THE LEGEND OF PAVELL'S ISLAND
By W. T. Block
SOLD TO AND COPYRIGHTED BY TRUE WEST, DECEMBER, 1978, PAGES 26FF
In the course of a century, the geography of the Sabine River has
changed but slightly. Meandering a thousand river miles from its head, north of
Greenville, Texas, the placid stream slices through the iron ore beds, redlands, and pine
forests of East Texas to the salt grass marshes surrounding Sabine Lake.
The passage of time has not altered the plant and wildlife extensively.
A few alligators still haunt its confines, and here and there a gnarled cypress stands in
snow-capped elegance beneath a colony of downy egrets. Near its mouth, the deep river
abruptly divides itself into its east and west forks, creating a delta sanctuary for
muskrats and water fowl, and known to the present day as Pavell's Island.
The influx of civilization accounts for most of the changes of the past
decades. The forests of stately cypresses are gone. And channel clearance and wave action
continue to erode the shoreline. The jaws of giant dredges have long since leveled the
high shellbanks, landmarks that were once the refuse heaps of the Attakapas Indians' diet
and a sepulchre for their dead. And now and then, one sees a bank crevice that bears mute
evidence that occasionally the normally placid stream has been known to give way to
turbulence and flooding.
As far back as the Texas Revolution, Sabine River flatboatmen floated
their cotton cargoes to their journey's end at Pavell's Island. Lacking conventional
steering equipment for navigating in Lake Sabine, the flatboatmen often experienced long
delays while waiting for some cotton schooner to arrive to buy their cargoes.
It was this dilemma at the terminus of the cotton trade which
eventually attracted the attentions of two German immigrants, Capt. Augustine and Sophie
Pavell, to the lonely island which still bears their name, and to the position of
middleman of the Sabine River trade.
Natives respectively of Prussia and Hanover, Gus Pavell and his wife
had been married for ten years when they arrived in New Orleans in 1853. Gus was a
seafaring man, his mind and instinct attuned to every sail and spar, but he still treated
his blonde Sophie with the gentleness of a trade wind. She 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 provided him with a male heir, and as she approached her thirty-fifth
birthday, her hopes to do so were indeed growing dismal and forlorn.
When the Pavell's arrived in Orange County in 1854, Gus had already won
for himself a reputation as a shrewd and hard-nose trader. He quickly foresaw the dilemma
of the flatboatmen, who needed to return upriver before the water level of the river fell
and the spring planting season began.
The delta island would prove to be a lonely outpost for a social
creature such as Sophie, but its high shellbank certainly offered the economic springboard
to their success as merchants. And its elevation eliminated any threat of overflow by the
seasonal flood tides.
Pavell bought lumber and shingles and set about to build a store
building with a cotton warehouse and living quarters attached. At the water's edge, he
shored the shellbank with logs and built a wharf to accommodate the river traffic. He also
added a glassed-in alcove to the building, for Sophie loved to putter with her flowers and
When the long and tedious project was completed, the Pavell's sailed
their two-masted schooner, the "Sophia," to New Orleans to buy merchandise.
There were barrels of lard, flour, crackers, and whiskey to be bought, hogsheads of sugar,
tobacco, and molasses, bolts of calico and muslin, plus hardware, glassware, gunpowder,
lead, and many other items too numerous to be recited in detail. A month later, all the
stock was shelved and in place for the opening day, and Gus nailed a sign above the roof
which read "A. Pavell and Co., Cotton Factor."
Gus passed on to Sophie all the business savvy he had acquired, for she
would have to tend the store alone when he was away on business trips. She mastered
cotton-grading and weighing, fur trading, and other commercial techniques, for every item
used on the frontiier had to be bought, sold or traded for. Oftentimes there issued forth
the cling and glitter of gold coins on the counter, but payments were sometimes tendered
in land certificates or the titles to slaves. Frontier merchandising was indeed strange
and foreign to Sophie at first, but in time, her trading acumen was adequately honed.
Almost every one she encountered was a stranger, for the nearest
neighbor, Sol Sparks, lived a mile upstream. A lone woman at such a distant outpost might
be considered as easy prey for some fugitive from justice, and Gus trained her well in the
use of firearms. A buxom female, Sophie often wore a fiber bag, tied at her waist, which
usually bared a portion of her wool yarn and knitting needles, but never the cap and ball
Colt pistol upon which they rested.
