“Sam Jones, leader of the Seminoles, fought a crucial battle against Major William Lauderdale…” You see this phrase in all kinds of historical accounts, some of which mention that Sam Jones is another name for Miccosukee doctor and patriot Abiaca.
OK, so they don’t say doctor and patriot, but use the more pejorative terms “medicine man” and “fierce warrior.” But they never explain why this wily Indian leader - who outmaneuvered and outlasted U.S. regiments in a series of “Seminole Wars” - was named Sam Jones.
The late author and Florida historian Stuart McIver supplied an answer.
According to McIver, Sam Jones was the name of a fish peddler from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, an acquaintance of a certain U.S. officer from New York assigned to Fort King (near present-day Ocala). The officer had cordial relations with the snowy-haired Abiaca, who in good times sold the officer fish. The officer started calling him “Sam Jones,” and the nickname stuck.
What we know about Abiaca, aka Sam Jones, is that his name has lots of spellings and interpretations due to the phonetics of the original language. Arpeica, Ar-pi-uck-i, etc. One was Apayaka Hadjo, meaning Crazy Rattlesnake.
He had a wife, Itee, who was half Irish and half Choctaw, born circa 1790. He had at least one daughter, Rebecca Jones, born in Tennessee, who died in 1893 in Texas at 76.
We know he had a strategic military mind, which became very clear in two major battles of the Seminole Wars. From the U.S. army’s point of view, their regiments won the battles of Lake Okeechobee and Pine Island Ridge.
But as the Seminoles told it, and others agree, they were the victors.
The goal of the U.S. was to get the remainder of the Miccosukees, Seminoles and Creeks to move west of the Mississippi as others had. They even offered Sam Jones bags of cash to clear out. His reply: “In Florida I was born. In Florida I will die. In Florida my bones will bleach.”
In the 1837 Battle of Lake Okeechobee, future president Col. Zachary Taylor led 1,032 troops against a smaller fighting force of Creek and Miccosukkee, led by Sam Jones. The federal troops crossed open waters firing, but Sam Jones had his fighters entrenched in firm tree-rooted ground and simply picked off the soldiers.
The Seminoles, barely scathed, slipped back into the Everglades. Taylor, suffering many casualties, retreated back toward Tampa and declared victory.
In 1838 came “our” big battle, where Maj. William Lauderdale led his Tennessee volunteers to chase Jones and his 50 to 100 braves off Pine Island Ridge in what is now Davie. The major led his troops tromping through waist-deep water while the Seminoles fired down from the island, inflicting casualties on the greater force of several hundred. But as before, they slipped away, “the old medicine man” and his forces mostly intact. When they retreated, they left behind a trove of food-processing equipment, canoes and weapons. Lauderdale declared victory.
But the Seminoles suffered far fewer fatalities than the larger force they faced, making it to camps further back in the Everglades, ready to fight another day - which indeed they did. They never gave up South Florida, and because of their resistance, these Native Americans are part of our population today.
Here’s how Seminole historians put it. “Many years older than most of the Seminole leadership of that era, wise old Sam Jones was a staunch resistor of removal. He kept the resistance fueled before and after Osceola's period of prominence and, when the fighting had concluded, was the only major Seminole leader to remain in Florida,” says a section of the tribe’s web page.
“Starved, surrounded, sought with a vengeance, Sam Jones would answer no flag of truce, no offer of compromise, no demand of surrender. His final camp was in the Big Cypress Swamp, not far from the Seminole Tribe's Big Cypress community of today.”
Sam Jones had fulfilled his vow, passing on at the ripe old age of 102.