Corsairs in the Mississippi Gulf

The following information about corsairs is by necessity sketchy. It is taken from the Spanish documents in the historical society consisting mostly of letters from 1805 to 1810. Excerpts are selected only from the years 1805 to 1806 as it is in those years that most such activity was reported.

1805

On February 28, 1805, a narrative of an incident was detailed in a letter to Philip Saucier of Bay St. Louis by Pedro Morin of Cat Island. It told of an American corsair that fired a cannon at Saucier’s boat. He was forced to stop and to surrender his musket and his knife. He had to anchor within cannon shot distance for the night, after being forced to agree to serve as pilot for the corsair to navigate to “the Plaza,” possibly Pass Christian. He was able to escape in the dark that night.

It was reported that the next day the corsair anchored at Cat Island. Its sailors went ashore and killed some animals belonging to the inhabitants.

The facts were then passed by Saucier to Spanish Govenor Vicente Folch at Pensacola.

In September, Francisco Ballestre of Pascagoula wrote to St. Maxent of Mobile that an “enemy” corsair came with four ships armed with cannons. One attacked for an hour and a half. No one was killed. After the Spanish returned fire, the ship rejoined the corsair.

A margin entry directed that a duplicate be sent to Folch; at he bottom of the duplicate was written, “The enemy corsair is here.”

A letter written later in the month by Bellestre to St. Maxent makes clear that three vessels with the corsair had been taken off their route [probably New Orleans to Pensacola]. The capture had taken place near the island of Petit Bois. On the 21st, Captain Vicente Fernandez Tejeiro of the Spanish ship Favorita recaptured them. He gave chase to the corsair, but could not catch it.

It was stated that corsairs were frequently in the passages from New Orleans to Pensacola.

Also on the 21st, Senor Lafon, Captain of the French corsair, wrote to Bellestre to advise that the English corsair would attack again. Mentioned is the fact that one of the three captured boats was a schooner that had four “pedreros” [possibly translated as “rock breakers” but more likely those who shape stones to be fired as cannonballs]. It was the schooner that had fired on Pascagoula, after having been abandoned by its captain, Leandro and eight men without defending it. [N.B.: A well known real estate developer, engineer and city planner of New Orleans was Barthelemy Lafon; he was also known to own ships which he would allow to be used for piratical purposes. After the battle of New Orleans, he became a committed pirate. He also had a nephew involved in piracy, and this may refer to him instead.]

1806

A June letter from Pellerin of Pass Christian to St. Maxent was critical of Saucier for not defending against an English corsair that had been in combat with don Bernardo Prieto. It was said that no one in his household “had sons or nephews able to take up Arms.”

Joseph Collins of Pascagoula wrote two letters on October 1, one being to his superior, the commandant at Mobile, and the other to Carlos Howard, whose identity and location are not shown.

The first advised that a privateer, together with its “prize” and launch, remained at Horn Island, and that the previous night, the launch went to Deer Island, presumably to take  beef. It returned at 10 AM to the privateer vessel. Collins had already sent an “express” to Pass Christian, to warn of danger. A P.S. added that at 5 PM “a large Brig has just anchored 2 mile SE” of the privateer. It did not show its colors. At that point, the privateer and it prize and launch headed toward the Balise, but Collins feared it may be a just a maneuver and may return by moonshine.

The letter to Howard told essentially the same as above, but related the problem to 18 families in an American settlement near the river (presumably the Pascagoula). Collins reported that he had refused them permission to go to Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans. Their intention was to carry their crops to those places, and to return with salt, coffee, etc.  Collins asked Howard for instructions. He added that he thought the brig and the privateer were “consorts.”  He also referred to what must have been a recent combat, stating that “the cannon has saved 3 or 4 vessels & the inhabitants’ houses, & I am only sorry she was not an 18 pounder instead of a 4 pounder.” Collins signed as an obedient and humble servant.

On October 7, Collins again reported to the commandant at Mobile that he had identified the brig as being from New Providence, that it was copper bottomed and mounted 14 guns; it was commanded by a Captain Mc Gec [McGee?] What Collins next said is confusing, but it appears that in the previous week he observed the brig “taking” five schooners. [Editor’s note: Collins was probably writing in English, but his sentence structure and perhaps his handwriting do not lend themselves to easy interpretation.] The captain of the last mentioned told Collins after the incident that “when the boat fired on him (being 10 at night) he throwd over board about 2,000 dollars with a rope & buy [buoy}” and that they had recovered it using a pirogue. Collins stated that he had seen the bag in which the money had been secreted.

Collins told of the brig’s boat camping at Round Island, where a number of cattle had been taken. He then reported the approximate number of cattle on each island, as follows:

Dauphin – 40; Petit Bois – 37; Round – 24; Deer – 60; Cat – 58. He closed this long letter with complaints about insubordination and lack of armaments. He summarized the week by saying that they had been continually under arms.

He wrote to St. Maxent later in October to advise that when going to or from New Orleans, travelers were “exposed to the frequent invasion of Boats and Launches of the enemy corsairs that sail these passages. It was recommended that when inhabitants had to go to Horn or Round of any other island, they should not take passports.

In December, two corsairs had anchored in Pass Mariana. This was reported by Pellerin of Pass Christian to Folch. After three days, two officers of those ships showed their papers to identify themselves as Americans. They requested a practico [medical assistant] and were told that none was available. They requested to be allowed to pass to the lake [probably Lake Borgne] but were denied access. They then found the pass by sounding and were reported to be in the Pass Christian “armed each with two 18-poundrs, two 12-pound howitzers, various pedreros and thirty or forty men as crew.”