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In Search of Juan LaFitte

Many years ago, we bought a house in Dzilam deBravo, a little fishing village on the north coast of Yucatan. It was a wreck, had beenabandoned for many years, but was beautifully situated overlooking the sea. Over the years, we fixed it up, built a second story, and painted it purple, not unusual because many of the houses along the sea were painted brilliant colors. Fishermenclaimed the first thing they saw of land as they came in from the sea was our purplehouse, the second thing they saw was the lighthouse.

It wasn’t long before we began to notice that many people in the village, allof whom were of Mayan descent, had red hair and blue eyes. It was a mystery. A mystery that leads this blog back to the subject of sailing and the sea, because these villagers let it be known that they were descendants of Jean LaFitte, the pirate, and that he had spent his last days in Dzilam de Bravo. A stone memorial marks his gravesite, although the true site had been washed out to sea a century before. At first, the story seemed preposterous. But the more we talked to villagers, the more sense the story made. One old man could trace his family directly back to the famous pirate, even claimed to possess LaFitte’s sword. In fact, that sword created tensions between two families that simmer beneath the surface to this day. A village official asked to borrow the sword for some celebration, then neglected to give it back. The old man’s family believes the official took the valuable sword for himself and it still exists among his family’s possessions.

Much is known about this debonnaire rogue who terrorized the Caribbeanand Gulf of Mexico in the early years of the 19th Century. We know his fleet of ships turned the tide for Andrew Jackson against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. More relevant to this story, is that we know he had red hair and blue eyes. Although much is known about his life as a seaman, a pirate and a patriot, little is known about his death, at least, known for sure. One historical record suggests he died of sickness on Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Quintana Roo, just north of Cozomel. There are historians that claim he died aboard his ship General Santander while fighting against Spanish warships and privateers and that he was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras. Other authorities claim that he changed his name to John Saflin, became a respectable citizen in St. Louis where he died at the age of seventy. 

Perhaps the most bizarre story, is that he died in an attempt to rescue NapoleonBonaparte from his exile on the remote island of St. Helena. And then, there is thestory that LaFitte’s bones lie in the village of Dzilam de Bravo.

It is an historical fact that LaFitte often found refuge behind the bar off thecoast at Dzilam, a bar that still guards the coast today. He knew the pass through the shallows and could duck behind them where his pursuers couldn’t follow. So, it is quite likely, he was often ashore for water and supplies. And it is also an historical fact that he was wounded aboard his ship General Santander. But according to my neighbors in Dzilam de Bravo, he did not die of those wounds, but he and his sister were brought ashore where Juan later died and was buried, less than 200 yards from our purple house.

Often we lounge beneath the palapa on the roof of our house, watching thefishing fleet stream out to sea at dawn, then back again at dusk. The sunsets at Dzilam are glorious, and sometimes, as the sun drops blood red into the sea, I imagine I can see the sails of Jean Lafitte’s ship ghosting silently through the eventide, seeking sanctuary behind the bar.

Marshall Riggan has been telling and writing stories for more than fourdecades, many of which have been made into movies and television productions. Much of his writing has been about sailing and the sea. His books Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler can be found at