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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"

The Legend of
Ann Eliza's Grave

By W. T. Block, Jr.
The 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.

As far 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.

Gus 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.

Cotton Warehouse

Together 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.

All 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.

Baby Expected

One 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.

Sophie 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

One 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.
"Cannonball's Tales"
May 8, 2006 column
Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, August 24, 1978, p. 2b., and "Legend of Shellbank," The Cameron Pilot, December 10, 1998, p. 4.

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