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Distinction sought for Sam Jones Trail

sam jonesDEVIL’S GARDEN — James E. Billie said he thinks about Seminole war leader Abiaki every time he drives on or flies over rural County Road 833, as it rolls directly north from the Big Cypress Reservation.

The Seminole Chairman has long championed the exploits and memory of Abiaki, who was also known by the names Sam Jones and The Devil.

Chairman Billie said he can look out at the miles of pasture and prairie between the reservation proper and State Road 80 just west of Clewiston and see Abiaki leading Florida Indians though a maze of palmetto patch and jungle, in and out of the cypress swamps. For days and days they darted from shadow to shadow, eyes looking back over shoulders, covering their tracks, the Chairman muses, dozens of Seminoles hurrying deeper into the safety of the thick Florida outback, far from the U.S. soldiers and the war they were waging on the Seminoles.

“Every time I think the same thought,” he said. “For years I’ve thought that road should be named after ol’ Sam Jones.”

It just might happen.

Under the direction of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum director Paul Backhouse, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) has assembled research proving CR 833 follows, almost exactly, the final leg of the mid-1800s trail blazed by Abiaki – from today’s SR 80 just west of Clewiston to Big Cypress.

Though the entire trail began in the Immokalee area, curved north around LaBelle and then directly south from present-day SR 80, the last 20-mile section “deserves to be named for Sam Jones,” said David Brownell, a THPO research assistant. Brownell, along with chief data analyst Juan Cancel, has prepared maps and a narrative on the topic that will soon be delivered to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) with the Chairman’s request to rename the highway in honor of Abiaki.

In the formal proposal, Brownell wrote: “It is proposed to the Florida Department of Transportation that the 20 miles of CR 833, from its intersection with SR 80, south to where CR 833 crosses the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation Line, be named in honor of Abiaki (Sam Jones), a medicine man and major leader of the Seminole Tribe of Florida through the three Seminole Wars.

“The uniqueness of the Sam Jones Trail is twofold. The trail is positioned to connect four watersheds that were crucial to the survival of the Seminoles and connected the different coasts of Florida: the Okaloacoochee Slough to the west, the Caloosahatchee River to the north, the Everglades watershed to the east and the Big Cypress Swamp to the south. In addition, the Devil’s Garden locale was so remote that the trail remained in its native, unpaved state far into the 20th century, used by Seminoles to move between camps and hunting areas, long after many other trails had been destroyed or forgotten by modern development.

“Naming CR 833 the Sam Jones Trail will help represent a continuum of this narrative of historical usage into the modern era and recognize those who made the trail, and Florida, what it is today.”

Brownell said that the Sam Jones Trail and CR 833 both transverse the Devil’s Garden area of Hendry County.

“There are many historic references to Sam Jones in many places, never more than a mile or so from today’s road,” Brownell said. “It’s remarkable how closely the road matches the trail when we overlay their maps.”

History provides several different accounts regarding the naming of Devil’s Garden and its connection to Abiaki. A popular tale passed down through time credits U.S. soldiers who, frightened by the eerie sounds that came from the area at night, called it Devil’s Garden. Legend also says that fruits and vegetables planted there grew in abundance in the area’s dark muck. Sam Jones’ innate ability to appear and disappear quickly – even eluding soldiers who were distracted by the abundant food crops – earned the Seminole leader The Devil nickname.

Though the military was sure Abiaki hid in Devil’s Garden, he was never captured. He died a free man in a Big Cypress camp, reportedly well over 100 years old.

“Sam Jones was the only person that I know from the extensive research I’ve undertaken, to whom the term ‘devil’ was applied in the historic literature, songs, poems, etc. of the Seminole War period,” historian Patsy West wrote in an e-mail to THPO research coordinator Mary Beth Rosebrough.

“As the Devil’s Garden section of the Big Cypress was solidly Jones’ domain, it could be assumed by deduction why the name originated … I would have to assume that the name was coined after the Seminole War period, when more cattle interests and farmers entered this fertile area,” wrote West.

“All it would have taken was one individual who was intimate or even somewhat familiar with the previous wars and Jones’ pivotal role in them to have come up with such an appropriate name for the region,” concluded West, who is writing a book about Sam Jones.