All of the river boats stopped at Pavell's store to deposit or pick up
mail, and in time, the trading post became a post office as well. The decade of the 1850's
was a prosperous one; profits were high, and the couple were soon riding at its economic
crest. By 1860, they owned land and inventory of merchandise valued at $10,000.
One day, as her husband returned from Orange with a load of cattle
hides, Sophie met him at the wharf, her face beaming and all aglow, and she shouted,
"Guschen, mein schatz! I think I am going to have a baby!"
Half in disbelief, the captain stared at her as he sought the words to
reply with. He knew his wife would not lie about a subject so dear to her heart, and
finally, in a similar mishmash of German and English, exclaimed, "A baby? Is that
really so?" And she assured him that it was.
Basking there in the sunlight of her husband's approval, Gus then
embraced her tenderly, planting caress upon caress on her rosy cheeks. Sophie added that
time might prove her statements false, but Gus took no note of that, quickly accepting as
fact her presumed condition of impending motherhood. He wanted to take her to a doctor in
Orange. But Sophie refused, reminding her spouse that she was a vigorous woman who had
already mastered a thousand arts and crafts, and in time she could adapt to motherhood as
Time passed, the gold coins clinked on the counter, and Sophie,
pregnant with new life and hope, whiled away her days with laughter, planting flowers, and
knitting tiny garments. As the cotton-shipping season approached, Gus informed her that he
would have to sail to Galveston soon to replenish their dwindling stock of merchandise.
He wanted to close the store and take his wife to the hotel in Sabine
Pass, but she refused to go. Their customers, she reminded him, depended on them for the
necessities of frontier living. And besides, the baby was not due for another two or three
months, and she still had so much unfinished sewing and pot plants to putter with.
Reluctantly, Gus loaded the Sophia with cotton, hides, peltries, and
other commodities, and after kissing his wife goodbye, he steered his schooner toward the
Island City. It was a vexatious voyage for him, one fraught with delays, no docking space
at Galveston, frustrations, and seas too calm for sailing, and a week had transpired
before Gus docked again at the island shellbank.
Sophie ran to him with tears streaming from her eyes. Between sobs, she
led him to a tiny grave outside of the glassed alcove. Then she related the pathetic
events of the previous week when, frightened into hysteria by the sight of a chicken snake
coiled up in her kitchen, she fell against a table, and was soon smitten with birth pangs.
She added that, despite her cries for help, she soon gave birth alone
to a tiny stillborn daughter. Later she fashioned a coffin from some cypress boards, and
when her spouse failed to return promptly, she buried her infant in a grave hacked out
amid the clam shell. She tried to console her husband with the fact that, if she could
conceive once, she could do so again, and surely some day, Providence would reward them
with the birth of a son. Pavell sent away to Galveston for a small tombstone inscribed as
follows: "In Memory Of Our Beloved Daughter, Ann Eliza Pavell, Born And Died Sept.
From the beginning, Sophie lavished much affection on the tiny grave,
banking its sides with marsh mud and bordering it with plants. She buried a bronze urn,
its rim neatly decorated with tiny cherubims, upright in the center, and often the
steamboatmen passing in the river would view with compassion the sight of Sophie as she
kneeled and placed a fresh bouquet of flowers therein in memory of her child. In time, it
became a byword everywhere along the lake and lower Sabine River that no grave of record
ever received more attention than that of Ann Eliza Pavell.
In the aftermath of her grief, the sparse neighbors, including the
Sparks family upstream, and George Block and his wife, a German couple who farmed on
nearby Black Bayou, dropped by to tender their condolences. Time soon healed Sophie's
wound, and it quickly became business as usual at Pavell's Island. The gold coins clinked
on the counter, and cotton and hides changed hands, as commodities floated forth to
market, and the wares needed to sustain the frontier economy moved upstream. Gus and
Sophie continued to prosper, but never once did she conceive again, for the Pavell's were
destined to die childless.
In 1861, the Civil War brought the Sabine River trade to an abrupt
halt. A Union blockade soon choked off all imports, skyrocketing the prices of cotton and
manufactured items. Being past forty years of age, Gus felt no compunction to enlist, but
his younger brother, Ferdinand Pavell of Johnson's Bayou, La., soon joined an artillery
unit, Company B of Spaight's 11th Texas Battalion, in garrison at Sabine Pass.
