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Lafitte’s men captured our imagination for many years

By W. T. Block

First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday September 18, 1999.

From 1822 until Civil War days, a few of Lafitte’s ex-pirates remained in or near Galveston, and newspaper reporters found them quite a curiosity that they wished to write about. However they usually found the old buccaneers quite close-mouthed, because dead men and ex-pirates, whether living or dead, “tell no tales.”

Many of them, such as Capt. James Campbell, would admit that they had sailed for Lafitte, but otherwise they told little about themselves, perhaps fearing that a charge of piracy could still be leveled against them.

Mary Campbell lived on Galveston Island throughout the Lafitte years, 1817-1821, while her husband battled Spanish galleons from the decks of the Hotspur or Concord. In 1838 she and her husband bought a 1,500-acre farm on the West Pass, opposite Galveston Island.

Near the end of her life in 1885, Mrs. Campbell told many stories about Lafitte’s men, but she always maintained that they were privateers who fought under letters of marquee from the Republic of New Cartegena. Until his death in 1856, Jim Campbell raised cattle, cotton, and produce on his farm at Virginia Point.

Campbell had also served as a gunner aboard Old Ironsides during the War of 1812 and during the Battle of Lake Erie.

Another ex-pirate of Galveston was Steven Churchill, who had served as Jean Lafitte’s bar pilot for Galveston Bay. For ten years he lived in the only house on Galveston Island, while he was bar pilot for the Mexican government and later for the Republic of Texas.

When M. B. Menard surveyed the City of Galveston in 1837, he deeded to Churchill the house that stood upon Lot 4, Block 730, of the Galveston town site. In 1838 Churchill became ferryman from West Pass on Galveston Island to Virginia Point on the mainland, which he operated until his death in 1855.

There were other ex-pirates at or near Galveston, about who much less is known. John Lambert was a Galveston butcher for many years, but he had been a Lafitte pirate only at Barrataria Bay, La., and later he moved back to Mobile, AL. about 1850. Much less is known about Capt. Roach (or Delaroche), Burrill Franks, or John McHenry, who visited Galveston occasionally.

Galveston News reporter Ben Stuart (who is buried in Magnolia Cemetery) published much about pirates, based on his interviews with Mrs. Campbell and Charles Cronea. The latter sailed for Capt. Campbell as cabin boy during the eight-month cruise of the Hotspur in 1820. Later Cronea lived the remainder of his life at either Sabine Pass or Rollover on Bolivar Peninsula, and he is buried in High Island Cemetery. When he died at age 88 in Feb. 1893, Cronea was the last of Lafitte’s pirates to be “keelhauled” into eternity.

Another of the well-known Galveston ex-pirates was Benjamin Dollivar, whom most Galvestonians considered mentally impaired. “Crazy Ben” had sailed on the Vengeance, until it burned in Galveston Bay in 1818, and later on the Hotspur. He lived year-round in an open sailcloth hovel on the north shore of Galveston Island, opposite Pelican Spit. Ben often visited the Oyster Saloon during his weekly drunken sprees, and he always paid for his drinks with a single gold doubloon.

When Ben was jailed in the ‘Crescent City’ in July, 1847, the New Orleans Delta wrote of him: “...His nose is sharp and crooked enough to serve as a boat hook in an emergency...  His little gray eyes twinkled in their sockets with a semi-piratical ferocity...”

Even in January, Dollivar could often be seen dragging his seine in the surf for the fish that was his principal diet. Once every three months, Ben would sail away in his whaleboat to replenish his supply of doubloons; and although Galvestonians sought for 2 decades to learn the whereabouts of Ben’s gold cache, he died with his secret still unrevealed.

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