Saturday, October 2, 2010

Kokernot DNA analysis

I wrote two different introductions to a discussion of a DNA analysis of David Kokernot descendants. Here is the one I discarded:

Two Kokernot males, a continent apart. Each scraped the inside of his mouth with a piece of cardboard and placed it into a glass tube labeled with his personal serial number. Each performed the ritual a second time, for a backup, and placed the tubes into a package already stamped and addressed to a DNA testing laboratory in Houston. The laboratory responded two months later with a string of thirty-seven numbers for each—holding, perhaps, the solution to a mystery.

Part of David Kokernot’s story reveals itself to anyone carefully searching in documents and accounts of his time. His life was, of course, shaped partly by his childhood circumstances and by the customs and values passed to him by his ancestors. Those customs and values become more difficult to discover the further back in time the biographer searches. Written records reveal the exact location of David’s childhood home in Amsterdam, provide the names of his parents and grandparents, and even hint at their occupations, but beyond that the view is murky. We know the family were Ashkenazi Jews and, therefore, relative newcomers to Amsterdam. But were they Europeans converted to Judaism, or part of the great Diaspora from the Middle East? Had they arrived in Amsterdam from England, or perhaps France or Eastern Europe? Written records say nothing, and there lies the mystery.

DNA analysis, like a time machine, may hold the answer. Spencer Wells calls DNA the “personal history book [carried] around inside us.” If so, its language is not plain English and those thirty-seven numbers represent only a short paragraph or two of a long book indeed. Nevertheless, scientists are decoding the book. DNA analysis of David Kokernot's descendants illuminates two periods in the murky past, the first about four to five hundred years ago, and the second about ten to twenty thousand years ago. Ten or twenty millennia ago certainly represents a beginning, so that is where this story begins.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mischevous Editor

"No one will ever love your words as much as you do," said someone I've forgotten. The meaning, of course, is that a person other than the author will make the best critical evaluation of that author's writing. That evaluation is the job of an editor. Well, an excellent editor has made just such an evaluation of my well loved writing. Her eleven page critique suggests substantial deletions in some areas, and reordering and expansion in others. The task looks daunting, but I cannot disagree with her inputs. So I'm doing it.

I hate to see the information in the deletions simply evaporate, so I will post the deleted content to this blog, probably with added content to provide context. The first will be the story of the Van Ostern family, like the Kokernots Jews from Amsterdam who emigrated to New Orleans. David Kokernot's brother, Louis, married the oldest Van Ostern daughter, Nancy, and both families initially prospered in the dry goods business. Find the details here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Wreck of the Ceaser

" find a good schooner of light draught and about 150 tons burden and to charter the same" were David Kokernot's orders from the Revenue Cutter Service. So he "chartered the schooner Julius Caesar" and set out for pass Barataria, which was "alive with smugglers." Kokernot's tale that follows is an exciting one, with a hurricane, shipwreck on a deserted shore, death, rescue by children, and eventual return to New Orleans just in time for the birth of his first child. Almost none of it is true.

What is true is that David Kokernot cruised to Texas and was shipwrecked and returned in time for Elizabeth Kokernot's birth. Contemporary documents--newspapers, Customs and Cutter Service records--tell the true story, and it's almost as good as the one Kokernot tells. It's also good for a chapter in length, so here I'll just tell the story of the vessel itself.

The vessel was named the Ceaser, and it was purchased and registered with the Customs Service on July 8, 1831, just three days before its departure. The registration documents give the vessel's length as sixty-five feet; beam, thirteen feet; and the depth of its hold, three feet, one inch. This is extraordinarily broad and shallow for an ocean going schooner and suggests the Ceaser was built for inland trading instead. It would be ideal for shallow waters, such as Lake Pontchartrain and the bayous of Louisiana. In fact the previous owner, Felix Boyer, had not registered it when it was new in 1818 but rather had enrolled it with the Customs Service. Enrollment was cheaper than registration, but did not permit international trade, such as with Texas, Havana, Haiti, or, before 1821, Florida. Not a problem for Boyer, who probably never ventured onto the Gulf of Mexico.

Ceaser was far smaller than the 150 tons that Kokernot described. Tonnage is an estimate of the cargo capacity of a vessel and is calculated from the vessel length, width, and depth of the hold, yielding 25 38/95 tons for Ceaser.

The Ceaser did not head for Barataria, as Kokernot claimed he was ordered, but instead sailed toward Texas and quickly encountered severe weather. In Kokernot's telling he sent all crew and passengers, except himself and two others, "below." This is unlikely, since the hold was only three feet deep and, he claimed, had two feet of water in it. I have seen drawings of small schooners with a cabin, three feet tall or so, on deck. Ceaser may have had such a cabin covering access to the hold. It could provide shelter from weather and permit standing upright with feet on the floor of the hold.

At thirteen years Ceaser was old for a wooden vessel operating in the tropics and was probably not structurally sound. Rough weather would inflict a lot of pounding, so it isn't surprising she quickly developed leaks when sailing on the fringes of a hurricane.

Carlyn Iverson created the adjacent rendering of the Ceaser about to wreck, based on what we know about the vessel, on sketches of later scow schooners, and on some informed guesses. Her hull is broad and flat, and her prow blunt, allowing her to navigate shallow lakes and bayous and nudge straight into shore for unloading. Rather than a fixed keel board she probably had a retractable centerboard for the same reason. The hold was small, so the deck was used for living space as well as additional freight stowage. Under storm conditions both the mainsail and jibs were completely furled and the foresail half furled. The crew was trying to find deep enough water to thread their way into the Sabine River for shelter but instead grounded on the sandy bottom. The old and worn Ceaser quickly broke apart, but the crew salvaged all the cargo and made their way to the remote sandy shore just ahead.

