Sunday, December 20, 2009

Locking through from the North Sea

When David Kokernot's ancestors on his mother's side arrived in Amsterdam from Hamburg in 1710 they probably entered the city through this lock. Passage from Hamburg via the North Sea could be accomplished in a small vessel because the route was protected by barrier islands. From the North Sea they entered and crossed the Zuiderzee, then the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal by way of this lock. The lock chamber is about 150 yards long and about fifteen feet wide. The Amsterdam side is shown here. The other end of the chamber connects, ultimately, to the North Sea. I had to ponder the operation of those gates before I understood their operation, for they never opened or closed during the week I was there.

The unique feature of this lock, or any in Amsterdam, is it can lift or lower a vessel, coming or going. Most locks only operate with one side higher than the other. Take the Ballard Locks in Seattle, which lower vessels from Lake Union to Puget Sound or raise them going the other direction. Puget Sound is always lower than Lake Union, even at high tide. Mitered lock gates hold back the waters of Lake Union like this: Puget Sound>....lock chamber.....>Lake Union, where > represents a pair of swinging lock gates. The higher water to the right of the gates holds them shut. Only when water is allowed to fill the chamber through another passageway can the gates swing open.

In Amsterdam, however, the canals could be either above or below the Zuiderzee side, depending on the tides. Therefore, two sets of lock gates, swinging in opposite directions, are required. High water on the right side requires this configuration: >. Low water on the right requires this: <. You can see one side of the gates in the photo here, recessed into the chamber wall. Each is hinged to swing in the opposite direction from the other.

In the early twentieth century a dike was placed across the Zuiderzee, isolating it from the North Sea. It was filled with fresh water from the Amstel, was renamed the IJsselmeer, and sees no tidal swings. The water level is equalized on each side of this lock and the gates are simply kept open.

Monday, November 9, 2009

David Kokernot's Boyhood Home in Amsterdam

Amsterdam Jews in the eighteenth century celebrated their marriages at their synagogue, rarely bothering to register them with the civil authorities. After the turn of the nineteenth century, however, the authorities insisted that all marriages be registered in the same manner as those in the Dutch Reformed Church. On January 29, 1808, David Kokernot's parents complied, even though they had already been married for several years--David's older brother was about eight years old.

"There appeared Levie Moses, from Amsterdam, a Jew aged 25 years, on the Kerkstraat, by the Magere Brug, No 6, accompanied by his mother Rebecca Moses..." reads their marriage intention announcement. These documents always give the residence street, or at least the neighborhood, of the bride and groom, and sometimes the actual address appears, like here. Kerkstraat (Church Street) crosses the Amstel River via the Magere (the Dutch say "MA-her-uh") Brug (bridge), but number 6 is nowhere near that crossing, probably because addresses have been renumbered since 1808.

The Dutch are fastidious record keepers, and a visit to the Amsterdam Archives cleared up the numbering. One shelf there contains volumes of computer printouts listing every address in the city, before and after the renumbering done in 1853. Kerkstraat 6 had become Kerkstraat 623 that year. Another shelf contains volumes detailing the changes of 1875. Kerkstraat 623 became Kerstraat 449 that year, and remains so to this date. It was an easy walk over to Kerkstraat, and, indeed, 449 was a half dozen doors from the Magere Brug.

Amsterdam has many hundreds of bridges, but the Magere Brug is probably its most famous. It appears in the Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever, as well as almost all picture books of the city. The drawbridge is manually raised by the dual counterbalanced beams that resemble the oil well pump jacks so common in California and Texas. The 1691 original bridge had only a single draw span.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler

As I started some heavy editing to chapter three of my biography of David Kokernot--a chapter I wrote almost four years ago--I grew wistful remembering the three months I spent researching in New Orleans. Chapter three (further described here) relates the happy years the Kokernot family spent in that city in the 1820s. I added these introductory paragraphs to the chapter:

When I arrived in New Orleans, the cab driver dropped me off after dark, and Karissa, my new landlady and self-described “Quarter Rat,” let me into my apartment. She knew, of course, she was dealing with a Yankee, but wanted, nevertheless, to help me avoid injury or embarrassment during my three month research visit to her beloved French Quarter. “Avoid these neighborhoods after dark,” she instructed, tracing them with her finger on the wall map. Her second lesson came as she pointed out the streets. “That’s BurGUNdy,” she said, naming the next cross street southeast of our Toulouse Street location. “Here is CON-tie.” She pointed at Conti Street. “Remember Calliope rhymes with ‘envelope’ and Esplanade with ‘cavalcade,’ Yankee.”

