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 pot plants.
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 well.
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. 10, 1858."
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 Beaumont.
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 task.
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 overlooked.
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.