Russell B. Guerin
for the Hancock County Historical Society
It all starts with a legend, one passed down orally in the traditions of Hancock County, but most clearly stated in the Works Progress Administration history project. It states that the “Pirate House” was “the plantation home of a famous pirate – or an associate of pirates – who gave signal aid to General Jackson during the War of 1812.” The builder was suspected of being an “over-lord” of pirates that plied the Gulf waters in the early 1800’s. He was said to have organized pirates, including the brothers Lafitte, to defend New Orleans against the British, “whipping them into an army of loyal Americans.”
A separate article by this writer has put forward the conclusion that the Pirate House was used for the purpose of smuggling slaves into Louisiana at a time when importation was banned under the provisions of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It may be found on our website.
The house is said to date back to circa 1804. Some believe that it was owned by Jean Lafitte. We do know that Lafitte, or a man who spelled his name similarly, entered into five purchases in Hancock County, and in one, written in French, he was referred to as “Sieur” Lafitte, giving him an appellation of distinction as “Sir” or “Lord” while witnesses to the document were not so identified.
An argument against the Lafitte connection is that we know the real pirate was very busy in other places, such as Louisiana’s Barataria and Texas’ Galveston. His activities seem to have been broadly in the Caribbean, whereas there is little evidence of his pirating in Mississippi waters.
Lafitte will not be the main character of this investigation into who might have built, very early on, a magnificent house, a virtual palace, in what eventually became Waveland but at the time would have been a beachfront wilderness.
On balance, it must be assumed, that man would have been someone else.
He must have been wealthy, a person of great influence, and to fit the WPA report, someone who can be shown in history to have had contact with pirates and to have helped Gen. Jackson and New Orleans defeat the British.
After much investigation, and assuming that there is any truth to the legend, that man can only have been one Jean Blanque.
Blanque is nothing less than a historical puzzle. Not a great deal is known of him. There has been found no biography, no memoir, no chapter in any book about this person, nothing to really elucidate his character. What we know of him are facts that in many ways are contradictory.
The earliest mention of Blanque has him arriving in Louisiana on the frigate Surveillant, the same voyage that brought Pierre Clement Laussat, Napoleon’s appointment to be prefect of the colony just before the 1803 transfer. There is no indication that Blanque has any official duties relative to Laussat. The latter did mention Blanque in his memoirs, but only to say that he was “my faithful friend” and to call him by a peculiar title, “commissioner of war.” This seems to have referred to his duties in the French army before going to Louisiana.
Whatever Blanque’s plans had been in coming to Louisiana, he wasted no time in getting deeply involved as a lawyer and legislator and as a successful banker, merchant and businessman. There are numerous records of his holding sway over a group of government officials, with mentions such as, “those who always voted with Blanque.”
He lived in one of the finest houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans and married into one of the leading old families. His wife was Delphine Macarty, who later became the infamous Madame Lalaurie, the mistress of the haunted house of Royal Street.
An anomaly, Blanque apparently led two lives. The public one is as described above, an upstanding pillar of his adopted community. The other, one that required less allegiance to that community, was in the words of historian Stanley Clisby Arthur, “the man higher up in certain transactions relative to the importation of ‘black ivory’ and goods upon which custom duty was not collected.”
As early as August 11, 1804, Blanque wrote a letter to the city of New Orleans protesting the seizure of his storehouse by the custom officers. Details are not known, but the letter remains in city archives.
Besides Arthur, other historians have taken a dim view of the dealings of Jean Blanque. Dr. Robert V. Remini, the biographer of Jackson, states that Blanque owned a number of ships used by pirates. William Davis, in his book The Pirates Laffite, asserts, “New Orleans merchants, such as Jean Blanque engaged sailors who plied both sides of the law” and “was also an investor in more than one privateer, which likely led to an acquaintance with the Laffites.”
Indeed, there are a couple of mentions of a small schooner used by the Lafitte band; its name was the Blanque and may have been the boat on which Pierre Lafitte suffered a mortal injury.
Davis tells in certain terms that Blanque was once prosecuted for involvement in a matter of 27,000 pounds of coffee pirated from an American ship. He also speculates on Blanque having been the consignee of smuggled goods in an affair of “Captain Lafette’s prize British merchantman Hector, revealed later to be an impostor smuggling goods under forged ship’s papers.”
It may be difficult to reconcile how respected, financially successful men of high places could double in endeavors of ill repute, giving the lie to their supposed patriotism. Examples, however, abound. About the same time, there was General Wilkinson, who worked both for the United States and Spain. Vice-president Aaron Burr came through Louisiana attempting to form a filibuster group and was tried for treason. Barthelemy Lafon had been a successful New Orleans architect, engineer, surveyor, cartographer, and scholar before he lost his wealth and took to pirating, and his venture did take him into waters just off our coast.
Perhaps obligations to country were not yet engrained in the young republic. In the case of Blanque, such an assumption can be understood in light of his having just come to Louisiana in 1803. In addition, there are indications that he was less committed than many to the causes which he expressed outwardly. One example is in the 1812 proceedings of a committee to form a state constitution and government. Blanque was appointed to this group, and voted against the annexation of West Florida; while there were other “nay” votes, his was suspicious if in fact he owned property and pursued an illegal trade there, namely at the Pirate House.
Another incident occurred in September 1814, when he was appointed to a committee of nine formed to cooperate with the military in defending New Orleans against the impending British invasion. Considering that he was one of the legislature’s most vocal members, it is curious that he did not sign the findings of the committee.
Later, on December 31, 1814 – a mere fortnight before the battle, Blanque was accused of being part of a plan “among several members of the legislature to surrender the country to the enemy.” It was said that their belief was that the British would respect their property. Although the accuser retracted his charge of treason, there remains the question of what was the real character of the man Jean Blanque.
Returning to the legend, the owner of the Pirate House was believed to have organized pirates to defend against the British. Perhaps he did not do the organizing, but was the enabling force.
Although the legend credits the overlord of the pirates with organizing them to help in the defense of New Orleans, the record of events shows that few if any citizens or military welcomed them initially. Indeed, Jackson had called them “hellish banditti.” Gov. W.C.C. Claiborne had put out a reward for Lafitte’s capture.
Historical fact in which we can feel secure tells of the brothers Lafitte turning down and reporting an offer to serve the British, and then being determined to help the cause of New Orleans. The determination to join the fight came from the Lafittes, both Jean and Pierre. It was they – incidentally, after Blanque had been instrumental in getting Pierre out of prison – who were intent on petitioning Claiborne to allow the Baratarians to join the fight. But they did not have direct access to Claiborne, and therefore sought an intermediary who had the stature to request an audience. To him they delivered letters which he presented and won their case. That man was Jean Blanque.
One can see how the legend may have evolved over the years. It was not exact in historical detail, but the meanings were there, and they point to the personage of Jean Blanque.