Soon after she left, a thunderous downpour drew me to the window overlooking Toulouse Street. Water cascaded from the rooftops and into the gutters, then ran uphill. After my session with Karissa, I knew exactly where I was and where the river was, and this water was not flowing in the correct direction. Later I learned that the peculiar hydraulics of the lower Mississippi creates a natural levee along its banks, with land sloping down and away from the river. New Orleanians incorporate this fact into their speech. For streets perpendicular to the river shore, like Toulouse, “up” is toward the river. “Down,” naturally, is toward Lake Pontchartrain, several feet below the level of the Mississippi at New Orleans. Likewise one needs to abandon concepts of north-south-east-west when following streets that parallel the curves of the river. Instead, use “uptown” and “downtown,” or “upriver” and “downriver” to understand directions from today or two centuries in the past.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tombstone, Arizona, Hangings

Both boys instinctively covered their eyes at the sudden burst of Arizona sun as their jailer led them out to the scaffold, according to the Tucson newspaperman who accompanied them. Stiffened by a shot of whiskey from Sheriff White, they climbed the steps with the coolness and nerve that twenty year old Texans are capable of. Hangings were public in 1900 Tombstone, so a large crowd heard their last words and watched the younger boy place the noose over his own head. The sheriff cut the single cord that released both traps. The brothers William and Tom Halderman "swung to eternity," scribbled one witness.

Time Magazine later said Tombstone was "used to glory in its duels, hangings, feuds," and declared the Halderman hangings its "most famed." That is notable, considering the competition for notability--the Clantons, Earps, Bat Masterson, the OK Corral, even Geronimo were local legends. Tombstone citizens considered the brothers cold blooded murderers and thoroughly approved of the hangings. Some residents, and all their Texas kin, thought they were hanged unfairly.

In April of 1899 deputy sheriff Chester Ainsworth had been dispatched to the nearby Chiricahua Mountains to arrest William Halderman on a warrant for cattle theft. On the way, Ainsworth picked up eighteen year old Ted Moore to help. They found the Halderman brothers breakfasting with a neighbor, J.W. Wilson and his son and two daughters. Wilson and the daughters later testified that the boys agreed to go peacably and the deputy suggested they grab what they wanted from inside, including breakfast. The boys stepped out moments later with rifles and dropped the deputy from his horse and mortally wounded the youthful Moore, who rode to his mother's house nearby and died in her arms. The boys lit out on foot but were captured five days later.

Cochise County hired a lawyer to defend the boys. Justice took only two months. The boys claimed self defense--Moore had shot first--but the testimony of Wilson and his two daughters convinced the jury otherwise. An execution date was set. An appeal to the state supreme court gained them a delay to the following March, by which time the boys' Texas family had swung into action.

William and Tom Halderman were scions of a wealthy and influential Texas family, the Kokernots. Their grandmother, Julia Ann Lang, was a sister of L.M. and John W. Kokernot, successful ranchers and businessmen. L.M. first sent the boys' uncle, D.L. Lang, to Arizona to investigate, followed by his own lawyer, S.H. Hopkins, of Gonzales, Texas. Hopkins filed flurries of affidavits with the court and the governor's office, to no avail. The governor of Texas pleaded with the Arizona governor for a commutation, without effect. The Texas family even travelled to Washington to plead with President McKinley, who achieved only a delay of two more months. All this activity, "sufficient to crush the Philippine rebellion," infuriated Tombstone residents, who were eager for a hanging. They got it on November 16.

Was this simply an example of wealth pleading for special consideration, or did the Texans have a legitimate complaint? The brothers' story was mostly drowned out, but they offered a different and believable sequence of events. First, Ted Moore, the youngster they had killed, had a long running feud with the older brother, William, over one of the Wilson girls, Rena, and had often vowed to kill Halderman. Witnesses could testify to this but the brothers were too inexperienced to insist. They said they stepped from the house armed because of fear of Moore, who in fact fired first, they said. William claimed Tom fired no shots and that Ainsworth was simply caught in the crossfire and may even have been hit by Moore.

The girls, Rena and Mary, testified after the trial that their father had insisted that they lie at the trial and say one of the Haldermans fired first. Their father, they said, feared the wrath of his neighbors if he became the cause of the Haldermans' release. The boys were so confident that these arguments would ultimately prove their innocence that when other inmates of the Tombstone jail staged a break, Will and Tom did not join them.

By the day of the hangings, all the Texans had gone home. There was no one to claim the Haldermans' bodies, so they were buried beside each other in the town's iconic Boothill Cemetery.

