So you have come to the Big Easy. Breakfast at Brennan’s, visit the Aquarium, drinks at Pat O’Brien’s, Dinner at Antoine’s and jazz at Preservation Hall. You continue down Bourbon St. following the music and revelers until St. Philip where the crowd thins and your sixth sense tells you it’s time to chart a new course.
One block to your right is Royal St. At this time of night It seems like another world, quiet and peaceful after the crazed calliope of Bourbon, and an easy walk to your hotel. You head toward Canal Street in the thick humidity and soon find yourself in back of the St. Louis Cathedral. The large garden behind the 215 year old church is surrounded by an old iron fence, scarred and pitted by the elements. What stories could this fence tell? Stories of love and honor, of the duels fought on the grounds it protects, stories of betrayal and murder as well, of plans and plots by patriots and treasonous cowards as well.
There are spirits here! Souls from long ago who lived and died in these streets with such passion that they refuse to hide in the dusty ruins of the past. As you push ahead to the end of the fence the air is heavy with a scent of the damp vegetation and your skin is wet. You breath deeply, swallowing that thick hot air as if you are drowning, and you begin to melt into the city itself, the Vieu Carre, the heart of New Orleans. Look now to your left, up along the side of the Church. You have discovered PIRATES ALLEY!
It is not mere coincidence that important events have occurred in our most historic city, the so called soul of America, in the legendary French Quarter of the city of New Orleans; founded in 1718. Some of these events are documented, some are not, merely "known" by those who live here. In the "City That Care Forgot", where our past and architecture have been preserved by "neglect", it is often hard to separate fact from fiction.
What a paradox that today we navigate the internet for information about Pirates who navigated the seas making history right here, in the Crescent City. Unfortunately, searching the web for information about Pirates Alley will give you no more than a few dry facts.
It was originally an open walkway by which you could cut from "Place D’Armes to the Rue de Royale. By 1831, it had been paved with the cobblestones you see today, and was called Orleans Alley South, but to the locals, its nickname was the one always used until it was finally officially changed in 1964.
Pirates Alley, about 600 ft long, and 16 ft wide, is not even shown on many of the French Quarter maps, and surprisingly, most delivery services and even City services outside of the Quarter have a hard time finding addresses here since it doesn’t show up on their data bases. Some would say you need a treasure map to find it, since there aren’t many alleys left, and practically nobody today understands that an alley is really just a street without cars! Now, back to our story…
As you turn the corner and look up the now deserted alleyway, roughly paved with uneven stones showing decades of neglect, you feel a sense of adventure and can’t help venturing a little further. The sight of the alley on a night such as this is unforgettable. Every surface is covered with moisture giving a shine and a reflection of the dim lights ahead along your path. On your left, St. Anthony’s Garden, on your right, the old Fleur di Paris hat shop faces Royal St. with its beautiful window display that brings to mind a more elegant time. But further along, you discover that a plaque on the wall of one of the Creole houses identifies this as the residence of the great William Faulkner, indeed, the very house where he wrote his first novel "Soldiers Pay". This site is now home to the quaint little Faulkner House Bookstore, a destination for all visiting literary scholars.
Turning to continue your exploration a bit of fog rolls in from the banks of the nearby Mississippi, and as you look up through the mist past the spires of the great Cathedral you see the full moon descending across Jackson Square. All of a sudden you notice music, Latin rhythms, yes, Salsa music coming from the intersection of Pirates Alley and Cabildo Alley. As you reach the corner, the warm amber lights of Pirates Alley Café spill out from it’s 150 year old doorways and you have discovered yet another of the treasures of the Quarter where local scallywags and pirates share stories and toast their adventures.
You have reached what may be the most historic site in the city, for just ahead on your left is the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating church in the U.S. Founded in 1720, and rebuilt in 1789, it became a Cathedral in 1794, and a Minor Basilica in 1964. St. Anthony’s Garden, as we have mentioned was the traditional meeting place for duels and debts of honor. To your right is the fortress like wall of the Cabildo, the seat of government for old Louisiana from which France, Spain, France again, United States, Confederate States and finally the U.S. again governed Louisiana. Erected in 1726, and rebuilt in 1779, it is where France and the U.S. signed the Louisiana Purchase, ceding 828,000 sq. miles of territory, from New Orleans to Canada for 15,000,000 in 1803.
