|The Hiding Place of the
French National Treasure
By Logan Hawkes
The problem with any strange tale is that it is hard to know where truth ends and legend begins. None-the-less, a good tale has few boundaries, and even the most speculative twists and turns of a well told story have great merit when it comes to uncovering lost possibilities - or, at least, as entertaining fiction. Be it fact or fiction, or most probably a mix of the two, this tale of historical adventure and mystery offers a glimpse into what once was, or could have been, whichever fancies the disposition of the reader. It is not offered as either historical truth or fanciful fiction, but simply a tale to be enjoyed, savored, and hopefully, one that stimulates the reader's thoughts and causes one to pause and consider the possibilities.
Our tale takes place in the early part of the 17th century, in the year 1815 to be exact. Napoleon Bonaparte had returned to Paris to a cheering crowd after his first exile to the Isle of Alba. King Louis fled in fear of his life as Napoleon vowed to restore France to a powerful and conquering Republic. But Napoleon knew even then that his promises were empty. Europe had allied against him, and it was only time before Brittan, Austria, Prussia and Russia would unite their armies to crush the resurgence. Perhaps, as speculated, Napoleon's return was propagated more on the hope of rescuing his wealth than it was of saving the face of France. Rumors of the time had it that the formerly exiled Emperor was secretly amassing his treasures, the finest pieces of gems and gold and silver and art and making plans to remove it from the country before the eventual end of his triumphant return.
Meanwhile, a half a world away, a young and cavalier `gentleman' pirate named Jean Lafitte was making a name for himself, organizing a band of privateers and pirates and molding them into a well oiled and secret fellowship of rogue importers and exporters not far from the City of New Orleans. England had declared war against a young United States, and offered Lafitte a rank as captain in the Royal Navy if he aided in their war efforts, an offer he refused. The U.S. Government, in turn, offered Lafitte a pardon from his “smuggling charges” in return for his assistance in Andrew Jackson's Battle of New Orleans. Lafitte accepted and the rest is history. The pirate and his band of associates manned an artillery battalion at the battle and are credited with influencing the outcome of the battle. With the British in retreat, Lafitte and friends were granted their pardons and were subsequently made citizens of the United States. But Lafitte's freedom and rise to grace was short lived. Refusing to pay what he termed a “tribute” to the U.S. government for import rights, Lafitte soon left his smuggler's hideout in Louisiana and headed to the uncharted waters around Galveston and returned to what he knew best - piracy.
This is where historical fact ends and speculative theories abound. One tale has it that Napoleon, on the verge of defeat and a second exile, wanted to remove his French national treasure from Paris and hide it beyond the control of others. His hope, apparently, was to find the perfect `smuggler' who would take on a conspiratorial assignment and live up to the standards of the agreement. It may have been natural then that he sent messengers to Lafitte in Galveston, enlisting his aid, for a price, to help secretly smuggle the French national treasure out of France and to take them and secure them in the New World until Napoleon could be rejoined with his wealth. It is said such an undertaking offered more than just a handsome payment. One theory has it that Lafitte agreed to the conspiracy at the price of one third of all the treasures illegally shipped from an undisclosed Southern port in South France.
But why would Napoleon select Lafitte for the job? To begin with, there may have been a greater bond between these two men than the world realized at the time. Napoleon had abolished the Holy Roman Catholic Empire in most of Western Europe, and Lafitte hated the Catholics -- and the Spaniards that carried their cause throughout the world. The coalition between these two notorious men may have been fueled by this common thread. In addition, in spite of Lafitte's Hebrew heritage and his self-proclaimed ties to a Dutch Island in the Eastern Caribbean, he was, after all, French by his father's lineage. And his reputation as an expert ocean exporter and his innate ability to avoid Spanish and English naval blockades and patrol vessels were known far and wide. And considering Lafitte operated on the fringe of legitimacy, he appeared to be the perfect candidate to participate in a conspiracy to smuggle Napoleon's treasure secretly out of France.
While it may be impossible to prove or disprove Lafitte's involvement in such a scheme, there appears to be some circumstantial evidence that indicates the tale as being plausible at least. For one, when the U.S Navy assailed his Galveston stronghold (at the time beyond the legal jurisdiction of the U.S. government), Lafitte gave up the fight before it ever started. He set fire to the elaborate village he and his associates had constructed there, as if he had no remorse about abandoning the site. And then, just as mysteriously, Lafitte and his many ships simply “disappeared,” leaving behind rumors that the pirate and his fleet had sailed to the Yucatan coast to plunder and pirate Spanish vessels operating from Campeche. The history books indicate Lafitte may have contracted a disease and died somewhere off the Mexican coast around this time.
But just a few months after Lafitte was routed from Galveston, there are historical reports that he visited the waters surrounding what is today modern day South Padre Island. In fact, it is rumored that he harbored in the Laguna Madre for sometime and stayed long enough to dig a fresh water well in what is now the Laguna Vista area. The region was under the control of either a faltering Spanish Provincial government at the time, or a new born Mexican Republic, neither of which were known to have a military presence around the Laguna Madre at the time. In addition, history has recorded Lafitte's exploration of other Texas coastal islands and inlets, most notable, St. Joeseph's Island near modern day Rockport. Was Lafitte looking for a new home or base of operations, or was his mission more clandestine, perhaps a search for a perfect hiding place far from the inquiring eyes of all governments?
