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Texas History

Ben Dollivar and Lafitte’s Gold

A crazy pirate legend with a nugget of truth

In the 1850s, “Crazy” Ben Dollivar staggered from one Galveston waterfront bar to the next, trailing grog fumes and fueling rumors that the old pirate had found one of former employer Jean Lafitte’s buried treasures, believed to dot the dunes around Galveston.

Although he hadn’t worked since he gave up the seafaring life 20 years before, Dollivar paid for copious amounts of ale with gold doubloons. He seemed unconcerned that each Spanish coin was worth 12 silver dollars, and it was an uncommon bartender who gave him correct change—and then only if others witnessed the transaction.

Dollivar rarely spoke of his years privateering (pirates preferred this term) with Lafitte. He had served as a soldier in the Battle of New Orleans with the Lafitte brothers, whose detailed knowledge of the labyrinthine waterways around New Orleans helped Gen. Andrew Jackson’s troops claim an overwhelming victory against the British during the War of 1812. Afterward, Dollivar sailed with Jim Campbell, Jean Lafitte’s favorite sea captain, and shared gunnery duties on a 6-pound brass cannon.

An orphan, Dollivar was born in Georgia in the 1780s and raised on a cotton plantation by an uncle who alternately flogged him and read the Bible aloud. As a teenager, he ran away to sea, eventually joining forces with Lafitte, who had taken up residence in Galveston in 1817.

Dollivar was a small, weather-beaten man whose skull had been dented by a stroke from a saber and whose mahogany face sported a 6-inch scar and a multitude of wrinkles. He muttered to himself and occasionally raved incoherently. The New Orleans Delta added more color to his description in July 1867: “His nose was sharp and crooked enough to have served for a boat hook in an emergency, and his mouth, cheeks and throat were covered with a thick, dark beard. His little gray eyes twinkled in their sockets with a semi-piratical ferocity.”

During the coldest winter weather, Dollivar would put on a shirt, although he rarely wore one otherwise and was never seen wearing a coat. Galveston’s residents claimed he walked to town barefooted in all weather, and he held up his threadbare britches with a length of sail rope. He was known to swim in Galveston Bay during the bitterest of northers.

Historian W.T. Block Jr. writes that when questioned about his doubloons, Dollivar gave this answer: “Ah gits ’em from a big sea chest down in the Hotspur’s bilge.” The Hotspur, one of Lafitte’s schooners, had run aground and broken up on a Louisiana River in 1820. Many looked for Dollivar’s sea chest, but none found it.

Dollivar didn’t waste his treasure on amenities. He lived in a 10-by-10-foot shack on Galveston beach. Covered by an old sail, the hovel was open to the north and south, admitting the summer breeze and the winter wind. When Dollivar ran low on gold coins, he launched an old whaleboat into Galveston Bay and dis-appeared for a few days.

A few of Dollivar’s cronies took care of him in his old age. Campbell had re-turned to the Galveston area and became a successful farmer. He sometimes treated Dollivar to a hot meal and took him home at night.

One day in July 1858, a graceful pearl-gray yacht sailed into Galveston Bay. It was piloted by a young man who claimed to be Lafitte’s nephew. The crew was searching for Dollivar. After a private discussion with Dollivar, Lafitte’s nephew rented a small sloop and sailed out of the harbor with Dollivar at the helm.

There are two versions of the end of Crazy Ben Dollivar. In one, his body was found at the mouth of Clear Creek a few days later with his throat slashed. In the other, he returned with the crew of the yacht and two rusty sea chests, then sailed away never to return.

Martha Deeringer, a member of Heart of Texas EC, lives near McGregor.