A Historian’s Search for Truth

 

My new book hits the bookstores today: The Vanished Texas Coast. (You can get it at Amazon or Arcadia Publishing if you cannot find it in your local bookstore.) It is a collection of short essays about incidents in Texas maritime history, linked by the theme that they are all largely forgotten.

But they are all linked in a different way. They all represent a historian’s search for truth.

They are all supposed to be entertaining stories. I write popular history. Popular history is supposed to entertain. The problem with some popular history is that the authors never let facts get in the way of a good story. I cannot write history that way. I have to follow the facts, and lay out the story so it follows the facts, not the legend. I do not print the legend.

That shaped several of the chapters in my book. Take Jean Lafitte. You cannot really do a survey of Texas maritime history and leave him out. He may be the most romantic figure in Texas maritime history. There are Lafitte societies. Novels written about the man. Novels written about the treasure he left buried (especially in Galveston).  And yet . . .

Jean Laffite

The real Jean Lafitte was not a terribly attractive man. He was not really the swashbuckling pirate of legend. Rather he made his fortune as a fence, buying and reselling the goods stolen by other pirates. (He was good at that.) He only dipped into actual piracy when he had no other choice. Actual piracy was dangerous and usually less remunerative than being a businessman.

He also made much of his money in a particularly nasty way – through slave trading. And he had a particularly cynical method of slave trading. He bought slave cheap from pirates arriving at his Galveston base, which was then outside the US. He would then smuggle them across the border into Louisiana. Then he or an associate would inform Federal authorities a bunch of slaves had been smuggled across the border and where they could be found.

The Feds would sweep in and confiscate the slaves. (It was illegal to smuggle slaves from outside the US into the US.) But then the Federal government would auction off the slaves, just like they would auction any contraband smuggled into the US if it had been seized. By the way, the informer who  provided the information leading to the seizure got half the sale price.

The mathematics was simple. Lafitte bought slaves worth $1000 in the US for $100 in Galveston. Once seized, they would be sold at auction at US prices and Lafitte, as the informer got $500 for each slave – a $400 profit on his investment.

Better still, there was no risk. Had he sold the slaves in the US for full price they were still contraband. They could be seized by the Federal government and the money he got for selling the slaves could be seized. (Asset forfeiture is not new.)  But since the $500 he got was reward money, The slaves and money had been laundered through seizure by the Federal government.

It may have been clever and legal (well, except the part about bringing them into the US), but it was hardly dashing.

The Wreck of Jean Lafitte’s Galveston Colony

And what about Lafitte’s fabled treasure buried in Galveston? Like I said, Lafitte was primarily a businessman. Businessmen do not bury money – whether in the ground or under their mattress. They invest it, so it can make more money. Lafitte and his brother banked their money so it could earn more money. Further, Lafitte took nearly a year abandoning his colony on Galveston. He had plenty of time to take any of his working capital with him.

Not a particularly noble story is it? Nor terribly romantic. Yet I think it is still an interesting story. So I printed the facts, not the legend in that chapter.

Galveston’s Concrete Ship

Much of the rest of the book is like that, whether we are dealing with Cabeza de Vacca’s unheroic, yet fascinating adventures wandering Texas, La Salle’s misbegotten Texas colony, some Texas naval battles with unexpected outcomes, Galveston’s forgotten hurricane, or the Federal Governments inept attempt to build wooden and concrete freighters in World War I. It is not the legend, but I think you will find the facts fascinating. Truth really is stranger than fiction – and to me a lot more interesting.

I hope you buy it. More important, I hope you like it, if you do buy it.

Published in History
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 13 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Jim O Member
    Jim O
    @JimO

    Just ordered it. Looking forward to sitting down in my reading chair with this book soon.

    Apparently my uncle used to spend time looking for Lafitte’s buried treasure on some land his dad had down on Galveston Bay. He says he never found anything, but he did buy a really expensive house when he was young and couldn’t really seem to afford it. :)

     

    • #1
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Ordered

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Jim O (View Comment):

    Just ordered it. Looking forward to sitting down in my reading chair with this book soon.

