. Augusto Lafontaine, born in 1762, appears to have been the uncle of Cadet La Fontaine. While there is no evidence of slave dealing on the part of Cadet La Fontaine, who settled early at the headwaters of Bayou Cadet, one may wonder whether he had occasional visits from his uncle. When Cadet settled there, it too was indeed a quiet, secluded wilderness.]
Although the Englis papers encompass the years 1764 to 1813, the very first mention of the word “corsair” is found in a letter of February 8, 1805. The word “pirate” does not show until 1810. American gunboats were noted with concern on several occasions; it is possible that they referred to pirate ships, not the ships of the United States. On other hand, some boats are distinguished as “gunboats of the United States,” as referred to on March 22, 1809. It is felt that others were the corsairs. An example of the correspondence among the Spanish authorities follows:
Cayetano Pérez, Mobile to Vicente Folch y Juan, March 22, 1809, GC 1809-03-22/001
“I have received the communication of Your Lordship with date of the 19th of the Current in which you enclose a document for the Commandant of Pensacola that immediately I will direct with all diligence and serves to caution me of the orders that I should observe in case they are directed to this Plaza the Gunboats of the United States that are cited Your Lordship charging me also to take precautions that I feel convenient and the strict vigilance that in such cases should be observed by a Subordinate Commandant charged with a Fortress….”
What seems clear is that there was little such activity early on in the years covered by the Spanish papers, but it picked up in later years, beginning in 1805. The Spanish had long been in control of the coast without mentioning corsairs, and when it first shows in the letters, the reference is to “American corsairs.”
The difference may well be in the fact of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Almost suddenly, as history goes, the Spanish had given up their claim to New Orleans. They still occupied the coast, but ships travelling east out of the Mississippi River and out of Lake Borgne were considered to be trespassing by the Spanish. Furthermore, transport of slaves into the purchase area had become illegal under the terms set by President Jefferson.
Spanish communications exhibit a concern about there being little patrolling between the Bay of St. Louis and the lakes to the west. In summary, the coast of present-day Hancock County was a porous place in which to smuggle the so-called “inventory” of the “barbarous Traffic.”
Dn. Juan Ventura Morales, Yntendente Ynterino Superintendente Gral. Subdelegado en esta Provincia de la Florida Occidental, Juez de arribadas, de tierreas y solares realengos, &a.Pensacola, December 4, 1806, [Copy] Archivo General de Indias, Papeles de Cuba, legajo 62.
“As per the part of Benito Garcia master of a small Ship of traffic and commerce on these coasts, has formally denounced to me, that in the post of Pascagoula, will be disembarked twenty-one blacks of contraband, offers to apprehend them, if granted permission by the intendancy General. As such I authorize is said form so that if in case are landed the referred twenty-one blacks, or in whatever form it is attempted to introduce in the territory of His Majesty he may apprehend and secure them: as also the contrabandists, and conduct them to this Plaza and to such effect in charge the Commandant subdelegated of the referred post of Pascagoula, sindics and other inhabitants of this Province in which if attempted fraud, help and give strength to the referred Bentio Garcia in order to said apprention [sic] Given the present signed in my hand, sealed with the seal of my arms and checked by the interim secretary of this Intendancy General in Pensacola the fourth of December of one thousand eight hundred and six= =Juan Ventura Morales= = Francisco Gutierrez de Arroyo”
Juan Bautista Pellerin, Pass Christian, to Francisco Maximillano de St. Maxent. Number 30, July 27, 1807. GC 1807-07-27/002
“I can not omit to inform you of the disobedience of Master Jose Lacoste, such that the twenty-fifth of the present, I ordered a piragua with a man his Side, with the idea of anchoring so that I could deliver the three blacks that came from the house of Peytavin, intimating to him your order he stated to say that he did not have time, nor wish to anchor; such that I had to deliver them to Master Luis so that he could deliver them to Mr. Damour to finally that he send them to Mobile.
I see myself at every instant that lacking of a canon I have no power to give completion to the orders that I have of my Superiors; such that, if I have to send Official correspondence withthe quickness that isrequired I can not do it as the Ships that have good wind even though called, do not respond and continue their heading, in this case, I hope that you will serve to send me an equiped [sic] canon and a Flag, for the events I have expounded.”
[Signed] Juan Bautista Pellerin