In a journal entry penned by a pirate known to have worked within Lafitte's rag tag armada, dated Sept. 21, 1816, there is an obscure entry that refers to the exploration of the coastline to the south of Galveston. Geographically, the Lower Laguna Madre is situated about half way between Galveston and the Spanish (now Mexican) Port at Tampico. It would have provided the perfect place to establish a hide out far from the inquiring eyes of authorities. According to the journal entry, Lafitte was rumored to have hidden a treasure of “immeasurable quality” in this unchartered area of the lower Texas coastline, somewhere “near the light”. Since the Port Isabel Lighthouse wasn't constructed until the mid 1850's, it can only be assumed that the light referred to was something other than the historic PI lighthouse. Or not? It is also well known that mariners often built fires on the shores of what is now Boca Chica beach to guide ships to the passage from the Gulf into the Laguna Madre, a place known as the Brazos Santiago channel. And there has been speculation that the bluffs at what is now modern day Port Isabel was a frequent harbor place for ships seeking refuge from the open Gulf waters, another place where mariner lights may have been built and burned to aid mariners safely into the bay.
To add to the story, it's interesting to note that Napoleon was again exiled, after the Battle of Waterloo, and retired in a rather lavish exile on a British Isle called St. Helena in the far southern Atlantic. He remained there for ten years before his death and was said to live a life of comfort and “prosperity,” no easy feat for a man stripped of his honor and personal wealth.
Less than a decade later, about the time of Napoleon's death, the well known conflict between Texas settlers and the Mexican government developed, resulting in Texas winning their independence eventually and establishing the Texas Republic. But the area around the Laguna Madre remained a bone of contention between the two countries, Mexico claiming all territory south of the Nueces River as belonging to Mexico. Texans argued the international border followed the Rio Grande River, putting the Laguna Madre under the control of the New Republic. There seemed to be a lot of attention and interest by both sides focused on the Laguna Madre region, an area devoid of social significance and sparsely populated at the time. After Texas became a state of the Union, the U.S. government was quick to establish a fort in Brownsville. Shortly thereafter, General Zachary Taylor was dispatched with an army of U.S. soldiers to secure the region. Some how, and for unknown reasons, the area had become an important political issue. The U.S. and Mexican governments were so enthralled with having control of the region that both were willing to risk a war for it.
For the sake of our conspiratorial readers we should mention here that Taylor, along with the majority of his hand-picked officers that were stationed at Fort Polk (in Port Isabel) and later Fort Brown (in Brownsville), were well known Masons. It was this elite group of U.S. military leaders that first petitioned to have a Masonic Lodge authorized for Port Isabel. Before the request could be granted, Taylor and his men transferred to Brownsville, where a very successful Lodge was established, and still operates today. We mention this only because according to a few conspiracy theorists, the Mason's may have been involved with the secret hiding of America's National Treasure, the fabled treasure of Solomon's Temple. The Knights of Templar, often associated with the Masons, were from France, and a few well crafted tales of truth or fiction have it that the treasures removed from Solomon's Temple ended up in France. Could it be that Napoleon's French National Treasure may have been part of a bigger haul, one that may have been divided years earlier by supporters of the young United States and transported to the U.S. east coast for safe keeping, as suggested by the popular movie series, “National Treasure”? Was Taylor and his army contingent looking for the remainder of Solomon's lost treasure, smuggled out of France by Lafitte at the cunning of a falling Napoleon? Was it hidden somewhere in the Laguna Madre area and of great interest to both the Mexican and U.S. governments?
To take it a step further and to add a bit more mystery to the tale, a few years later as conflict began to brew between the southern and northern states of America, eventually erupting into a civil war, it should not be surprising that France conquered Mexico and had established Maximilian as Emperor, an Austrian born noble with ties to the French and European elite. One of Maximilian's first orders was to dispatch Austrian troops to Matamoros and the Port of Baghdad. Maximilian, apparently, had not lost site of the importance of the Laguna Madre region, now under the control of the Confederate States. And it might be interesting to note that a contingent of ships from the U.S. Navy, in spite of it being thousands of miles away from recognized U.S. soil, spent nearly five years sitting just off the coast of South Padre Island, reportedly monitoring Confederate cotton trade out of the Port of Baghdad.
Last year modern Masons were able to resurface the original request for Masonic Lodge # 33 in Port Isabel. At the Museums of Port Isabel, you will find an excellent exhibit of Masonic artifacts and memorabilia, plus a tribute to the many Texans and Americans that took part in shaping the destiny of both the area and of Texas.
None of this, of course, proves or disproves our little tale of Napoleon's treasure and Lafitte's possible involvement in a French conspiracy to remove it from France and hide it somewhere in deep South Texas. But it does open the doors to the possibilities. Could there be a lost national treasure buried beneath the sands of padre or on the shore of the Laguna Madre? Who knows. But it could be a good reason why you should keep the batteries charged in your metal detector. Happy hunting.