The Wilson family fared no better than the Haldermans. Within a few years two of J.W. Wilson's sons were killed, one by being pushed into a well. Of the girls, Rena and Mary, one commited suicide and the other spent her life in an insane asylum.

Friday, May 8, 2009

L. M. Kokernot the elder

I had another of those creepy moments a couple days ago--the one where I come across a nugget of information that I know no one else knows. I'm sure Einstein felt the same way when he learned that E equals mc squared. The only difference is that in my case no one cares. But that doesn't change the feeling. Anyway, I learned when, where, and how David Kokernot's father died.

Before now, all we knew was what David Kokernot told his grandson Walter, that his father, "L. M." had drowned in Lake Pontchartrain around 1825. Kent Gardien combined that with the knowledge that he was a dry goods retailer and always lived around water (Amsterdam, New Orleans) to speculate that the elder LM drowned while peddling by boat. It turns out he was actually bathing in the lake.

All this comes about from a wonderful new resource I've only just found. GenealogyBank has the largest online collection of historical newspapers I have found and, better yet, the pages have been OCR'd and the full text is searchable. A search for "Kokernot" in Louisiana for the 1820s turned up two items, shown here. The first, in the August 25, 1827, issue of the Louisiana Advertiser announced that LM had drowned while bathing in the lake. The second, two days later, announced that his business was being taken over by his widow.

OCR, the process of converting a photograph of text into a text file that can be edited or searched is notoriously difficult to do accurately. It's more than difficult with old newspapers with poor printing quality further deteriorated by time. That search for "Kokernot" was actually a search for "Kok*t" which will find common misspellings such as Kokenut, Kokernut, Kokernott, and the rest, and also immunize against some OCR errors, such as confusing "r" and "n." Even so, there are doubtless other occurrances of "Kokernot" that OCR failed to recognize. The patient researcher would, of course, scan the pages online by eyeball. That is possible now for many, many, old newspapers that were unavailable online before

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Ospreys Are Back

It's the same every spring--ski season ends, allergy season begins, and the ospreys show up along with our human snowbirds from wherever they spend their winters. Laika the space dog, my woo, and I spotted our first ones yesterday and again today. They were working the orographic lift created by the wind against the highway embankment along the Lake Pend Oreille shore at the north end of the Long Bridge. They repeatedly searched a half mile of shallow water from thirty feet altitude, their rakish wings barely working in the stiff breeze. Osprey are my favorite bird, the only honest fishermen I know. They only eat what they catch, and it's fresh, usually delivered to the nest still flopping. Eagles won't fish if they can steal; gulls won't steal if they can scavenge. Both were flying with the ospreys today, and both were disappointed--the osprey caught nothing.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

"Schooner Flash, Captain Falwell"

When David Kokernot first moved his family to Texas from New Orleans in 1831 it was "a very pleasant trip" aboard the "Schooner Flash, Captain Falwell," he later wrote. That fact has been repeated so often that I was a little surprised to find that the Flash was not built until four years later. I wrote this off as simply another of Kokernot's many errors of fact. This one was clearly an honest mistake, not self-promoting like many of his errors. The Flash, I learned, had a busy and important fifteen month's life and David had probably spent time on its deck during the Texas Revolution. The Flash hauled Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar to Texas. It hauled the Twin Sisters canons to Houston's army. So, naturally, I had to blow off a couple of weeks writing all I could learn about the schooner. The East Texas Historical Journal published the story early this year. I've placed the first page here. Subscriptions or single copies are available from the East Texas Historical Association, or at a good university library.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Harry Daves

Harry Daves was a Texan of the old school. He was cranky and persistent, but modest and respectful. Nevertheless, the language heard in his living room could drop a Yankee's jaw. It did mine. He loved history, but his modest education, or maybe it was the cranky persistence, kept him at odds with the more formal historians of his section of Texas. So it seemed to this visitor from the north.

Harry contacted me the first time when he heard there was a Yankee poking around the local libraries, museums, and woods, trying to find the lost gravesite of his ancestor, Samuel Barber. Local historians advised me that Harry wouldn't have much to help my search, but they were wrong--Harry had more than all the others put together. He had long been interested in finding Samuel's grave but had not succeeded. He had interviewed everyone he could find who had seen it, none more recently than the 1960s. The site was deep in the woods of East Texas and any marker had long since disappeared. On a collection of paper scraps Harry had notes from each, describing what each knew. One knew on whose tract it lay. Another knew it was north of such and such fence, but south of another. It was in the woods but the prairie was visible. No piece of information alone was sufficient, but in aggregate they could narrow the possibilities to a radius of a few hundred feet. Harry also knew the hunters who knew the woods and who would join us in a sweep of the area and, better yet, guarantee we could find our way out.

