Published April 6, 2013

Beale Treasure Story
The Jean Lafitte Connection Demystified

  

There is a popular myth that the account of the Beale treasure story given in Ward's 1885 pamphlet is a cover story, and that the treasure in Bedford County, Virginia, was buried there by the legendary quasi-legal privateer, Jean Lafitte (Laffite).
  
For sake of argument, I accept the premise that Lafitte had a treasure that he wished to conceal. 
  
There is no evidence to suggest that Lafitte was interested in protecting a treasure for his heirs or for the heirs of his men. Naturally, he would wish to protect such a treasure for himself and his family, but that could be handled without a need for an intricate plan to distribute the treasure to a named list of heirs. At best, the treasure story could provide a cover to explain the treasure's origin, and thus give it legitimacy. In essence, such a concocted story could be used as a means to "launder" Lafitte's accumulated wealth. That is a clever idea, but given the facts as we know them, could it work?
  
The myth has received enough attention so that it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Yet, there are simple arguments against this myth that apparently have escaped notice, or have been ignored.
   
Perhaps the most lucid explanation of the supposed Beale-Lafitte "connection" can be found in Robert N. Williams' The Beale Papers Lost Legacy (2005), although it is not my intention to restate all the salient points outlined in Williams' book.
  
Williams cites a document called The Journal of Jean Lafitte, from which he quotes and paraphrases important information. He says that Lafitte established a new base at Campeche (Galveston Island) off the Texas coast in 1817. Pressured to leave his base, he sailed away in March 1821, and his destinations and wanderings are uncertain.
  
Some years ago on a visit to New Orleans, I purchased a copy of The Journal of Jean Lafitte, printed by Dogwood Press (1994). On page 122, it states the following:
  
"In February 1822 I sold two more ships loaded with slaves to an English merchant. They took their cargo to Savannah, Charleston and Norfolk. I made a verbal promise to the English captain that I would not attack his ships. I gave my name as Theodore Lucas and gave a false address in Baltimore. Pierre and I left for Los Mugeres in March 1822. We captured a rich Spanish ship. The cargo consisted principally of maguey fibre, silver and gold bars. After a stay of about one month, we set sail for Santo Domingo, then for the islands of St. Christopher, Nevis and then to Guadeloupe."
  
But, according to Mr. Morriss, Beale remained in Lynchburg at his boarding house during the winter months of 1822, arriving in January and remaining there "until about the latter end of the following March." If Lafitte's journal is correct, then Lafitte could not have remained in Lynchburg and also engaged in selling two ships to an English merchant in February 1822, which would most likely take place somewhere at a coastal seaport (Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc.) and then sailing for Los Mugeres in March. This alone is enough to reject the possibility that Lafitte masqueraded as Beale. Yet, Williams also points out that "some contend it [the journal] is 100 percent authentic, some partly authentic, and others denounce it as a downright forgery." So in fairness, we must look further for evidence that will allow us to rule out the cover story conjecture. 

 I have no doubt that Jean Lafitte was familiar with Thomas Beale of New Orleans. Beale had run a gambling house in New Orleans for a time, and later owned and operated the Planters' and Merchants' hotel on Canal Street. He had married Celeste Grandpre, the daughter of Don Carlos de Grandpre, once governor of Baton Rouge under Spanish rule. Beale also commanded Beale's rifle company, a company of volunteers, and both he and Lafitte had come to General Jackson's aid in the battle of New Orleans, in 1815 (War of 1812).
  
Those who advocate that Lafitte posed as Beale sometimes refer to a photocopy of a newspaper notice as evidence of such a connection. The photocopy is misleading, to say the least. In the newspaper issue in question, there are two adjacent notices printed in the same column (one above the other). The first is signed in type by Thomas Beale, as register of wills, an office he held most likely through political patronage. The second notice, printed immediately beneath it pertains to Pierre Lafitte, brother of Jean Lafitte. By editing a photocopy of these two notices (omitting the text in the upper notice except for the name Thomas Beale printed at its end), it is made to appear that the name Thomas Beale is connected somehow with the notice immediately beneath it, which of course is not the case. The edited photocopy of the Pierre Lafitte notice establishes no connection between Beale and Lafitte, whatsoever. In fact, it appears that some investigators may have innocently reproduced the photocopy without realizing the mistake.
  
