Historical Notes

The Pirate Connection...

The Basques in Atlantic Canada

Expert sailors, the Basques were among the earliest regular visitors to the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. There is speculation that they arrived there even before the Vikings, although there is no documented evidence to prove this claim. However, there is evidence that they were making yearly fishing and whaling voyages by around 1525, and possibly as many as ten years earlier. Their ships usually arrived in the spring, returning home in early winter. They concentrated their operations along both sides of the Strait of Belle Isle in the north western part of the island, and along the north east coast. With the Portuguese, the Basques were also among the first to come to the Grand Banks. In 1549 a Basque priest was stationed in Newfoundland, probably at Placentia, close to the center of the Basque fishery employing 6,000 men. An English visit to Placentia Bay in 1591 found 40 Basque fishing vessels anchored in the harbour, and in 1594 they reported over 60 Basque fishing ships from St. Jean de Luz. With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the Basques' access to the waters around Newfoundland was greatly reduced. However, the Basque influence is still evident in place names such as Port aux Basques, or Port au Choix (the French version of portuchoa, Eskara for "small port"). In Nova Scotia, Basque fishermen began using Isle Madame as a summer base for their North Atlantic fishing and whaling expeditions. Among the attractions were the immense herds of walrus that invaded the shores of Isle Madame on a fairly regular basis. The walrus were valued both for the ivory of their tusks and the oil that was rendered from their large deposits of fat. Even once the last walrus had vanished from the area, the seas around Isle Madame continued to yield a sufficient bounty to justify a continued European presence. In time a number of the Basque fishermen, who had been using Isle Madame as a fishing station for generations, chose to settle permanently. Their family names --- Goyetche, DesRoches, Baccardax, and Josse (Joyce) may be found on Isle Madame to this day. Apart from the Basque presence, the first permanent settlement on Isle Madame occurred during the French regime at Louisbourg. During this time two French merchants, D’Aroupet and Hiriat, turned Petit de Grat into a major fishing and smuggling center. In fact, many French and British officials of the time estimated that there was a greater volume of goods moving through Petit de Grat than through Louisbourg itself. On the islands of Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, an historical profile notes that the current population with Basque origins can trace its roots back to immigrants who came over from the mid to late 18th century. "These fishermen and peasants mostly came from Iparralde. Basque migration was at its peak at the end of the 18th century, however not all remained in Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, some returned to Iparralde after two or three years. This migration to Saint-Pierre & Miquelon was organized by the Goyetche family."
The Goyetche surname was not only prominent on Isle Madame and Saint- Pierre & Miquelon, but also associated with the pirates Pierre and Jean Laffite, who terrorized Louisiana, Texas and the Caribbean in the late 1700's and early 1800's. According to Leonce Goyetche of France, a well-known historian and member of l'Academie historique de Paris, his grandfather Martin Goyetche (1792 - 1878) was Pierre Laffite's son-in-law. Martin married Marie-Anne Laffite, one of Pierre's daughters. The Laffite brothers have been the subject of a number of books and movies. In 1810, Jean Laffite became chief of a band of pirates with headquarters on Grande Terre Island in Barataria Bay in the Gulf of Mexico just south of New Orleans. With his brother Pierre, he commanded a fleet of ships and raided both Spanish and neutral vessels in the Gulf. His ships flew the flags of the Central and South American nations revolting against Spain. In 1813, Governor William Claiborne of Louisiana offered $500 for Laffite's capture. Laffite, then at the height of his power, boldly offered $1,500 for the governor's head. All efforts to take and prosecute Laffite under the law failed. In 1814, the British were at war with the United States. They offered Laffite $30,000, a pardon, and a naval captaincy if he would aid them in attacking New Orleans. He refused, informed the U.S. government of the plans, and offered the services of the Barataria smugglers to the United States. Laffite fought for General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815, and received a pardon from President James Madison. American forces had destroyed the community at Barataria, so Laffite moved to Galveston Island. There, he established a town called Campeachy and returned to piracy. After he raided the Louisiana coast and scuttled an American ship, the United States sent an expedition in 1821 to destroy the Galveston pirate colony. Laffite quietly yielded, set fire to his town, and sailed away. Most historians believe that he died either in exile in Yucatan or in battle.
The Goyetche Family Genealogy