of Ann Eliza's GraveBy
W. T. Block
serpentine Sabine River usually flows quite placidly from its source near Greenville
to its delta island among the salt grass marshes surrounding Sabine Lake. A few
big alligators still haunt its confines, and here and there a cypress tree still
stands in snow-capped elegance beneath a colony of downy egrets. |
back as the Texas Revolution, the river's flatboatmen floated their cotton cargoes
to the river's mouth at Pavell's Island. Because such boats lacked a tiller for
steering in Sabine Lake, the flatboats' sailors experienced long delays while
waiting for the New Orleans cotton schooners, which bought their cargoes.
However, in 1853 two German immigrants, Capt. Augustine and Sophie Pavell, recognized
that the island that still bears their name was an excellent site for a cotton
brokerage. They could buy the loads of cotton that arrived there, and in turn
sell to the flatboatmen the merchandise that they needed to take home.
and Sophie Pavell had been married for ten years when they first sailed their
schooner Sophia to New Orleans. Long a seafaring man, Gus' intellect and instinct
were attuned to every sail and spar, but he treated his blonde Sophie with the
gentleness of a tradewind.
A buxom female, Sophie responded in kind,
catering to her husband's every whim and fancy, but she adjudged herself as failing
in one wifely aspect. She had not presented Gus with a male heir, and as she approached
her thirty-fifth birthday, her hopes to do so grew ever more dismal.
they built a large cotton warehouse on Pavell's Island, as well as an adjoining
grocery store. Gus also built an adjoining wharf, where steamboats could dock,
and he added a glassed-in alcove for Sophie's flowers and pot plants.
Gus taught Sophie all the business savvy he had acquired. Thus she soon mastered
cotton-grading and weighing, fur trading, and other commercial techniques, for
every item on the frontier had to be bought, bartered, or sold. Often there was
the clink and glitter of gold coins on the counter, but payments were often made
in fur pelts, land certificates, or titles to slaves.
Gus spent many
months away from the store on his schooner. He carried cotton bales, furs, and
cattle hides to Galveston or New Orleans, and returned with barrels of lard, flour,
and whiskey; hogsheads of sugar, tobacco, or molasses, and bolts of calico, muslin
or woolen cloth. The shelves held all varieties of hardware, glassware, gunpowder,
lead, and others items too numerous to mention.
Almost everyone Sophie
met was a stranger, for the nearest neighbor, Solomon Sparks, lived a mile upstream.
She knew that a lone woman was considered easy prey for some criminal. Sophie
always wore a fiber bag tied at her waist, which usually bared a portion of her
yarn and knitting needles, but never the Colt pistol upon which they rested.
of the river men stopped at her store to deposit or pick up mail, and a sign above
the trading post soon read: "A. Pavell, Cotton Factor and Post Office, Shellbank,
La." Prosperity reigned throughout the 1850's, allowing the Pavells to accrue
a large stock of inventory, land certificates and gold coins.
day, when Pavell returned from Orange with a schooner load of cattle hides and
lumber, Sophie met him at the wharf and cried out excitedly: "Guschen, I think
I am going to have a baby!" Half in disbelief, Gus exclaimed to her, "A baby?
Can that really be so?"
Time passed, the gold coins clinked daily, and
Sophie whiled away the loneliness while playing her zither, knitting tiny garments,
and puttering with her pot plants. As the cotton bales collected in the warehouse
and their stock of merchandise dwindled, Gus reminded her that he would soon need
to sail to Galveston for supplies.
As he loaded the schooner Sophia with
cotton bales and hides, Gus begged his wife to close the store and go to the hotel
in Sabine Pass. But
Sophie refused, reminding her husband that her customers depended on her for supplies,
and besides the baby was not due for two more months.
Gus kissed her
goodbye, and sailed away toward the Island City. It was indeed a vexatious voyage
for him, with winds too calm to fill his sails, no docking space in Galveston,
and a week transpired before the Sophia returned once more at the Shellbank store.
greeted her husband with tears. Between sobs, she led Gus to a tiny grave, where
she said she had buried her stillborn daughter. She added that one day when she
saw a coiled snake on her kitchen floor, she fell against the stove and was soon
smitten with birth pangs.
Despite her screams, Sophie had to give birth
alone. She soon fashioned a coffin from some cypress boards, and after hacking
out a shallow grave in the clamshell mound, she buried her infant. Gus soon bought
and erected a small tombstone, which read: "In Loving Memory of Ann Eliza Pavell,
Born-Died Sept. 10, 1858."
Thereafter Sophie lavished much affection on
the tiny grave, banking its sides with marsh mud, and in the center she buried
a bronze urn in which she placed a fresh bouquet of flowers almost every morning.
It soon became a byword among the Sabine River boatmen that no other grave ever
received more attention than that of Ann Eliza Pavell.
Time soon healed
Sophie's wound, as the gold coins continued to clink on the counter every day.
And the years passed by until one day the guns of the Confederate Army began to
explode all over Virginia. With business ground to a standstill, Gus soon learned
a new occupation, that of running schooner loads of cotton past the offshore blockade
ships. Pavell was successful at that trade too, eluding the blockaders until he
quit in 1864. And he stacked up a lot more gold coins in the process.
Move to Galveston
day in June, 1865, Sophie suggested to her husband that they close their store
at the lonely outpost and move to Galveston.
Gus agreed, and they soon carried their stock of merchandise to the Island City,
where they reopened another store. But before leaving Pavell's Island, Sophie
insisted on digging up the remains of her infant and taking the coffin with them.
For two years the Pavells continued to prosper, but in 1867, Gus died during the
yellow fever epidemic.
After the bad hurricane of Sept. 13, 1865, Solomon
Sparks visited Pavell's Island, with intent to purchase it and move his shingle
mill there. As he looked at the excavated gravesite, he spotted the cherubim-decorated
object that he thought was a flower urn, but in reality was a 2-foot section of
bronze pipe, sawed from a bed post. It bore the tarnished markings for all those
years it had stood upright in the grave.
At the bottom of the grave,
he found a residue of rust of powder consistency, undoubtedly from the coffin
nails. His great surprise came when there, beneath a clam shell, Sparks found
a $20.00 gold piece, that Sophie, in her haste to leave, had overlooked.
Back at his home, Sparks pondered his strange findings, wondering too if Sophie
had really exhumed a small skeleton from the grave for reburial in Galveston.
And if so, why had Sophie left the tiny tombstone of her infant, Ann Eliza, which
logic concluded would be needed at the new gravesite?
Sparks wondered too:
"Did Sophie really have a baby, or had she only perpetrated the grossest of hoaxes
on her husband and neighbors?" Or were the fresh bouquets intended to disguise
the coin entrance of Sophie's private "bank" in the clamshell mound?
Perhaps the world will never know the truth for certain, but the evidence at hand
accounted for one of the strangest and most widely-circulated legends ever told
along the lower Sabine River.
W. T. Block, Jr. |
8, 2006 column
from Beaumont Enterprise, August 24, 1978, p. 2b., and "Legend of Shellbank,"
The Cameron Pilot, December 10, 1998, p. 4.