Every so often I read something about “signal trees,” “thong trees,” “Indian trail trees,” or similar designations. These are trees like the one above, which supposedly were bent by long-ago Indians to mark trails, the location of water sources, food caches, and whatnot. I recall people pointing them out to me when I was a kid.
OK, I’ll admit to some skepticism.
Make that a lot of skepticism.
The most significant Indian nation of the Ozarks, the Osage, were pretty well moved out by 1825. So any signal tree would have to be approximately 200 years old by now. Would the bending process really keep them that small? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but for comparison, here’s a 200-year-old tree (by ring count) that blew over in New Jersey a couple of years ago:
Now that’s a big tree.
Second, would an Osage Indian really need direction on how to find water? Here’s a clue: Head downhill. The Ozarks are not exactly desert.
As for trail markers, I would have the same question. If you’ve ever gone out in the forest with someone experienced in woodcraft, you’ve probably marveled at their uncanny ability to know right where they are most of the time, not through any mystical reading of signs and symbols, but through the hard-earned knowledge that is gained from lifelong experience. I wonder if an Indian nation would have needed trail markers of this sort. And since the Osage were, shall we say, less than hospitable to strangers in their hunting grounds, they certainly wouldn’t have posted trail markers for those unfamiliar with the territory. This isn’t I-55, after all, where people need signs to the next rest stop.
And let’s remember that the Ozarks have been logged over multiple times. Granted, a logger wouldn’t stop to bother with a bent tree like these, but how about a charcoal burner? Or a stave bolt harvester? Trees just didn’t last that long unless they were in people’s yards, cemeteries, or other such protected locations.
These trees are curious and interesting to see, but for now I’ll ascribe their origin to a simpler explanation: a tree is blown over in the forest. In falling, it bends down its neighbor, which survives. Over time, the blown-down tree rots away, while the survivor sends up a new trunk from its bent-down position, causing the peculiar figure-four shape. And thus a signal tree is formed.
I’m open to persuasion otherwise, but for now, count me as a skeptic.
Roger Brothers said:
You are spot on Steve!
I will allow that some Native American somewhere in North America sometime in the last 500 years MAY have got into his head to go to the trouble to force a tree to grow this way.
The question though is not could it have happened (of course it COULD) but was it a common Native American custom as adherents to the myth of the “trail tree” believe?
The answer of course has to be most probably NOT.
I challenge anyone to come up a reference to this supposed common NA custom before 1900. I don’t think any exist.
William Bartrum the famous American naturalist lived among the Southeastern Indians for years in the 1700’s. He estensively chronicled the native flora and the customs of the Natives themselves at the same time. He was a keen observer of both trees and Indians (so keen in fact he even discovered, described and named two new tree species)
Because of his knowledge of the tribes and their languages he was employed by the US government at one point to accompany a party of Creek, Cherokee and American surveyors that were engaged in marking a new treaty boundary between the Creek and Cherokee nations. He commented that in some cases the Indian surveyors were more accurate than the American even though they would not trust the vagaries of the white man’s magnetic compass!
He wrote of the Indians marking trees by blazing them with an an ax and also marking points with piles of stone.
In all his writing NOT ONCE does he mention the Indians bending trees to mark anything nor does he even mention observing such “marker trees”.
Such trees undoubtedly existed then (they always have and anywhere in the world that has deciduous trees that sprout readily, and they continue to form themselves today without the slightest help from humans) Bartrum and his native friend’s simply understood how such trees formed an found them absolutly UNREMARKABLE.
Roger, you make some great points here! I hadn’t thought about Bartrum and the other early writers as sources for confirmation or denial, but that idea makes a lot of sense. I don’t know about all the other early writers, but I have recently re-read Schoolcraft’s Ozarks journal, and he makes no mention of such trees either.
I can’t stop. Im pulled to woods..i am respectful of of the woods and all life that is, has and will be.
Susan Lewis said:
I’ve just recently discovered articles about “trail marker trees” and I’m afraid I’m dubious. There’s one of these trees on my family’s land where I grew up and I really want it to be a cool Indian tree! But, alas, I think it was just the wind.
Susan, I’m the same way! The idea of having a mysterious throwback to the days when indigenous people roamed the forest is just irresistible to me. I’d love for it to be true. But I gotta see some firm evidence!
Thanks for your post. It took SO much digging to find even one skeptical mention of these trees online. There should be many others.
G Wiegenstein said:
Steve, next time you find a bent tree get you compass out. Bet you it is pointing NE to SE. Storms in the Midwest generally come in from the SW to NW.
I bet you’re right!
I sympathize! I see the same misinformation about trees in Georgia quite often. A lady showed me a tree, exclaiming, “See! It’s pointing toward that pond!” Ummmm… The tree is a water oak and not more than 85 years old and the pond was but around 1940. Like your area, it isn’t hard to find a creek, stream or spring, just go downhill.
Thanks for your observation, Irisblues! Imperviousness to obvious facts is all too common, apparently. I had a guy try to convince me one time that a stumpy-looking little blackjack oak was actually more than 200 years old. Granted, some trees in inhospitable spots will attain a great age without growing large, but my suspension of disbelief does have its limits.
As a Native American who has some of these trees near my back yard I have oral stories passed down from my grandmother who passed away recently at the age of 102 and her aunt who passed away at the age of 108. They both told me the stories there mother and grandmother passed down to them about the trees. They where used as markers for those traveling through to know locations of certain areas for those Natives who running from white men who where trying to arrest or catch them.
Shannon Hathaway said:
I am from Wappapello MO. The town was named after an Indian chief that lived there. There are “marker” trees all over! There is one road that runs along the Lake that has FOUR of them all in about a 2 mile stretch. I have pictures of these trees if anyone would like to see them. I have no doubt that these trees are exactly what they claim to be. So, the next time you see one look for a knob on the end of the bend. This is where it was cut off just before the branch that goes up. You can also see where the tree bark kinda wrinkles where it’s bent, just like your skin would. These are tell tale signs you have an Indian marker tree! firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to see the trees email me!