Pirates on the Sabine
Ten miles north of Orange on the Sabine River in the
West Bluff area, is a place called “Ballew’s Ferry.” In the early days of settling
Texas this was a major crossing into Texas from Louisiana, via the “Neutral
Strip”. The ferry was built and operated by Richard Ballew. Ballew had been
granted a league of land by the Spanish governor of Texas. The only thing that
differed Ballew from other settlers who had been given land grants to settle
Texas was that Ballew had been a pirate, a trusted associate of Jean Lafitte.
The connection of Ballew and Lafitte is one of the
reasons that so many legends and rumors abound about Lafitte burying treasure
in the Sabine River. Lafitte, or some of his ships and crews, made many trips
to Ballew’s Ferry to sell slaves to Ballew, who in turn resold them to slave
traders. The traders who did the most business with Ballew were the Bowie
brothers, James, Rezin, and John.
By 1817 Lafitte’s ships were capturing so many
Spanish slave ships off of the coast of Cuba that the slave pens, or
barracoons, on Galveston Island were often filled to capacity. At the suggestion
of Jim Campbell, Lafitte’s most trusted lieutenant; Lafitte built two
barracoons in the Neutral Strip. One was on Contraband Bayou and the other on
Ballew’s land north of Orange.
The Neutral Strip was the result of a boundary
dispute between the United States and Spain. Spain owned Texas and the
territory west of Texas. Spain claimed that the Calcasieu River was the western
boundary with the United States, and the U.S. claimed the western boundary was
the Sabine River. As a result the area between the two rivers was an area of
such lawlessness that John Quincy Adams called it “the backdoor to the United
States.” With Lafitte having so much profitable activity in the area, it is no
wonder that there was an abundance of stories about buried treasure.
Lafitte had built a settlement for his men at Baritaria,
south of New Orleans in the swamps and he had gone to Galveston later and
established his “Campeche”. The entire Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean areas were
his domain and he felt free to attack and capture any ship flying the Spanish flag.
He would return with his spoils to Galveston after he had been pushed out of
Baritaria. Lafitte was subject to enter any of the rivers, bayous, bays, lakes,
or any other waterway on the coast between the Mississippi River and Galveston.
His plunder from raiding ships and gold coins from selling slaves was so great
that many cannot think of any way for him to control his vast wealth other than
burying it in secret locations along the Gulf coast.
It is documented that Ballew and Campbell lived in
the Orange area. Campbell with his wife, for a short period of time; Ballew for
a number of years. Slave trading was so profitable that John Bowie, the younger
brother, reported to “DeBow’s Magazine” in 1853 that after buying the slaves at
$1 per pound they resold 1500 slaves for a total of $65,000 in a two year
period. Gold coins were the method of payment. If the Bowie brothers had earned
this much money, then one can only assume that the fortune of Lafitte had to be
enormous. Transportation and storage of large amounts of gold coinage was a
problem. From time to time indications are seen that give rise to the rumors of
buried treasure, possibly large amounts of gold coins.
A 14 mile long island divides the Sabine River
between Nibblett’s Bluff and West Bluff. There is a spot on the island where
trees grow in the shape of a ship. Legend says that one of Lafitte’s ships lies
buried below. There is a brass cannon about 25 feet from the trees and the
island. It is also believed that a second ship was sunk near the location of an
old pumping plant. Nothing definite has ever been found.
In the summer of 1965 there was an effort made to
check a location in the 40 Gums area, about a mile north of Nibblett’s Bluff
near a bend in the river. On the east bank of the Sabine there were signs that
perhaps a ship had been sunk. A group decided to drive sheet piling around the
area and pump out the water to expose the wreck. They prepared to build a
coffer dam and install a suction dredge. But first they needed to determine if
there was a ship there.
After about two weeks they reported that they had thoroughly
checked the 40 Gums area and found nothing. They had swept 20 feet below the
river bottom and found only a large log. They did not say there was not a ship
in the river, only that if there was, it was not where legends said there was
In the mid 1800s two Indians reported that they had
seen a two masted ship about 45 feet long, manned by two men sailing up the
river in that area.
The late Louis Dugas, a former president of the
Orange Historical Society, stated his opinion about Lafitte’s presence on the
Sabine, “The only time he came to the Sabine was when he was slave trading, and
then he would only come to the mouth of the river. He was too smart to go up
into a river where he may have been trapped and could not get out.”
Other opinions about pirates and their treasure is
that they spent the money as fast as they got it. Their lifestyle was that they
lived for the day. In their line of work there was often no tomorrow.
Lafitte did frequent the Sabine Lake, Sabine River,
Black Bayou, Contraband Bayou and Calcasieu River areas, what he did there, no
one living will ever know. Lafitte is such a mystery that it is not even known
how he died, when he died, or where he died. One story about his death is that
he was sailing off the coast of Honduras on his 43 ton armed schooner, General
Santander. On the night of February 4, 1823, he attempted to overtake what he
thought were two Spanish merchant ships. The ships turned out to be heavily
armed Spanish privateers or warships. They returned heavy fire. Lafitte was
fatally wounded and died just after dawn of February 5. He was buried at sea in
the Gulf of Honduras. Obituaries were published in the Gaceta de Cartagena and the Gaceta
de Columbia.No American newspaper ever carried an obituary of Lafitte.
The legend did not
end there. There have been stories of Lafitte living in New Orleans, Galveston,
and even Paris after helping Napoleon escape from his British captivity. Ballew
and Campbell, two of his most trusted men lived on or near the Sabine. Lafitte
had reason to visit Ballew. Lafitte’s ships had to take their cargoes of slaves
to Ballew for sale to the Bowie brothers. It is not impossible to believe that
among the cypress swamps there is a cache of gold coins to be discovered. One
day with ground penetrating radar and metal detectors someone may prove a rumor to be true.