Kokernot Field in Alpine is to Texas what Shea Stadium is to Massachusetts: a mecca for diehard baseball aficionados. Herbert Kokernot Jr., who operated the large 06 Ranch in the nearby Davis Mountains, built the stadium in the 1940s for the Alpine Cowboys. Less well known is that Herbert Kokernot traced his roots to an important figure of the Texas Revolution, David L. Kokernot (1805-1892). Thanks to a recent biography by Alan Barber, a distant descendant, we now have a marvelous account of this most unusual (and controversial) figure.
David Kokernot was born in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1805, the son of Ashkenazi Jews. His family made the move to the New World in 1817, settling in New Orleans, where they set up a mercantile business. The family prospered, but young David, who combined physical vigor and restless ambition, found the settled life of a shopkeeper much too humdrum. These traits led to a life full of adventure (and misadventure). The sea appealed to him initially. He made several trips to Europe, partially on family business and partially to slake his thirst for adventure. One of the charms of this book is the author's attention to seafaring of the period: harbor life on both sides of the Atlantic; the way ships were manned and rigged; their cargos; how the captains navigated the various perils of the Gulf Coast—all depicted with detailed accuracy.
Eventually David Kokernot married the daughter of impoverished German immigrants in New Orleans and decided to cast his fortune with the American colonists in Texas. In 1832 he bought property on the San Jacinto River not far from what became the San Jacinto Battlefield and set up a kind of floating shop furnished with goods acquired under dubious circumstances in New Orleans. During this period he made the acquaintance of Sam Houston. Kokernot was sympathetic to the rising tide of discontent over Mexican rule and participated in the Anahuac disturbances, the capture of San Antonio in 1835, and the Runaway Scrape, but he missed out on the battle of San Jacinto.
Kokernot's fame (and infamy) rests more on his actions after the battle. Many large property owners east of San Jacinto had ignored Houston's call for assistance; a few even openly sided with the enemy. Houston was incensed with the Texas "Tories," and he ordered Kokernot to seize their cattle and horses and arrest the prominent ringleaders. Kokernot, apparently, was overly enthusiastic in carrying out his charge, which led to enduring ill-will from many of his erstwhile neighbors and a decade of lawsuits, one of which became a cause célèbre. Sam Houston himself, now a U.S. senator, stepped forward to defend his old friend from a charge of [End Page 209] grand larceny (for wrongfully confiscating a prize horse of a prominent planter) and secured an acquittal.
The final chapters document the move west to Gonzales and Refugio Counties by way of Columbus. Along the way Kokernot, by now the patriarch of a large and extended family, converted to Methodism and swore off whiskey, which had bedeviled him in the past. The story is one of a slow but steady rise toward prominence and prosperity in the ranching business of South Texas for himself and his family, punctuated by the difficulties of the Civil War.
Alan Barber's biography of David Kokernot is meticulously researched, thoroughly documented, and well written. In the end, though, it is more than the story of David Kokernot and his family. The story conveys as well as any book I know a sense of time and place—the formative years of Texas and the struggles and triumphs of its pioneering families.