Calcasieu Parish
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By W. T. Block

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While there are two treasure sites near the mouths of the Calcasieu and Mermentau rivers that most likely will never be found, it might be well to identify them in the event the "impossible" just might happen. One is an iron safe, containing $9,000 dollars in gold, thrown overboard near the Cameron Parish court house during a battle between Confederates and two Union gunboats on May 6,1864. The other is the wreckage of the pirate ship Hotspur near the mouth of the Mermantau River, which ran aground and wrecked in November, 1820.

In his article published in True West magazine in December, 1979, the writer outlined other reputed treasure locations elsewhere along the Calcasieu River - the Barb Shellbank, Contraband Bayou and Island, and old Cidony's Shipyard. Those stories originally appeared in the New York Herald and were reprinted in a long, 3-column article in "Story of Laffite on the Calcasieu," Galveston Daily News, on April 25, 1895. Another long article about Jean Laffite's Mermantau River treasure sites originally appeared in Cincinnati Inquirer and was reprinted in the Galveston Daily News on Aug. 6, 1897. (These stories available on microfilm at Lamar University Library.)

In April, 1864, the Mermentau Jayhawkers owned a herd of 450 stolen cattle and horses, which they offered for sale to the Union Navy in New Orleans. Within days, two Union gunboats entered the Calcasieu and dropped anchor in front of the writer's great grandfather's home (Duncan Smith) at Leesburg, now Cameron. At daylight on May 6, 1864, the entire Confederate garrison from Sabine Pass, including a battery of artillery, attacked the gunboats, shortly before the stolen herd was to be loaded aboard. A seesawing, 90-minute battle ensued before both the gunboats surrendered, and about twenty soldiers and sailors were killed and many more were wounded during the onslaught. Lt. Benjamin Loring's (commander of U. S. S. Wave) long account of that battle, and of Duncan Smith's involvement in it, was published in War of The Rebellion: Official Records of The Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume XXI, pages 256-259.

Soon after Lt. Loring raised a white flag above his vessel, the Confederate soldiers watched in anguish as the Bluejackets threw everything possible overboard, including the Wave's iron safe. Prisoners-of-war later confirmed that the safe contained $9,000 in gold coins, intended as payment to the Jayhawkers for the stolen cattle and horses. For a few days, the Confederates dived for the safe in six fathoms of water, but they soon abandoned the search because the Confederates had to return to Sabine Pass.

The life of Captain James Campbell, Jean Laffite's most trusted lieutenant, is perhaps the best-documented of any of Laffite's pirates. The author's long biography of Jim and Mary Campbell and the last, ten-months voyage of the pirate ship Hotspur were published in the November, 1991 issue (pages 77-95) of Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record (Texas Gulf Historical Society, Beaumont, Texas). Campbell, son-in-law of Isaac and Isabel Chabineaux Crow, resided at Crow's Ferry, Sabine Parish, La. in 1816-1817 before he joined Laffite on Galveston Island. His privateer Hotspur (the second of Laffite's privateers of that name) was especially-built for Campbell at Laffite's command in Baltimore in 1818. Of special design, the second Hotspur was a topsail or "hermaphodyte" schooner, fore-and-aft rigged on both masts as well as square-rigged on the foremast, a vessel "with all wings and no feet," that could sail rings around the slow Spanish galleons of that day.

During a ten-months' voyage from February to November, 1820, the Hotspur engaged and captured a number of Spanish plate ships off Vera Cruz and Tampico. After plundering their victims of all bullion, coins, rum, stores, and fresh water aboard, Capt. Campbell and his men burned the captured ships but released their captives on the nearest land. With all fresh water exhausted, the Hotspur sailed up the Mermentau River to Grand Chenier in November, 1820, and the youngest pirate aboard, a 14-year-old cabin boy named Charles Cronea, deserted the privateer. As the Hotspur attempted to return to the gulf, the privateer ran aground in the shallow water offshore. Captain Campbell and his crew were able only to salvage a small portion of the Spanish gold and silver aboard at the time of the wreck. When they later returned on another ship to resume salvage operations, the wreckage of the Hotspur had disappeared into deeper water.

The sunken treasures of the Hotspur and the Wave will probably never be found unless they are dug up during Corps of Engineers dredging operations at Cameron or in the offshore nets of some shrimper or fisherman. But if they should ever appear, it is at least nice to know from whence they originated.

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For the biography of Capt. Campbell and the last voyage of the Hotspur, see Block, "A Buccaneer Family in Spanish East Texas," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, XXVII, #1, (1991), pp. 77-96. See also Capt. Campbell War of 1812 Pension File #WC-30-345 in National Archives; "Jim Campbell Memoirs" in M. B. Lamar Papers, IV, Part 2, pp. 18-24; J. Campbell Obituary in Galv. Weekly News, May 27, 1856; Memoirs in Charles Cronea Obituary, Galv. Daily News, Mar. 6, 1893; Cronea Memoirs in "Sailed With The Sea Rover," Galv. Daily News, Feb. 7, 1909, p. 17. See also in Galv. Daily News, "Laffite and His Lieutenants," Apr. 21, 1878; "Buccaneers," May 25, 1879; "Days of Laffite," Jan. 7, 1884; and "Story of Laffite,' Mar. 3, 1907.The Battle of Calcasieu Pass, fought at Cameron, Louisiana, is carefully outlined in great detail in War of The Rebellion-History of the Union and Confederate States Navies, Vol. I, Series XXI, pp. 246-260.

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Copyright 1998-2024 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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