Jean Laffite (Lafitte), pirate, was born in Bayonne, France, probably in 1780 or 1781, the son of a French father and a Spanish mother. He was four years younger than his more capable brother, Pierre. The family migrated to the island of Hispaniola, then fled during the turmoil of rebellion, and the brothers may have reached New Orleans by 1804. By 1808 they were involved in smuggling from Barataria to New Orleans. The brothers held shares in many privateers that sailed the Gulf and the Caribbean and brought their prizes to Barataria. While defying Governor William C. C. Claiborne's weak efforts to dislodge them, the Laffites became involved in a far-flung plot to attack Texas and Tampico; but the approach of a British fleet to attack New Orleans finally enabled Claiborne to break up Barataria in September 1814, and the plot against Mexico and Texas was suspended for a while. During the War of 1812, in September 1814, the British, attempting to gain a foothold in the lower Mississippi valley by seizing New Orleans, asked Laffite for help. Laffite, however, hoping to gain a pardon for his illegal activities and the restoration of his confiscated goods, opted instead to fight on the side of the United States. He supplied men, weapons, and his knowledge of the region, and during the battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, his followers helped the forces led by Andrew Jackson to secure an overwhelming victory. After the battle, Laffite and his brother attempted to regain the property they had lost at Barataria. Jean Laffite went to Washington and Philadelphia in the winter of 1815–16 to lay their case before President James Madison, but in March 1816 he returned to New Orleans without success. His brother in the meantime had pledged their services to the Spanish government. Jean Laffite's first assignment was to accompany Arsène Lacarrière Latour on a mapping expedition west of Arkansas Post. He returned from this trip in November 1816. During his absence the New Orleans plotters had broadened their plan to open a port on the Texas coast that would serve as a haven for privateers and as a base for an attack against Texas.
Louis Michel Aury, who was to play a leading role in this revised scheme, had escaped from Venezuela to Haiti, where the New Orleans plotters communicated with him early in 1816. Aury had established himself at Galveston in July 1816, and early in September the Mexican rebel envoy José Manuel de Herrera arrived to constitute Galveston as a puerto habilitado of the Mexican republic. Pierre Laffite, Antonio de Sedella, and Juan Mariano Picornell worked out a plan for the capture of Aury's establishment, in the midst of which Francisco Xavier Mina's expedition arrived at Galveston. While the plan was maturing, Jean Laffite, as an agent in the Spanish secret service, went to Galveston. He arrived a few days before Mina, convoyed by Aury, left for Mexico. Laffite then organized a government for Galveston on April 8, and a week later the officers swore allegiance to Mexico. Laffite left Galveston on April 18 to report to Sedella, and on May 8 conferred with Felipe Fatio, who had been sent from Cuba to direct the plot to capture Aury and his privateers. While Laffite was in New Orleans, Aury returned to Galveston on May 3, 1817; but on May 18 he sailed to Matagorda, and on June 3, Pierre Laffite left New Orleans for Galveston. Aury returned from Matagorda during the month, but Pierre Laffite succeeded in causing so many of his men to desert that Aury left on July 21. At his brother's request, Jean Laffite prepared to take over at Galveston, having spent several thousand dollars, which he expected Fatio to repay, for vessels and supplies.
Laffite remained the master of Galveston after his return in September 1817, and made it a center for smuggling and privateering. When the expedition of Charles Françoise Antoine Lallemand arrived in January 1818, the Laffites plotted to betray the French refugees to Spain. This plot failed, and Galveston went on with its illicit activities. Lallemand's men, having fled from the Champ d'Asile, were at Galveston when George Graham arrived in August 1818 to investigate affairs in Texas. Graham suggested that Jean Laffite should take possession successively of points on the coast as far as the Rio Grande and surrender them to the United States after faked attacks. Nothing came of this scheme, which apparently was Graham's own idea, although James Monroe may have suggested it. Jean cooperated halfheartedly with James Long during the latter's invasion of Texas, but his principal interest lay in the privateering business, while his brother managed the intrigues with Spanish officials and took care of the New Orleans business arrangements. Finally, with nothing to hope for from Spain and confronted with the American government's determination to end the Galveston establishment, the Laffites decided the game was up. Laffite abandoned Galveston early in May 1820 and sailed to Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Yucatán. There he continued his illegal activities until around 1825, when, mortally ill, he went to the mainland to die. Although his brother was the leader in all their affairs, Jean Laffite, more colorful than his older brother, has become the center of many romantic tales.