Standing at that famous intersection is the old lamp post which marks a historic spot indeed, for at this spot, sixteen feet from the Cathedral, and eighteen feet form the Cabildo is the closest proximity of Church, State, and Bar anywhere in the world. And of course, ONLY IN NEW ORLEANS could this happen!
Pirates Alley Café stands today on the site of the former Spanish Colonial Prison of 1769. Called the Calabozo (we still refer to jail as the Calaboose) it was demolished in 1837 and the land sold to make way for the Creole house which you see here today. In this very prison, the famous pirate and later hero of the battle of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte and his men were jailed by governor Claiborne of New Orleans. Jean’s brother Pierre Lafitte also served several months sentence here but eventually escaped!.
The Lafitte brothers were no strangers to Pirates Alley. They came to New Orleans about 1803 the year of the Louisiana Purchase, at 24 and 26 years old. Soon they went about with the Creole gentlemen of town and were seen in the streets and coffee houses. Jean Lafitte spoke several languages and was educated. A familiar sight on these streets, people would regard him with curiosity, and whisper the word PIRATE! In reality, Lafitte considered himself a Privateer.
A privateer was a provider of a service to some country at war who would attack only the ships of the enemy country, and of course profit from the booty! Lafitte was titled by an official document called the letter of Marque, specifically from Cartagena, in Grand Colombia, South America, whose leader Simon Bolivar declared independence from Spain in 1810.
Of course, smuggling had been going on in the city for 50 years before Lafitte, and it eventually became the main business, but soon, Lafitte and his band of Baratarian Pirates controlled black market commerce and all transactions went through the brothers. Goods were sold openly in Pirates Alley and eventually it became so congested that the "vendors" were allowed to display their goods inside the garden behind the iron fence. The locals would walk along outside and money and goods were passed through the fence, giving rise to the expression "Fencing stolen goods"! We imagine that the brothers made regular charitable "donations" to the church for this convenience.
Pirates Alley is also the reputed meeting place of the Lafitte’s and Andrew Jackson where they formed an unlikely alliance and planned the successful defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. Pirates had become Patriots, they were honored in Jackson Square and at victory balls around the city. Lafitte was seen everywhere in the days that followed, attending social affairs, visiting the Governor’s office, and was seen with his lawyer friends and his brother Pierre strolling the streets and talking with gentlemen in coffee houses. After this historic battle, Lafitte and his men received pardons for all their past offenses and U.S. citizenship, however, Lafitte’s lawyers tried in vain to recoup his property and fleet which were confiscated before his heroic deeds. Eventually, he and his crew sailed away 3 years later. In 1817 they headed to Santo Domingo and Galveston (Texas) where it is reputed that he, or at least some of his men helped Mexico gain independence from Spain.
While Pirate's Alley is the subject of much legend and lore, some true, and much false, It is one of the "must see" locations of the French Quarter since it was a haven for pirates in days past and for present day adventurers. Its famous intersection is the most painted and photographed spot in the city. If you visit Pirate’s Alley often, you will find it to be, at times, as warm as a springtime morning courtyard or as foreboding as a cold, dark, fog shrouded London street. Morning, noon, evening and night, through the four seasons, its appearance and character is ever changing. Always have your camera so that you can take photographs. Although contraband is no longer displayed along the fence, now days it is used by local artists to exhibit their work. One of the best times to come is during French Quarter Fest, two weeks before Jazz Fest at the end of April when artists from all over take part in a competition here in the alley.
These days, pirates (having nothing to do with modern piracy!) "pirate lovers", historians and adventurers still hang out between the Church and the Cabildo, but instead of spending their time in the Calabozo, you will find them sitting in Pirates Alley Café and Absinthe House sampling the various rums from the Carribbean
Just being here in the same geographical point where Lafitte and his Baratarians walked, a mere 200 years ago, is an unforgettable experience. On your next visit, you could actually be where Jean Lafitte was imprisoned, at sites and corners with so much history that you can see it and feel it, in this now jealously preserved architecture which sets the city of New Orleans apart as a world class destination for buccaneers of all ages.