    Apparently my uncle used to spend time looking for Lafitte’s buried treasure on some land his dad had down on Galveston Bay. He says he never found anything, but he did buy a really expensive house when he was young and couldn’t really seem to afford it. :)

    Yeah, the whole “Lafitte’s buried treasure” phenomena fascinates me. I don’t understand the obsession with it, but man, are a lot of people invested in it.

    • #3
  4. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    Just ordered.  I’ve read recently about the Union naval campaigns and landing along the Texas coast in 1863-64. 

    • #4
  5. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Jim O (View Comment):

    Just ordered it. Looking forward to sitting down in my reading chair with this book soon.

    Apparently my uncle used to spend time looking for Lafitte’s buried treasure on some land his dad had down on Galveston Bay. He says he never found anything, but he did buy a really expensive house when he was young and couldn’t really seem to afford it. :)

     

    If someone finds this buried treasure and reports the find, do they still get to keep it? Or does it go off to some historical society or to an agency on the state or federal level?

    • #5
  6. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    Jim O (View Comment):

    Just ordered it. Looking forward to sitting down in my reading chair with this book soon.

    Apparently my uncle used to spend time looking for Lafitte’s buried treasure on some land his dad had down on Galveston Bay. He says he never found anything, but he did buy a really expensive house when he was young and couldn’t really seem to afford it. :)

     

    If someone finds this buried treasure and reports the find, do they still get to keep it? Or does it go off to some historical society or to an agency on the state or federal level?

    Texas is  unique in that anything buried more than 50 years is considered an archeological find and belongs to the state if it has “historical interest.” It’s an inheritance from Spanish law. (Since Texas was admitted as an independent country, it has Spanish law rights inherited from Mexico – which got them from Spain.)  So, if you find John Wesley Hardin’s buried loot from the 19th century, the state gets it. Best make up a story that you found it in the walls of a privately-owned house built back in the 1870s. That way ownership was transferred with the ownership of the house.

    • #6
  7. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Congratulations! Copy ordered. It looks like a winner. 

    • #7
  8. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the July 2021 Group Writing Theme: “We Hold These Truths (or Fictions).” Stop by soon, our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Pre-ordered. To be delivered on the 19th. Thanks, Mark. looks like fun.

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Pre-ordered. To be delivered on the 19th. Thanks, Mark. looks like fun.

    Hope you enjoy it.

    • #10
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Pre-ordered. To be delivered on the 19th. Thanks, Mark. looks like fun.

    Hope you enjoy it.

    Just those Lafitte facts above were worth the price.

    • #11
  12. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Just finished your book comparing the English and Spanish Galleons of the 1600’s and really enjoyed it! Are you a Michigander too? (I saw the blurb in the bio about teenage years in Ann Arbor.) Curious about your use of UK(or Canadian) spelling for some words like labour, harbour. and centre.  Is this an important clue?

    • #12
  13. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    Just finished your book comparing the English and Spanish Galleons of the 1600’s and really enjoyed it! Are you a Michigander too? (I saw the blurb in the bio about teenage years in Ann Arbor.) Curious about your use of UK(or Canadian) spelling for some words like labour, harbour. and centre. Is this an important clue?

    ‘Fraid it is not a clue. The language used is specified in my contract. Churchill was right about the US and UK being two countries divided by a common language. If it is about subjects concerning the US the contract specified US English. If it involves the UK, and does not involve the US, UK English. Fortunately, thanks to modern word processors I am bilingual in both. I just set the spell-checker appropriately. There wasn’t a colonist to be found in English vs Spanish Galleons, so the contract specified UK English.

    I was born in Ann Arbor to first-generation parents of Greek immigrants. Went to school there, but moved to Texas as soon as I could. You can read more about it here. (A long time ago I did a Ricochet post of my wife and my drive to Texas after graduating, but I can’t find it using search.)

    • #13