George Schumph and the death of Pierre Laffite
George Schumph, who meets with Napoleon in Charleston in Napoleon in America, is one of those shadowy figures about whom little is known. A native of Quebec, he is remembered in the historical record because of his association with the New Orleans-based pirates, Pierre and Jean Laffite. Thanks in part to Schumph’s testimony, we have the details of Pierre Laffite’s death.
In New Orleans
George Bankhead Schumph was a Canadian sailor. He may have been involved in the Champ d’Asile, the 1818 Bonapartist attempt to form an armed colony in Texas, which I wrote about here and here. Based on a list provided by Charles Lallemand, the Louisiana Courier of May 19, 1820 names “Schumphs” as one of the men at the Champ d’Asile.
By that time, Schumph was working with the Laffites. On March 7, 1820, after sailing from the brothers’ base at Galveston, Schumph landed with Pierre Laffite at New Orleans on the Pegasus, a schooner that had once been a United States gunboat. (1) When Jean Laffite abandoned Galveston in May 1820, George Schumph was one of the men who went with him.
Attack in Mexico
The following year Schumph was Pierre Laffite’s master-at-arms, privateering near Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. On June 17, 1821, off Campeche, they captured the schooner Constitution, which was sailing from Cadiz to Veracruz. On the ship they found 1,200 barrels of liquor, 900 bottles of oil, lace and leather goods, and silver worth $50,000 to $60,000. Wanting to dispose of the merchandise, Pierre made a deal with a man named Clemente Cámera on Isla Mujeres near Cancún. Cámara could keep half the goods for his own use in return for $6,500 and his commitment to sell the rest in Campeche.
In October, Pierre delivered most of the cargo to Cámera’s small farm. Pierre, his mistress Lucia Allen, and his men stayed at the farm while Cámera took some of the goods to Campeche. Around 10 p.m. on October 30, they heard a small group of men approaching. When the leader identified himself as Miguel Molas, commanding a dozen soldiers and civilian volunteers, Laffite’s men fired on them. Though Molas was wounded, his men soon forced the attackers back. A few privateers were killed and others wounded. Those who could get away, including George Schumph, ran into the interior or escaped in a canoe. Molas loaded five prisoners, including Pierre Laffite and Lucia Allen, onto his boats.
When Molas embarked for the mainland at dawn, he found Laffite’s fully armed vessel in his path. Molas ran his boats ashore. Most of his men panicked and fled once the privateers opened fire. Outnumbered by his prisoners, Molas was compelled to abandon them on the beach.
Laffite collected his scattered party, including Schumph, and boarded a small fishing boat. They sailed northwest around the peninsula to a protected lagoon known as Las Bocas, about 10 miles from the village of Dzilam de Bravo. Pierre was extremely ill with a fever, and perhaps wounded. Though his companions tended him as best they could, he died on November 9. The next day, Schumph and the others took Pierre’s body into Dzilam de Bravo. Schumph asked permission from the mayor to bury Laffite in the churchyard of Santa Clara of Dzidzantún, an old Franciscan convent. Pierre Laffite was laid in the ground “with honor” and with appropriate words from the curate. (2)
George Schumph was arrested shortly thereafter on suspicion of complicity with pirates. In particular, he was thought to have been involved in the gun battle on Isla Mujeres. Trying to explain his connection with Pierre Laffite without incriminating himself as a pirate, Schumph testified that he was a Canadian merchant who had come to the island to discuss some business with Laffite when Molas attacked. To explain his lack of travelling papers, Schumph said he had jumped into the water to escape the attack and thus left his trunk behind, with his passport in it. He was held for several weeks until he agreed to provide information on the location of hidden Laffite prize goods. On December 4, Schumph was released. (3)
After that Schumph disappears from history. He may have gone to Columbia with Jean Laffite to serve as a corsair. (4) As for his origins, in his testimony of November 1821, George Schumph is listed as age 26, a native of Quebec and a bachelor. This means he would have been born around 1795.
On a message board of the Ancestry genealogical website, there is reference to a George Christian Schump or Christian-Adolf Schumpfe (born in 1753), who came to Quebec from Enkirch, Germany. He married Marie-Monique Samson. One of their eight children was named George Burkard, baptized on February 17, 1796. Marie-Monique died young, and George was raised in an orphanage in Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec. (5) Though it’s impossible to be certain, the similarity of the names (George Bankhead Schumph vs George Burkard Schump), approximate birth year (1795 vs 1796) and location (Quebec) suggest they could be the same person.
- William C. Davis, The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf (Orlando, 2005), p. 428.
- Ibid., p. 454.
- The circumstances surrounding Pierre Laffite’s death and Schumph’s involvement are recounted in Davis, The Pirates Laffite, pp. 452-455.
- Isidro A. Beluche Roma, “Privateers of Cartagena,” The Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 1956), p. 87.
- http://boards.ancestry.ca/thread.aspx?mv=flat&m=23&p=surnames.schumpp Accessed March 20, 2015. There is more information about the Schumph (or Jomphe) family on the Genealogy.com website: http://www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/chiasson/410/.
López and Gregorio laid the dead pirate in the ground ‘with honor’…and with appropriate words from the curate…. When they were done they placed over his grave a rude stone marked with his name, the date, and the hour of his death.
William C. Davis