Strong Spell
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Strong Spell swam river ferrying lead steer of herd

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday July 17, 1999.

NEDERLAND—Sterling Spell had perhaps the strangest occupation in antebellum Beaumont. When farm chores were not pressing, he was a ‘cattle crosser’ at Tevis’ Ferry. Spell did not cross the cattle over the Tevis ferry; he held on to one steer’s horn and literally swam the herd across the Neches River.

Spell was born in Vermilion Parish in 1806 and spent the first half of his life in Louisiana. In 1830 he married Eliza Collins, and they became parents of 13 children, most of whom reached adulthood. Their sons, Benton and Sterling, Jr., served in Beaumont’s Co. E, Spaight’s Battalion, Confederate States Army, throughout the Civil War.

In 1849 Spell bought a farm from Isaiah Junker in the vicinity of Concord Road. He raised moderate amounts of corn, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and cotton, principally for home consumption.

T. J. Russell, Spell’s biographer, wrote much about the latter’s physical strength and called him the "giant of Jefferson County." Spell stood 6 feet, 6 inches in stocking feet and weighed 256 pounds. His neighbors referred to his feats of strength as being "Herculean to the ordinary man," and noted that he could lift a 50-pound sack of potatoes with his arm straight out and hold it up.

By 1835 trail herds of New Orleans-bound cattle passed frequently through Beaumont, and the first city council of 1840 required a $50 bond for crossing a herd and charged $6 for each drowned animal removed from the river.

Among the earliest ranchers who drove cattle to the New Orleans market were James Taylor White of Turtle Bayou, David Burrell and William Carr of Fannett, John McGaffey of Sabine Pass, and Christiam Hillebandt of Labelle. C. T. Cade and the renowned ‘Shanghai’ Pierce were the best-known cattlemen who drove large herds through Beaumont.

The shipping season for cattle lasted from October until the following May. In Feb.-March, 1856, 114 trail herds passed through Beaumont, for an average of 2 herds daily. Herd sizes varied from as few as 300 heads to as many as 2,000 steers.

Spell began crossing cattle at Tevis’ Ferry in 1851, and kept up that activity until the Civil War began in 1861, by which time he was 55 years old. In Spell’s biography in Beaumont Journal of April 11, 1908, the editor observed that:

"...Spell would go in among the cattle and seize a big 1,000-pound, 4-year-old steer by the horns, back it into the river, turn it around, hold to a horn with his left hand, and swim across the river with him. The other cattle of the herd would quickly follow him across. No other man has ever been known to attempt that feat of strength..."

After the Civil War, Spell moved his family to Hardin County, where he died in 1876. His wife also died there a year or two later.

The story of Sterling Spell is another notch in the history of Beaumont’s pioneers who conquered the East Texas wilderness and made it a safe place for those who followed in their footsteps.

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W. T. Block of Nederland is a historian and author. His website is This database is very large (350 articles) and is intended as an area history source for students.

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Copyright © 1998-2024 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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