- Historic Sites
With astonishing tenacity, the people of the rich river-mouth region of the Mississippi have remained what and where they are through two and a half centuries
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
The pirates’ reward was a presidential pardon, and many of them accepted it and settled into approved routines. Of these a good number made their homes on Grand Isle across the pass from their former nest where now only the empty shell of the fort stood amidst the shattered refuse of invasion and the tough, unperturbed grasses. The pirates turned fishermen and farmers, raising cottages and families along the protected lanes of Grand Isle. Old Nez Coupé Ghighizola became the placid progenitor of a long line of Grand Islanders, farmed, fished, and told visitors that it had been a dog that had bitten off his nose. But the pirate/patriot Jean Lafitte could not settle and left Barataria behind for Galveston Island, where he founded another community after the earlier model. Routed at last out of that by another federal force, he sailed beyond further attack, beyond history, and into conjecture and legend, leaving behind the deathless rumor of Baratarian buried treasure. For a century and a half hopeful diggers have cruised among the islands and inlets of the region, much like the old Spaniards under Narváez, searching for the pot of gold they know is there. Occasionally some small, scattered find will excite a new horde of hunters as it did in the last century when a fisherman on Barataria Island dug under the flaggings of a deserted fireplace and discovered a box of Spanish coin, gold earrings, and a silver image of the Virgin. Then the ghosts rise up once more, the chink of spades is heard, and people remember the legend that says that wherever Lafitte buried treasure, there he murdered a crew member to keep spectral sentinel over it.
With the disappearance of Lafitte and the domestication of his crews, the islands settled once again into older rhythms. Baratarians fished and logged cypress and took their furs up the bay by routes so lately run by pirates. On Grand Terre for a time there was nothing, as if the fierce burning out of the pirates had consumed the land as well; or maybe it was the ghost of Lafitte that was said to haunt the windy spot. Grand Isle could live with its ghosts, and along the spine of oaks that afforded protection from the constant wind, under the bowers of oleander and chinaberry, there snuggled the brightly painted cottages of the fishermen and the farmers who tended the long, thin belts of cucumber, squash, guavas, figs, and orange groves that stretched from the bay to the gulf.
Beginning in the 1830’s both islands went into sugar cane cultivation, and for more than a decade this industry set the tone of the islands and to some extent of the region as a whole. But by 1844 the soil had been played out on Grand Isle, the outside speculators had gone, and all that remained of the scheme were several palatial and empty residences, rows of slave cottages, and a gap in the spine of oaks where the plantation owners had cut them down.
On Grand Terre a sugar plantation continued in production until after the Civil War, when the lack of slave labor shut it down. At the island’s gulfward tip, just in front of the remains of Lafitte’s fort, the government had erected a large brick fortress designed to secure the so-called back door. But Fort Livingston, so named in honor of Edward Livingston, who, among other distinctions was once attorney for Lafitte, was never of much use, and after the Civil War it was no longer garrisoned. That left the island again uninhabited, and so it remained until in the early 1880’s it became the solitary residence of a singular man seeking just such solitude. Pepe Llulla, one of New Orleans’ greatest fencing masters and duelists, purchased the land and buildings of the plantation and retired to this spot which had surely seen its own share of steel, blood, and death. After Llulla died in 1888, Grand Terre was home to none but scuttling sand crabs and the goats and horses set to graze there by Baratarians. Weeds climbed the bastions of Fort Livingston, and Crustacea mantled the discarded shot in its ditches. The pirate fort, dwarfed, puny-looking behind the federal fortress, continued its silent settling, disturbed now and again by the spades of treasure hunters.