DEVIL’S GARDEN — A $150 million restoration project on land just north of Big Cypress Reservation is helping return 14,437 acres to its original state as a wet prairie with scattered cypress domes, tree-island hammocks, depression marshes and slough-ways.
The land, owned by the South Florida Water Management District, is also the site of Sam Jones’ Old Town, where the legendary medicine man and spiritual leader lived in the late 1820s.
The project, officially named by the Tribe as the Sam Jones/Abiaki Prairie project, is geared to restore historic Everglades hydrologic conditions and contribute to water quality improvement, restore historic wetlands and upland habitat, expand habitat area for plant and animal species, promote restoration of a self-sustaining ecosystem and maintain current levels of flood protection for surrounding properties.
The Tribe consulted with the District and the Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the permits, before the project began in 2012.
“We engaged with them early in the planning process to make sure their plans were respectful to tribal cultural resources,” said Paul Backhouse, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum director and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. “We looked at the plans and identified areas they needed to stay away from.”
Sam Jones’ Old Town was marked on maps in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the specific location cannot be confirmed, as the original markers were lost during development of the land, Backhouse said. THPO has an educated idea of the site’s exact location but keeps it hidden to prevent disruption of the site, he said.
A group of Loxahatchee Battlefield Preservationists toured the area Jan. 16 with Clewiston Museum Director Butch Wilson. Also in attendance was historian Patsy West, whose book about Jones will be published in April.
Jones, aka Abiaki, led the resistance against removal by the U.S. Army during the Second and Third Seminole Wars. He is said to be the reason the Seminole Tribe of Florida is not part of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
“He protected his people, language and culture,” West said. “His main objective was to keep his people in Florida and keep the tradition and culture going.”
Jones’ military strategy prevented the Tribe from being forced into Oklahoma, more so than any other Southeastern Tribe, according to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum website. U.S. troops called him “the devil” because he hid his people so well.
“Knowing all of the water roads across the Everglades gave Sam Jones a legendary and uncanny reputation, as he could surface quickly to be seen in many diverse locales,” West said. “Fear then caused the enlisted men to refer to Jones as ‘the devil’ in poems and songs.”
Jones took advantage of the time during peace negotiations to plant crops, trade goods and fortify his Tribe for future skirmishes, Wilson said. Soldiers destroyed the abundant crops whenever they found them and the land is still referred to as Devil’s Garden.
“This was a place of refuge, but there was no secure place in South Florida for the Seminoles,” Wilson said. “Jones was the core of the Seminole heart.”
The land was purchased in 2010 and restoration of the first 2,800 acres is underway. Work on the remainder of the property, which is leased by U.S. Sugar’s Southern Gardens Citrus for citrus production, will begin in 2018 when the lease ends. Completion of the project is slated for 2021.
To accomplish the project goals, the District will remove buildings, tanks, solid waste and abandoned wells, clear citrus trees, level planting beds, remove exotic and nuisance vegetation, backfill canals and degrade roads and levees to restore sheetflow. The land will be replanted with pines, cypress, sable palm and other native plants.
In a 2013 land assessment, the District stated the restored land will be heavily used by wildlife and will serve as an excellent habitat for Florida panthers, black bears, deer, cara caras, turkeys, raptors, wading birds, muskrats and other species.
Backhouse and his team will ensure restoration efforts remain respectful of culturally sensitive areas.
“We are monitoring the work to make sure the historic sites aren’t impacted,” Backhouse said. “We made sure their plans respected the sites and we want to make sure the sites aren’t disturbed.”