Popular Birding Spot Has Ties to Pirate, Privateer Jean Lafitte

Steve Gast stands near the entry sign to an 8.8-acre sanctuary in High Island that was named after him and a tree believe to be planted by Jean Lafitte's huntsmen. PHOTO PROVIDED BY HOUSTON AUDUBON.

Steve Gast stands near the entry sign to an 8.8-acre sanctuary in High Island that was named after him and a tree believe to be planted by Jean Lafitte’s huntsmen. Photo provided by Houston Audubon.

Tales of Jean Lafitte’s days as a pirate and privateer can be heard across the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Galveston and several places along the way, including High Island.

Lafitte and his elder brother, Pierre, moved from the Louisiana coast to Galveston during the Mexican War of Independence. The Lafittes became spies for the Spanish and developed a pirate colony in Galveston called Campeche.

Steve Gast of the S.E. Gast Red Bay Sanctuary in High Island said it is believed that during Jean Lafitte’s time in Galveston, he maintained a hunting camp in High Island to provision his sailors.

People have claimed that one of Lafitte’s treasures remains buried at the world-renowned birding spot on Bolivar Peninsula less than a mile from Chambers County. Seekers of the rumored riches dug pits in what is now Houston Audubon’s Boy Scout Woods Sanctuary, Gast said. Their search, however, was unsuccessful.

Legendary pirate and privateer Jean Laffite.

Legendary pirate and privateer Jean Laffite.

In the early 1980s, Gast began mapping out the future Houston Audubon sanctuaries at High Island. Although he didn’t find Lafitte’s lost treasures, he did discover an unusual tree for the area – a Red Bay.

The aromatic evergreen is commonly found growing on the borders of swamps and swampy drains in the rich, moist, mucky soil of the lower Coastal Plain. The tree doesn’t easily propagate over long distances or show up in isolated areas such as High Island. It does, however, produce a bay leaf commonly used in Cajun cooking such as gumbo and red beans and rice.

Lafitte and many of his followers were Frenchmen and they spent a great deal of time on the Gulf Coast. Could Lafitte’s huntsmen at High Island have planted the Red Bay there to supplement the table of their colleagues in Galveston?

Gast said he thinks it’s plausible and is part of what inspired the naming of S.E. Gast Red Bay Sanctuary, which was donated to Houston Audubon by Amoco Production Company in 1994. The 8.8 acres of woods is named in honor of Gast, who led the initiative that resulted in the donation.

The sanctuary is one of six sanctuaries at High Island. The Texas Ornithological Society manages two of the sanctuaries. Houston Audubon manages the remaining four sanctuaries as well as Smith Oaks Rookery.

Birdwatchers flock to the area every year during spring migration to marvel over the abundance of birds coming to or passing through the area’s various habitats, all of which are located in the Central Flyway.

Unfortunately, visitors to High Island can no longer see the Red Bay. The tree was destroyed in 2005 during Hurricane Ike. But its memory lives on and so does the rich and intriguing history of Jean Lafitte

For more information about birding in the Chambers County area visit our activities page.

Have fun birding and soaking up some Texas history!

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