Fate, however, seemed to foster upon Gus the role of blockade runner.
With his schooner serenely at anchor nearby, and his superb knowledge of the Sabine
estuary navigation pitfalls, such a course of events was inevitable. And Gus was fortunate
to escape capture by the blockaders throughout the war. During the dark of the moon, he
would load the "Sophia" with 150 bales of cotton, tack out of the Sabine Pass
under a fog cover or dark of the moon, and usually before the Federal ships could detect
his movements, Gus would hoist all sails and escape, at a 14-knot speed, toward Havana or
Belize, Honduras. Sometimes Pavell, his schooner laden with gunpowder and muskets, would
run the blockade into Galveston Bay, later returning home via the Houston train to
Those were lonely years for Sophie, and after Gus' first return voyage
in 1864, she talked him into quitting the sea, convincing him that his luck had probably
played out. Her spouse, too, was ready to quit, knowing that he had already freighted
several hundred tons of munitions for the Confederacy, but he had also lined his own
pockets with much gold in the process.
When Gen. Lee's surrender of the Confederate armies signaled the
South's demise, Sophie determined to abandon Pavell's Island and its loneliness for good,
and her husband agreed with her decision. Compared to other Southerners, they had survived
the war in comparative comfort, their large land holdings and coffers of gold coins still
intact. Why not, they pondered, resettle in Galveston, where they could still pursue
merchandising and also enjoy a sociable existence, attending church and the theater? And
if there were any doubts about the wisdom of that move, these also vanished when the great
hurricane of Sept. 13, 1865, destroyed the city of Orange completely and pounded their
Sabine River outpost unmercifully.
Gus went to Galveston where he bought a house and a lot and a store
building. A month later, he loaded all of their furniture, pot plants, and store inventory
aboard the "Sophia," but he soon encountered a problem with his wife. She
insisted on exhuming the coffin of her infant as well, and while he was engaged in other
chores, Sophie took a shovel to the grave site and finished the grizzly and unpleasant
The Pavell's soon opened their Galveston store, joined a church, and
continued to prosper, but fate had other plans in store. In 1867, Gus came home sick one
day, and later, as his fever heightened, accompanied by jaundice and black vomit, he
realized he was a victim of the dreaded yellow fever plague that was already decimating
the island's population. In desperation, Gus called in his pastor and dictated a will
which left one-sixth of his property to the German Presbyterian Church; Pavell's Island,
his schooner "Sophia," and a shingle business to his brother Ferd; and the
remainder to his widow. Shortly afterward, the captain died.
Sometime later, Sophie married another German immigrant named Picklaps.
With extensive properties, including a 1,400-acre tract at Port Neches, at her disposal,
she lived out her later life in Galveston in relative comfort, so far as is known.
After the storm of 1865, old Solomon Sparks tinkered for awhile with
the idea of purchasing Pavell's Island and moving his shingle mill there. He rowed his
skiff down the river one day, tied up at the wharf, and while examining the storm damage,
happened to encounter the excavated grave site.
Nearby he spotted the cherubim-decorated object which he always thought
was a flower vase, but in reality was a 2-foot section of two inch bronze pipe, sawed from
a bed post. It still bore the tarnished markings from those years when it had stood
upright in the grave.
At the bottom of the excavation was a residue of rust of powder
consistency and the imprint of square corners where the casket had lain. But imagine his
surprise and the shades of doubt which encompassed him when there, beneath a clam shell,
he found a $20.00 gold piece which Sophie, undoubtedly in her haste to leave, had
Back at his home, Sparks pondered the strange finding, wondering as
well if Sophie had really exhumed a small skeleton from the grave for reburial in
Galveston. If so, he wondered why she had left the little tombstone of her infant Ann
Eliza which still stood at the grave site. Would she not also need it at the new grave
site in Galveston?
Sparks wondered also: did Sophie really have a baby, or had she only
perpetrated the grossest of hoaxes on her husband and neighbors? Or maybe the purpose of
those fresh bouquets was simply to disguise the coin entrance to her private
"bank" in the clam shell mound? Perhaps the world will never know for certain
what the truth was, but the evidence at hand accounted for one of the strangest and most
widely-circulated legends ever heard along the lower Sabine River.