Imagine for a moment what America was like before the days of the Eisenhower Interstate system. How was this vast uncharted and untamed land mass navigated before the invention of paved roads and signs leading the traveler from point A to point B? Cartography may have been around since pre-historic times, but it was a unique technique of bending trees developed by the Native Americans that marked the way over the river and through the woods, long before the first European settlers arrived on the North American continent.
Nature is no stranger to being manipulated by humans to meet their needs, and one fascinating example of this manipulation is that of Native American tree bending. The goal of tree bending was to create a series of reliable landmarks known as “trail trees” that would guide a traveler along safe, efficient trails through the wilderness, show the best place to cross a body of water, lead to important places such as an Indian burial mound or indicate the location of a vital resource such as water, lodging or food. As a result of this trail tree system, Native Americans could explore the land without fear of getting lost in the woods. As settlers arrived, this trail tree system proved essential for many as they navigated their new world. In fact, researchers know that Daniel Boone used Cherokee trail trees to explore deep into the wilderness. In essence, this Native American Trail Tree system was the preliminary infrastructure upon which our country’s current system of roads, highways and interstates was built.
Nothing at all in the way of a first hand written account of the history and locations of trail tree exists, understandably so. Native Americans considered trees sacred and were dubious of white people. The system’s creators were convinced that if the trail tree system was discovered by the European settlers, it would be damaged, destroyed or altered in the name of the white people’s progress to form their new country. To guard against an assault on the trail trees, a most sacred property, Native Americans never wrote about the system nor talked with white people about them.
Due to the efforts of some dedicated trail tree enthusiasts with a knack for historical research, the story of bent trees has been arduously “mapped” out, starting in the 20th century, and continuing to this day. Any written information regarding trail trees appears to come from conversations with tribal elders who had extensive knowledge of the system. This information was subsequently recorded by white people, often in the form of newspaper or magazine articles, some dating back to the late 1800’s.
Through trial and error, Native Americans discovered that if a young tree were bent in an unnatural position without breaking and was securely fastened, the tree would continue to grow, maintaining the unnaturally bent position. Armed with this knowledge, the Native Americans could deliberately manipulate trees to be easily recognizable from other trees and serve as guideposts with the bend of the tree indicating the direction of the route to be followed.
Various methods that were highly dependent on available materials and the creativity and ingenuity of the person performing the task were used in this calculated manipulation of trees. Hardwood saplings, usually oak or maple, would most often be used, owing to their flexibility when young and their ability to maintain the altered shape. Typically, a young tree was bent in the desired direction, forming an arch so the trunk was essentially oriented horizontally to the ground. It was secured in place by leather straps or vines tied to a stake in the ground, or weighed down with a rock or piled up dirt. A branch was allowed to grow skyward from the original trunk to become a “new trunk.” Once a sapling had been molded, it retained its unique shape, growing in the direction it was first bent and increasing in diameter. This deformed positioned was maintained for about a year before the young tree was released from its bondage. Eventually, the original trunk was removed, leaving a directional “knob,” a distinctive feature of a trail tree.
This art of bending trees by Native Americans for navigational purposes is not without controversy. Naysayers claim it is impossible to determine if a tree growing at an odd angle in nature is due to manipulation by human hands or simply a freak of nature. It is important to note, however, that many of the naysayers trying to discredit the existence of Native American Trail Trees, a living link to the country’s history, have been in the lumber business or keen on developing pristine wooded land for industry, commerce and residence. This opposition, appearing to be a pre-emptive strike against efforts to legally protect and preserve a tree thought to be a trail tree, ultimately is unnecessary. There is not, nor has there been, a federal law prohibiting the removal of a tree thought to be a Native American Trail Tree, but thankfully, some of these magnificent relics are protected by local laws.
Across the country, efforts by trail tree enthusiast groups work to keep the history of the trees alive for future generations. One group located close to home in North Georgia, known as Mountain Stewards (https://mountainstewards.org/trail-tree-project), has started The Trail Tree Project, which finds, confirms and catalogs trail trees. To date, this project has 2,450 trees across 44 states in its database.
Locations of some of the 2,450 trail trees include Deadpost State Park near Moab, Utah; White County, Indiana; Blue Mound State Park, Wisconsin; Kalenski State Forest, Ohio; and Florissant Fossil Bend National Monument near Pikes Peak Colorado. (Road trip as soon as the pandemic is over? Anyone, anyone?)
Finding a bent tree in the woods can be thrilling, as one might wonder if the odd shape happened naturally or if someone from a past century purposely manipulated it. Keeping in mind not every oddly shaped tree in the woods is a Native American Trail Tree, here are some things to consider when trying to identify one:
- Is the tree (oak or maple) old enough
- to have been alive when Native
- Americans inhabited the area?
- Does the tree have a “knob” that seems
- to be indicating the way or pointing
- to something of importance like water?
- Are there other trees in the area bent
- in the same way?
- Is the bend close to the ground (i.e.
- not much higher than eye level)?
- Is there visible scarring on the
- horizontal part of the tree in the shape
- of a leather strap or vine tether?
At 150 to 200 plus years of age, these living pieces of history are being lost quickly either to a natural death or falling victim to modern man’s follies, so finding one nestled in the woods is akin to finding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Seeing an oddly shaped tree, one oriented horizontally to the ground in a world of vertical trees, is a true treasure for the seeker to behold. And even if a bent tree in the woods isn’t a legitimate trail tree, it’s still fun to imagine that it is, giving pause to reflect on the unique and industrious practice of Native Americans and to remember that people have long been walking these woods.
So hurry up, put on those hiking boots and hit the trails in search of a Native American Trail Tree before it’s too late!
Have a trail tree on your property, know where one is located or have some photos of these quirky living relics from the past? Reach out at jd-harper.com to share any photos and/or stories.
by JD Harper
*JD Harper is a local author. “GLINT,” her debut novel, is set in Chattanooga amid its rich Civil War history and rock climbing culture. Visit jd-harper.com.