That ol’ Devil, the soldiers called him. It was almost a romantic term. You know: “That ol’ Devil escaped us again!” More and more as time went on, the word Devil was also put on the haunts of the Seminole medicine man Abiaki (aka Sam Jones). More than 150 years later, there is an area, between the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation and State Road 80, still called Devil’s Garden to this day.
Sugarcane, citrus groves, fields of tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes and cabbage and cattle ranches stretch mile after mile as County Road 833 slices through Devil’s Garden. Millions and millions of dollars have been made in this area, but I’ll bet very few of those ranchers and farmers have any idea about the history of that name. There is no mention anywhere about the man the soldiers called The Devil.
Sam Jones started it all back in the 1800s when he and his followers planted bananas, pumpkins, corn, sweet potatoes and other vegetables on fertile hammocks in this area. U.S. soldiers were on a mission to capture these Seminoles, and almost did. Surprised by the soldiers, the Seminoles ran off into the swamps, leaving their gardening tools behind. History tells us that one soldier, looking at the scene, declared, “This must be The Devil’s Garden.”
You might say Abiaki brought that nickname upon himself. I’m not sure the soldiers really knew what he looked like. There are stories of him walking right into the forts to sell fish directly to the soldiers. He’d walk around and see where everything was and then get his band together to attack the same fort that night. The legend grew and so did the name. The soldiers knew The Devil was in his Garden, but they could never find him.
Something about that place, Devil’s Garden, always haunted me. It was something I figured I should know about, but I never could put my finger on what it was. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my clan uncle Morgan Smith fabricated a story to scare me. He came up with the idea that there was a big ol’ Devil out there that was just a big ol’ head. And he said there were eyes and heads bouncing all over the fields.
At night he would point the eyes out to me and sure enough there they were. They would stare at me and start moving all around. I had no idea what it was, but it scared the shenanigans out of me. I didn’t realize those were deer or cows walking around. I guess my uncle was scaring me so I wouldn’t go wandering off and get lost out there.
Back then there was no road like the present day, just a dirt path. As time progressed the county started roadwork there for County Road 833, but still when you drove that road you had to have planks with you – planks to lay down to drive over the holes in the road.
Still, I wondered. The ’50s, the ’60s came and went, then in the ’70s I met a young lady named Patsy West. She was a historian who became friends with us at the Okalee Indian Village in Hollywood. We were talking one day, and the subject of Devil’s Garden came up. I asked her how that area got that name. She told me the story of Abiaki and how he was also known as Sam Jones, The Devil and The Rascal.
I was not familiar with Abiaki. We have a word A-bee-ka, which means “one who leads, is up front.” We use the word Shu-loop-la-pe-thee (soul with horns) in place of Devil, but no Seminole ever called Sam Jones by that nickname. He was said to be older looking, even when he was young. Quiet and friendly. He mingled around with the white people and was friends with them until some idiot started a war. (A lot of people, white and Indian, were starving to death in those days. It is said that they started the war so they could get rations.)
According to Patsy West, it is a historical fact that Sam Jones always evaded the soldiers and got away even when they had him cornered. Pretty soon I came to realize why the Seminoles were in South Florida. Eight clans followed Sam Jones down here to escape the soldiers. Bird, Wind, Panther, Snake, Bear, Frog, Deer and Otter. Not all the clans followed Abiaki. Many were taken to Oklahoma. Raccoon, Sweet Potato, Long Hair Clan, none of them exist here anymore.
With that knowledge I started recalling a time when Florida maps in the ’50s and ’60s still listed a place called Sam Jones Old Town. When I was a kid in my teenage years, tourists would come to Big Cypress asking, “Where is Sam Jones Old Town?” and I didn’t know what they were talking about. Now I do. That area was east of the Big Cypress Reservation by 2 miles. It was a large pine tree stand with palmettos all around, U.S. Sugar or someone plowed it all up and now, where Sam used to live is nothing but hundreds of acres of orange groves.
When they were first plowing up the ground some anonymous caller told me there were bones being dug up. I didn’t follow up the call, but I wish I had. Those could have been Old Sam Jones’ bones.
In fact, one day a man came walking into my camp in Big Cypress, carrying a box. Inside was a skull. It looked like it came out of a museum the way it was cut and numbered. He said it was Sam Jones. He said it had been sitting in a museum and he took it to bring back to Big Cypress. We took the skull to a place where it was said Sam Jones had a camp and buried it.
There is an old Seminole saying: You do not repeat the name of the deceased. If you refer to a deceased person you always do it in the third person: the father of James Billie, the mother of James Billie. But you never let the name of the person who died pass your lips. Sam Jones was a victim of that tradition. Maybe that is why he was never mentioned in our Tribe, or in the history passed down.
Today that tradition has passed by. I hope no bad luck will come on me but my curiosity just got the best of me. I want the world to know about Sam Jones. I prefer Sam Jones over the many great leaders of our Tribe and the reason was that he lived and died in the country he loved and never surrendered.
Most Tribal members have only recently started hearing about Sam Jones. The younger generations are starting to teach their kids about Sam Jones, shedding light on the man and what he did for our Tribe.
Eventually, I had a statue made of what we thought Sam Jones may have looked like with the eight clans around him; then we made a 60-foot mound in the middle of Billie Swamp Safari in Big Cypress topped by the statue made by sculptor Brad Cooley. I’m not sure the leaders of that time, the Tribal Council, had any idea about this man and why the statue was made.
The statue overlooks the haunts of Sam Jones and the territory known as Devil’s Garden, as well as the path he blazed for those eight clans of Indians to escape deportation. The asphalt of County Road 833 is laid almost exactly on Sam’s Trail. It would only be fitting for the Florida Department of Transportation to honor Sam Jones by renaming the road that cuts right through Devil’s Garden.
Sam Jones Trail.
James E. Billie is Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.