If Lafitte were to make use of a cover story, there are two ways it might be employed. The cover story could be used as part of a contingency plan, in the event that someone learned about the treasure. Lafitte would remove portions of the treasure, over time, as necessary, all the while keeping everything secret. If this failed and some outsider learned about the treasure trove, Lafitte would invoke his contingency plan (the cover story). The other way would be for Lafitte to be perfectly open about the treasure from the onset. In either case, Lafitte would pose as Thomas J. Beale and claim that he and 29 others had discovered gold and silver on a western hunting expedition to the Rockies and that the treasure had been buried in Bedford County to keep it safe. Mr. Morriss (the fall guy in this case) could be consulted in order to corroborate their story. But for the scheme to work, the treasure buried in Bedford County would have to be consistent with the treasure described in Beale's letter to Mr. Morriss. This poses a problem.
  
In his letter of January 4, 1822, Beale says that both gold and silver had been discovered. However, there is no suggestion in the letter that the gold or silver ore was refined before transporting it to the states. Silver ore could be refined using a process of amalgamation, but this requires a suitable quantity of quicksilver that was not available to the Beale party 500 miles west of St. Louis. In all probability, the mentioned silver was silver ore and the mentioned gold was placer gold. But the gold and silver in Lafitte's treasure was likely bullion (bars or ingots) or specie (gold or silver coins). There is no hint or suggestion that the privateers under Lafitte's command had accumulations of unrefined gold or silver ore. Thus, there would have been a mismatch between Beale's treasure and Lafitte's treasure, and anyone comparing the actual treasure with Beale's description in his letter of January 4th would soon recognize a discrepancy that could not be rectified. If Lafitte had posed as Beale and wrote the letter of January 4th to Mr. Morriss, surely he would make certain that the description in the letter agreed with the actual treasure that had been buried. Thus, the mismatch must be considered strong evidence that the Beale Papers were not created by Lafitte as a cover story. 

But there is more. A question that strikes at the heart of the matter is whether Lafitte would have had the will and patients to devote the time necessary to concoct the narrative in Beale's letters. Let us consider this.

Peter Viemeister, author of The Beale Treasure History of a Mystery (1997), concluded that "creating a fictional The Beale Papers would be a challenging task which could not be accomplished in a few weeks." The ideas of the story would need to have rattled around in the creator's mind, according to Viemeister, "for over a period of several months, or even years." This would have been a daunting task for Lafitte. But for Beale it was no trouble at all, as he had lived the narrative. I can't help recalling the English teacher who smiled and said: It is easiest to write on a subject that you are familiar with. In Beale's case, he would merely describe the events as he remembered them; in Lafitte's case, he would need to concoct the entire narrative. 

If the Beale Papers are nothing more than a cover story, there would have been no need for Lafitte to have created real ciphers. But the fact that cipher No. 2 is genuine and No. 1 and No. 3 also appear to be genuine (based on extensive computer analysis), is yet another argument that the Beale Papers are not part of a cover story. It also means that Lafitte had to construct three ciphers in order to remain consistent with the contents of the locked iron box left with Mr. Morriss in the spring of 1822. This would further complicate his already burdensome task.

Finally, one might ask: If Lafitte wrote Beale's letters, how is it that in 1822 he happened to state that the Beale party discovered gold 250 to 300 miles north of Santa Fe, which put the location near Pike's Peak? After all, in 1822, there were only rumors of gold somewhere near or in the Rockies. The actual discovery of gold in the vicinity of Pike's Peak (Colorado) did not occur until the early 1850s. So in 1822, Lafitte had no way to know that gold would be found at the location cited in his January 4th letter. For Lafitte, this had to be a lucky guess. For Beale, the location wasn't a guess at all; he was merely describing (to the best of his ability) the location where the party had discovered their gold.