New Forts, New Chief

Major William Lauderdale and Chief Sam Jones are the two most famous protagonists of the battles between the Army and Seminoles. But others came later.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Oct. 1, 2017

For those who have a passing acquaintance with our city’s history, accounts always include the battles with the Seminole Tribe, usually ending with Maj. William Lauderdale’s defeat of the Seminoles at the battle of Pine Island Ridge. Chief Sam Jones retreated with his warriors into the Everglades – and 73 years later, the New River area was incorporated into Fort Lauderdale, named after the long-gone fort the fearless major established.

Indeed, at a peace parley a year later in May of 1839, Jones was reported to have said, “I shall never again raise my hand against the white man, for I am old now, and what can an old man like me do?” His age then was around 80.

Shortly after the historic battle, Major Lauderdale, who had been in poor health, died at an Army base near Tampa. The Army, believing the Seminoles had abandoned the area, left Fort Lauderdale (the fort) unmanned.

Yet not long after that, the Seminoles returned and burned the fort to the ground. Without the U.S. Army in the area, they had unfettered access to a prime source of booty: shipwrecks. There were many along the coast due to poorly marked reefs and sudden tropical storms. According to accounts written at the time, the tribe would not only loot the wrecks but would kill any American survivors.

That brought the U.S. Army back. Troops built a new fort on the north side of the New River, which was closer to the coast. But before you can sing “over here, over there…,” it was determined that it would be better to put a garrison on the beach itself. Then soldiers could be of direct assistance to shipwrecked vessels. In short order, Fort No. 2 was abandoned.

In May of 1839, the same month as the peace parley, the new beach quarters were put under the command of Lt. Christopher Tompkins.

Yes, this was the third “Fort Lauderdale”; all are now long gone. A conceptual drawing has emerged of the fort on the beach, showing a rectangular stockade with three corner blockhouses, each containing a cannon. A later commandant of the camp was not at all enamored with the facility. He called it “a cluster of cane-built huts and a couple of wigwams.”

At any rate, when the Army left the second Fort Lauderdale, the Seminoles moved in, peacefully. People were beginning to feel the wars were over; finally, a peace was holding between the two sides. Sam Jones had made his “old man” statement, and the man who had fought battles without defeat throughout the state, even against a future president Col. Zachary Taylor, would now name a successor. That was Chitto-Tustenugee, a.k.a., Snake Chief.

Four months after that peace parley, Lieutenant Tompkins was presented an invitation from Chitto-Tustenugee: He and his officers were invited to come up to the old fort and watch an Indian ball game.

Tompkins felt uneasy about this. Rather than bringing his officers and the whole regiment over, he sent two privates and a black translator known as “George” to check it out and report back.

When he heard nothing right away, Tompkins and another officer ventured stealthily upriver to see what was going on. They saw no trace of Indians at the fort, nor of their men. Then they heard a moaning voice from the riverbank. It was one of the privates, barely alive. He told of an ambush and a force of 300 Seminole warriors. The two others were dead, he said.

The next day they found the dead body of the second private, also shot. But the translator George was still alive, having hidden in the mangroves.

The late historian Stuart B. McIver reports that George told his rescuers how things went down. George had been asked by the Seminoles if the officers had come, and not waiting for an answer, the braves started shooting the privates with him.

Writes McIver: “George turned to see Sam Jones’ son, Sponge, and Chitto-Tuskenugee’s brother, Ochee Hadjo, with their rifles aimed at Tompkins’ men. George pulled [at one soldier] and fell sideways into the river just as gunfire rang out. Pretending to be dead, George lay quietly in the river.”

In the distance, he could hear a voice he knew. That of Sam Jones.