We made multiple sweeps until we were convinced we found Samuel's gravesite. See the detailed description here.
Harry in his trademark red coveralls with Neale Rabensburg, Gayla Tilton, Mike Pomykal; 1994.

Thank you, Harry.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thank you, Pappy!

I was born in Chicago and was raised in Alaska and Idaho. I'm a thorough Yankee. Not so my ancestors. Six generations of them lived in Texas, but I never set foot in the state until I was an adult. Since I became interested in family history I have visited often--twice a year, even. When I do, I exclaim "Thank you, Pappy!"

It was Pappy, my grandfather, who moved the family from the dustbowl of west Texas to Sandpoint, a lakeside logging town in the mountains of northern Idaho. I love Texans, I love my kin there, I love to walk the land my ancestors owned, but--no offense, please--it's too bad they're all in Texas. It's hot, humid, and flat; or dusty and flat; or mountainous (if you know where to look) and dry.

I'm sure Pappy received the same reaction I do at the mention of Idaho: "Huh? You like potatoes?" Or they confuse it with Iowa. Logging drew Pappy to Sandpoint, but the lake in the summer and the skiing in the winter drew me to the same town. We're a little isolated--six hours by car to Seattle, nine hours by air to Houston, and three hundred miles to the nearest potato patch--and that's how I like it.

Thank you Pappy!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Old Man

I wrote this short essay in December 2005. Kent Gardien, the "Old Man," died June 26, 2006. Progress on the book mentioned is at Kokernot book.

In November I visited an old man in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Cousin Barbara Jo Brothers and I went with the sole purpose of meeting him, yet I had the feeling that I already knew him, and even that I was seeing myself twenty or thirty years hence. He was extremely frail and only once in my five visits did he rise from his chair, using a walker to make his halting way to the adjacent room where we took dinner.

I felt like I knew him because I’d followed his tracks for a decade. We think alike. We were chasing the same ancestor. I counted as victories the rare times I discovered something he didn’t know, or even visited an archive that didn’t already have his name in the visitors’ log. And I saw myself in him because he had done what I feared doing. He accumulated a huge amount of knowledge about his family—our family—which will go to his grave with him, untold. The last thing he published on the topic was thirty-five years ago.

His tracks ended twenty years ago. I assumed he was dead until a cousin asked me “Why don’t you just give him a call? Here’s his number.”

Soon I was settled into a hotel three cobblestoned blocks from his home in the oldest part of an old city. Each morning I rang his doorbell at the hour designated, usually eleven, and left when invited to leave, usually at two. In between we sat in his upstairs library overlooking Fray Bartolome De Las Casas and he told wonderful stories. Stories of growing up a child of wealth in depression Texas. Stories of his (great-grand) “Aunt Gus” and “Aunt Beck,” both sisters to my own third-great-grandmother, Elizabeth, born in New Orleans in 1831. Stories told him by his (grand-) “Uncle Walter,” who grew up in the home of his own grandparents, David and Caroline Kokernot, who in turn told of the death of David’s father, a waterborn Jewish peddler, on Lake Pontchartrain in the 1820s.

The old man was unpredictable. “I’ll never remember these stories. May I tape record them?” “NO!” “May I take your picture?” “NO!” “I can’t take notes fast enough. May I copy these papers?” “Why don’t you just take them all with you?” When I left town it was with forty pounds of paper in the overhead bin, which paper has been deposited at the archives of Gonzales County, Texas.

And I left with a determination to finish what the old man started and what I started: a published history of our family. Of course it’s made more difficult by all the new information he’s given me, but it will be better for it.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Smell of Old Paper

Yes, online research is convenient and it gets better as more original source documents become available online every year--see my previous post for an example. But research conducted only with online resources or secondary documents is incomplete. Besides, researching original documents is just more fun and satisfying. First, there's the chase. You cannot flit around the world at the speed of Internet Protocol packets to find documents that exist only on paper--you must find them the old fashioned way, maybe by telephone, more likely by letter or personal travel. The most valuable documents, of course, are the ones no one else has studied because they are not indexed or even catalogued. Second, there is a pleasure in handling documents one, two, three centuries old. Their smell is unique, not musty--they've been in a climate controlled room--but pleasant. Then there is the penmanship. Few today can equal it, certainly not I. Third, there is that moment when you learn something that you're certain no one else in the world knows. Sure, maybe almost no one else cares, but someone does.

