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And Now You Know: Pirates were once in Orange

Mike Louviere, And Now You Know

Ten miles north of Orange on the Sabine River in the West Bluff area, is a place once called “Ballew’s Ferry.”

In the early days of settling Texas, this was a major crossing into Texas from Louisiana, via the “Neutral Strip”.

The ferry was built and operated by Richard Ballew. Ballew had been granted a league of land by the Spanish governor of Texas. The only thing that differed Ballew from other settlers who had been given land grants to settle Texas was that Ballew had been a pirate, a trusted associate of Jean Lafitte.

The connection of Ballew and Lafitte is one of the reasons that so many legends and rumors abound about Lafitte burying treasure in the Sabine River.

Lafitte, or some of his ships and crews, made many trips to Ballew’s Ferry to sell slaves to Ballew, who in turn resold them to slave traders. The traders who did the most business with Ballew were the Bowie brothers, James, Rezin, and John.

By 1817, Lafitte’s ships were capturing so many Spanish slave ships off the coast of Cuba that the slave pens, or barracoons, on Galveston Island were often filled to capacity.

At the suggestion of Jim Campbell, Lafitte’s most trusted lieutenant; Lafitte built two barracoons in the Neutral Strip. One was on Contraband Bayou and the other on Ballew’s land north of Orange.

The Neutral Strip was the result of a boundary dispute between the United States and Spain.

Spain owned Texas and the territory west of Texas. Spain claimed that the Calcasieu River was the western boundary with the United States, and the U.S. claimed the western boundary was the Sabine River. As a result, the area between the two rivers was an area of such lawlessness that John Quincy Adams called it “the backdoor to the United States.”

With Lafitte having so much profitable activity in the area, it is no wonder that there was an abundance of stories about buried treasure.

Lafitte had built a settlement for his men at Baritaria, south of New Orleans in the swamps and he had gone to Galveston later and established his “Campeche”.

The entire Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean areas were his domain and he felt free to attack and capture any ship flying the Spanish flag. He would return with his spoils to Galveston after he had been pushed out of Baritaria.

Lafitte was subject to enter any of the rivers, bayous, bays, lakes, or any other waterway on the coast between the Mississippi River and Galveston.

His plunder from raiding ships and gold coins from selling slaves was so great that many cannot think of any way for him to control his vast wealth other than burying it in secret locations along the Gulf coast.

It is documented that Ballew and Campbell lived in the Orange area.

Campbell with his wife, for a short period of time; Ballew for several years. Slave trading was so profitable that John Bowie, the younger brother, reported to “DeBow’s Magazine” in 1853 that after buying the slaves at $1 per pound they resold 1500 slaves for a total of $65,000 in a two year period.

Gold coins were the method of payment.

If the Bowie brothers had earned this much money, then one can only assume that the fortune of Lafitte had to be enormous.

Transportation and storage of large amounts of gold coinage was a problem. From time to time indications are seen that give rise to the rumors of buried treasure, possibly large amounts of gold coins.

A 14-mile long island divides the Sabine River between Niblett’s Bluff and West Bluff. There is a spot on the island where trees grow in the shape of a ship. Legend says that one of Lafitte’s ships lies buried below.

A brass cannon was found about 25 feet from the trees and the island. It is also believed that a second ship was sunk near the location of an old pumping plant. Nothing definite has ever been found.

In the summer of 1965, there was an effort made to check a location in the 40 Gums area, about a mile north of Niblett’s Bluff near a bend in the river.

On the east bank of the Sabine, there were signs that perhaps a ship had been sunk. A group decided to drive sheet piling around the area and pump out the water to expose the wreck. They prepared to build a coffer dam and install a suction dredge. But first, they needed to determine if there was a ship there.

After about two weeks, they reported that they had thoroughly checked the 40 Gums area and found nothing. They had swept 20 feet below the river bottom and found only a large log.

They did not say there was not a ship in the river, only that if there was, it was not where legends said it was.

The late Louis Dugas, a former president of the Orange Historical Society, stated his opinion about Lafitte’s presence on the Sabine, “The only time he came to the Sabine was when he was slave trading, and then he would only come to the mouth of the river. He was too smart to go up into a river where he may have been trapped and could not get out.”

“And now you know.”