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David Levi Kokernot

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

Once upon a time one of the most fascinating characters in Texas history inhabited the Baytown area.

Who? Sam Houston, Lorenzo de Zavala, David G. Burnet or Ashbel Smith?

Although they qualified as fascinating characters and at one time or another they all had homes in the Baytown area -- Houston at Cedar Point, Zavala at Channelview, Burnet at Lynchburg, Smith in Baytown -- the man in question is someone else.

Here's a hint: His last name sounds like cocoanut.

Full name: David Levi Kokernot.

Hardly in the mold of those previously mentioned, DLK wasn’t your typical, larger-than-life Texas legend. He was no military hero, intellectual or innovator. Yes, he knew Sam Houston – going back to 1832 when they shared bottles of wine in Nacogdoches -- but he was no Sam Houston.

Indeed, one might call up an old expression, “They threw away the mold,” when describing Kokernot, this trouble-making, street-smart rogue from Amsterdam. Never before or since he made his home on the shores of Scott’s Bay – and later on Cedar Bayou -- has Texas experienced such a colorful and controversial character.

Kokernot ended up in Gonzales County, by way of Columbus, but not until he had left his mark (black mark, some would say) in this bay area.

Alan Barber, a DLK descendant who’s kin to the Barbers of Barbers Hill, wrote a book about him. “David Kokernot, Rogue Soldier of the Texas Revolution,” newly published by Kullyspel Press in Idaho, is a treasure of regional and state history, and as a bonus, reaches out to the Kokernot roots in New Orleans and The Netherlands.

Kevin Ladd, director of the Wallisville Heritage Park in Chambers County and himself a noted author/historian, offered this opinion: “Barber, a remarkable researcher, has accomplished a great miracle with this book. The end result vividly captures the man and the times in which he lived.”

Barber delves into the activity that Kokernot relished – chasing Tories. After the battle at San Jacinto, supposedly at the behest of Gen. Houston, Kokernot tracked down the so-called slackers, those who failed to back the cause of independence from Mexico. As British loyalists were labeled Tories in the American Revolution, they were the Tories of the Texas Revolution. Mostly, however, they were solid citizens, ranchers and farmers who just wanted to be left alone to mind their own business. To paraphrase a line from the film "Treasure of Sierra Madre," they “didn’t need no stinkin’ war.”

Soon after San Jacinto, Kokernot was confiscating their cows and horses and in general making lives miserable for them and their families. For his efforts, bordering on obsessive/compulsive behavior, DLK became Public Enemy No. 1, especially in Chambers County.

(Keep in mind that when Barber alludes to Liberty County, usually it’s Chambers County. Until 1858 Chambers was part of Liberty County.)

So, David Kokernot was the bad guy, the zealot hell-bent on making Tories pay for what they had done – or rather what they had not done – in the struggle for freedom from Mexico.

Republic of Texas President David G. Burnet had to make him back off and return the livestock to the rightful owners, but the damage was done. Then and thereafter the name of Kokernot would be mud, even in his own neighborhood.

Getting away from all that, DLK returned to his first love, the sea, boarding a schooner called the Terrible that kept the Gulf of Mexico safe from Mexico during the summer after San Jacinto.

Now there was a job Kokernot could handle, having been a capable sailor before docking permanently in Texas.

Start from the beginning:

David was born in 1805 in Amsterdam, the second son of Levi and Elizabeth “Betsy” Kokernot. His Jewish family, with roots in Germany, had been in Holland a hundred years.

David Levi Kokernot
Elizabeth Kokernot Barber
David Levi Kokernot Elizabeth Kokernot Barber

By the early 19th century, the Kokernots, along with a multitude of fellow Europeans, were ready for a change in a far country -- America.

Young David accompanied his father to New Orleans in 1818 and they were followed within a year by David’s mother Betsy and older brother Louis.

The Kokernots established a mercantile business in the French Quarter, importing goods from Europe.

David, however, never planned to be a shopkeeper the rest of his life and as soon as possible he sailed away, satisfying his longing for the sea. After a variety of voyages and adventures, including a shipwreck, Kokernot arrived one day at Anahuac and never looked back.

An instant Texan, he established his first Texas home in the early 1830s on Scott’s Bay in present-day Baytown. (Specifically, present-day Baytown Nature Center). He bought the property from William Scott, the Stephen F. Austin colonist whose home stood about where the ExxonMobil docks are located today. With fellow seafarers Scott and James Spillman, Kokernot managed to block supplies being shipped to the Mexican garrison at Anahuac in the early stages of the Texas Revolution.

Spillman, who lived on the island where the Baytown-La Porte Tunnel would be built more than a century later, had been Kokernot’s friend in New Orleans.

It didn’t take long for Kokernot to catch “war fever” in his new environs, and a chance encounter with Sam Houston drove his patriotism even deeper.

Perhaps that is why, soon after the battle of San Jacinto, DLK went “over the top” in his zeal to persecute alleged Tories. Another reason, too, could have been the alcohol. It was no secret that Kokernot had a drinking problem and in the process of searching out Tories, he helped himself – when barging into homes – to barrels of whiskey owned by the non-combatants.

His second home in Texas, after trading places with William Bloodgood, was on the banks of Cedar Bayou in the vicinity between Baytown and Barbers Hill.

Eventually he pulled up stakes and moved away, first to Columbus, then to Gonzales County where the Kokernots’ son Levi Moses became a prosperous rancher. While in Columbus, DLK got sober for good and became a devout, Bible-thumping Methodist.

Their son-in-law and daughter John and Elizabeth Barber also relocated to Gonzales County and finally to the Rockport area. John’s sister Melissa married George Maley, a half-brother of Kokernot’s wife Caroline. There were two Maley brothers, George and William, sons of Juliane Maley and her second husband.

John and Melissa Barber were the son and daughter of Chambers County pioneer Sam Barber.

All of the family connections cited in Barber’s book are too numerous to list here but, suffice to say, the names read like a Who's Who of Chambers County and East Harris County history.

The author, who lives in Sandpoint, Idaho, is the great-great-great-great-grandson of David Levi Kokernot. His book may be ordered via Amazon.com.

© Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist
"Wandering" August 15, 2012 columns

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