Kokernot's description of the Ceaser was flawed. How about his description of the rest of the voyage? Why did they go to Texas instead of Barataria? Was the Ceaser chartered by the Revenue Cutter Service? Who owned it? Who commanded it? What was Kokernot's part in the tale? What was in the hold? Who was the fifteen year old Yiddish speaking lad on board who had only arrived from Amsterdam the previous month? All these excellent questions will be answered in Chapter Four of my equally excellent biography of David Kokernot.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Dwight" Kokernot?

It is a pleasure to see David Kokernot receive acknowledgement as the rogue he often was. Wanda Orton has a piece in the Baytown Sun describing the "tory chase" and likening Kokernot to "Dwight," of The Office. I don't know that show, but the comparison seems right on.

A short piece must by necessity leave many details out. The livestock Kokernot seized from citizens during the revolution were only part of it. Both armies "impressed" livestock, shoes, corn, you-name-it, as they swept across Texas. They lived off the land. Cattle was especially needed, because Houston's army had come to a stop and they were holding some 900 Mexican prisoners. All had to be fed, but the livestock owners were more inclined to drive their herds immediately to Louisiana to prevent that. Kokernot was ordered to stop them.

Horses were another matter. Many, maybe most, were simply seized for personal gain "under color of authority." Kokernot was hardly alone in this. A week after Kokernot was safely confined aboard the Terrible, Burnet issued another order:

"WHEREAS, it has been reported to me that many abuses have been practiced by persons having or pretending to have authority to impress into public service horses and other property belonging to private individuals..." He ordered that thenceforth only the Commander-in-Chief and the cabinet had that authority.

Not every horse and mule was returned to its rightful owner. One citizen pursued Kokernot, the republic, and the state for ten years seeking compensation for his lost horse, which Kokernot admitted taking. But that's another story...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I'm a Big Texas Oil Man

The return address caused a warm smile to cross my face: "Superior Crude Gathering." The smile broadened to a grin as I slipped the check from the envelope. Like many Texans, I look forward to this annual largess in the form a royalty payment for oil extracted from Barber lands. I hurriedly filled out a deposit slip to speed my share,$19.07, to my checking account.

In my case, it's not the sum, but the rich history of the payment that appeals. This land was acquired by Barbers five generations ago with the royalty interests divided so many times since that my own share amounts to only a .000044644 fraction of the barrels sucked from the ground. The accountants send me a check only when they've accumulated enough value to justify the time and postage.

In 1868 John and his wife, Elizabeth Kokernot Barber, moved their family from St. Marys to the Aransas coast onto unclaimed land open for homesteading. Unfortunately, John died the following year, before the three year homesteading process could be completed. His widow neglected the process and simply farmed the land with the help of her many sons. Three decades earlier one John H. Phillips had fought in the Texas Revolution and the Republic rewarded him with a bounty certificate, allowing him to survey and patent any 1920 acres of unclaimed land for himself. Phillips died before he could use it but his descendants sold the certificate to someone who did use it, in 1871, to patent 1920 acres surrounding and including Elizabeth's farm.

Elizabeth probably didn't even know her land was not hers until fifteen years later when the new owners, in Missouri, sued to eject her. It was five more years before the suit reached trial and a jury was seated. The next day the plaintiff abruptly withdrew and conceded Elizabeth's 160 acres to her. The case file is not complete enough to explain why he withdrew, but the reason is easily guessed: The plaintiff's lawyer looked at the sixty year old widow seated at the defendant's table, then at the jury box filled with neighbors of the widow, and rightly concluded that he would lose, regardless of the strength of his arguments.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Goofy patents

Count me among those who believe that many patents issued today are frivolous. They describe something that is either self-evident, impractical, or physics defying. I'll bet you've seen a cartoon showing hopeful men in the waiting room of the patent office, each with some contraption in his lap, one man making a rueful comment to another. It's not done that way. Never has been. All you need for a patent is the written description of a device. Well, that plus patience and money to work your way through the system. I used to think this was a modern development, but then I stumbled across a Kokernot patent more than a century old.

Alexander Kokernot was David Kokernot's nephew in New Orleans. He envisioned churning butter or ice cream while leisurely reading the evening paper by attaching the churn handle to the back of his rocking chair. Even if you've never churned ice cream you may imagine the heavy force required, especially as the churning approaches completion. The drawing accompanying the patent looks like something created by Rube Goldberg, except Goldberg's inventions were at least operable, if overly complex and pointless. Kokernot churned out (eeeyuw!) more patents over the years, but none so amusing as this one. He died in poverty, so it's likely none were commercial successes.

Patents, at least old ones, are difficult to research. The Patent and Trademark Office has online images from the first (for manufacturing potash, signed by George Washington) to the most recent. Unfortunately, their search engine for patents earlier than 1975 only searches on patent number and date of issue. If you don't know either of those, your only hope is to stumble across that information. I found the Kokernot patent because, for some unknown reason, somebody at Miami University in Ohio indexed the patents issued to Louisianians from 1810 to 1890.

To examine an elegant patent, decidedly not frivolous, take a look at one of mine.