The Legend of Ann Eliza's Grave
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, August 24, 1978, p. 2b., and
"Legend of Shellbank," The Cameron Pilot, December 10, 1998, p. 4.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.