David Kokernot said, and many writers have repeated, that he served as an officer chasing smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1830s. He would have worked for the Collector of Customs in New Orleans who, in turn, worked for the Treasury Department in Washington. After a year spent searching for the federal documents that would be generated by that activity, I found correspondence between those two offices resting in a field office of the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas. No amount of phone calls or emails had produced a catalog of the collection, which fills many boxes, until I walked into the archives on October 30, 2006. That catalog, which resided in the computer of one archivist at the time, nowhere else, saved me days of work.

David Kokernot did sail with the Revenue Cutter Service--once. The history of his service can be pieced together by careful examination of those correspondence files. Pictured here is just one letter between Washington and New Orleans that mentions charges against Kokernot and the officers of the Revenue Cutter Ingham. You'll have to go to Ft. Worth or buy my book to learn the rest of the story. Sorry, the book is not available yet, but here is a record of my progress on it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Historical Research in Amsterdam

Here is an example of research, not frivolous, that can be done entirely online. It yields information, including photographs, providing color and context to light up descriptions of the Kokernot's family life in Amsterdam. It requires finding an address (in this case, of David Kokernot's mother's family), or at least a street; finding that location on an old map; and finding actual drawings from the time and photographs of the neighborhood with the original houses still standing.

An online source is the "name adoption registers." The Dutch were among the last western Europen countries to insist on hereditary surnames. Many used them already, but others, especially Jews, used a patronymic instead--their given name plus their father's given name. In 1812 all citizens were required to register their surnames. That document provides a snapshot of the family--parents, grandparents, children, even married daughters acquiring a maiden name--and included their address. An online database for Jewish Amsterdammers is here. Click "Search" at the top of the page and enter "Beugel" in the "New Adopted Name" box (David's mother's family adopted the name "van der Beugel"). A couple dozen names pop up, almost all kin to David's mother, who is "Beletje" on the last page, archive number 57C. Clicking on her shows her address as "lange Houtstraat," a street only two blocks long. The document for Betsy's (as we call Beletje) brother, Salomon, gives an actual address in archive number 81vB on the first page. He's at lange Houtstraat 8, which may be the same house or a different one, but in any case they are no more than two blocks apart.

Where was 8 lange Houtstraat? Modern maps are no help because the street no longer exists. A street map of Amsterdam from 1795 is available online at the city archives. Put 010094000928 into the search box and press "Zoek." Click on the only resulting map and zoom in to the small island at the coordinates between C and D and e and f. This is the Jewish Quarter. Lange Houtstraat bisects the small island and Korte Houtstraat (shown, but not named) bisects it again at right angles. A description of the Jewish Quarter around 1600 is here. Scroll down to "The First Meeting House."

What did the neighborhood and house look like? Again the Amsterdam Archives help. Enter 5221BT909307 into the search box for an architectural drawing of 8 Lange Houtstraat in 1885 and 010003012159 for a photograph of the street in 1930. Number 8 is the narrow building, two windows wide, on the near side of the large building on the corner. Zoom in if you are uncertain the building is over a century old and was the home of the van der Beugels in 1812.

This neighborhood was thoroughly cleared out during World War II and the city began tearing down the buildings in the 1950s. Amsterdam consumed two more decades deciding exactly what to place on the site. The canals on two sides of the island had been filled during the nineteenth century and have since been used as a popular flea market, the Waterlooplein. The streets Lange Houtstraat and Korte Houtstraat today underlay the city's new Opera House, visible on Google Earth at lat/lon 52.3674, 4.9015.

Countless hours can be squandered in the Amsterdam Archive's site searching for old photographs and sketches. High quality scans are available and they can be published with payment of a permissions fee.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why this blog?

Technorati reported last summer that there were then 112 million blogs on the web. Surely we need one more, huh? Enough friends and strangers have asked when my biography of David Levi Kokernot will be available (bless 'em) that I hope this blog will help maintain their interest long enough to buy one when it's available. I'm also counting on my public exposure of my progress to temper my procrastination a little, thus improving that progress. It's here.

Still, I'm proud of my procrastination creativity, so I plan detail a few from time to time.

One of my favorite procrastinations is research. Not the serious, go-to-the-archives kind, but frivilous research. I easily spent twenty minutes trying to find a better number for the worlds' blogs to use in the opening sentence of this blog. That's frivilous. But I have learned a heck of a lot about historical research in my work on this biography, and I want to share some techniques and locations. I have more to learn, too. Please share yours with me, frivilous or otherwise.