Trail Marker Trees (a.k.a. Indian Marker Trees)

A diagram from Elaine Jordan’s “Indian Trail Trees”

A topic I see emerge a couple times a year is that of the “Indian Marker Tree,” which is a culturally modified tree (CMT) that is alleged to be a feature of indigenous cultures in the United States used to mark trails or locations of sites like springs, hunting grounds, or sacred places. The idea is that the American Indians physically bent saplings over so that they would mark direction for years to come. Perhaps they simply forced the sapling over, leaving it to heal, or used cordage and stakes to hold it down until it adjusted to the new position. In either case, the tree would point in a desired direction for years to come, with new branches becoming trunks to rise vertically from the now horizontal trunk of the original tree.

The first time I encountered the concept of trail marker trees was in 2013 when I attended an event sponsored by the Dallas Audubon Society and the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition, which turned out to essentially be a presentation by Dennis Downes to pitch his rather pricey, but admittedly gorgeous, coffee table book, Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness.

In full disclosure, I’m linking to his book on Amazon, which sells for about $40, with my associate code attached. So, if you think the pictures are worth forty bucks (and there’s 264 pages of them), I’ll get a little slice of his action!

The presentation consisted of a PowerPoint slideshow–or perhaps it was  a video–of some very striking tree imagery. Downes is an artist and sculptor and is to be commended for the aesthetics of it all. Even though he seemed to be featured prominently throughout! I was able to leaf through one of his books and listened keenly to his talk, but never was there a mention of evidence that supported the conclusion that these were trees that were modified by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Indeed, never was there a mention of how the age of the trees were known!

At a brief Q&A following his talk, I asked this question: “when you cored the trees for age, what dates did you get?

There was a collective gasp in the room and all eyes turned to me! Who was this apparent infidel who dares to blaspheme with his mention of an increment borer? I was promptly informed that the Dallas Historical Tree Coalition (DHTC) does not defile their trees and aging is done with exterior measurements only.

I was confused by the reaction I got to say the least, but, undeterred, I later posed a question to Downes at his table. Where he was taking credit cards, cash, or check in exchange for the book I’d already leafed through. My question was essentially where are the data? Are there GIS data for the trees he researched available for someone like myself to correlate to springs, known Native American sites, weather events, etc.? Downes, perhaps noticing that I did not have my wallet in my hand, quickly said that the locations were all secret and had no interest in sharing data… then abruptly turned his attention to a customer holding a MasterCard. Browsing his book again, I could find little in the way of source material or data–I had hoped for at least some primary sources listed as ethnographic accounts–so I closed the book and departed.

I had many questions and I was eager to engage the author in conversation, but he was clearly intent on the task at hand: getting paid. I couldn’t fault him for that. One needs to make a living. But the more I thought about the problems with the images I saw and the conclusions that were being assumed, the more I realized that there was probably more bunk to “trail marker trees” than fact.

In order to accept the assumption that a tree bent in a particular manner was done so intentionally by humans, there are certain criteria that must first be met:

1. It has to be shown that it was less likely that the tree was bent by nature than by man. This is a very difficult if not impossible criterion to satisfy unless the act of bending was witnessed and documented. But! I would admit that ethnographic data of bending trees in a given region would be sufficient to further admit that this was a practice that might be expected.

Nature bends trees. It’s a fact. Below are several trees that were bent by natural forces, probably ice accumulating in the canopy which, weighed the sapling down. Couple this with prevailing wind direction, and you get many bent trees pointing in the same direction–seemingly making a path! Walk a straight line in any forest, and eventually you will come to something: a spring, a pond, a creek, a nice place to hunt or live. All the sorts of things people claim their “trail trees” are pointing at.

sm yng bnt
Young tree (car keys for scale) probably bent over by ice accumulation in the canopy a few years ago.
young bent tree
another very small, young bent tree in the “classic style” shown by proponents of “trail marker trees” but this tree is probably 4-5 inches in diameter and less than a decade old.

On the cover of Downes book, and if you search the internet for the title, you’ll notice gigantic trees that are bent far above the head of an average person. Downes stands next to several such trees in his book and he’s the Colonel Sanders-looking guy if you did the internet search. This would seem to be an illogical method of marking a trail since the point at which the bend begins would have been that high in antiquity. Trees don’t grow upward in that manner. It seems far more likely that when the tree was younger, in the post sapling years, ice accumulated in the canopy and weighed it over, bending at a point where its girth was no longer strong enough to support the weight.

2. Age of the tree must be empirically shown to be old enough to have been done by Native people prior to the arrival of western settlers. This is actually very easy to do: simply use an increment borer to age the tree. Damage to the tree is minimal -more damage is done by a deer rubbing his antlers. The whole, “we would never damage a tree to determine it’s age” thing is a cop-out. I’ve never seen a tree suffer permanent damage and you can even plug the hole with the end of the core once you’ve counted the rings in the field. Silviculturists do this all the time. Measuring circumference simply is not a good method of aging.

lg bent tree
An older bent tree that many might say is a trail marker, especially since it has a sibling a few meters away pointing in the same direction. This is a young-growth, mesic forest. I haven’t cored it yet, but my guess is that the tree is less than 60 years old.
tall bent
Bent tree in a more xeric environment but also a young growth forest. The vertical branch has taken off where the rest of the fiber failed and rotted off, probably because its leaves couldn’t compete with the higher canopies of its neighbors (photo is in the winter). This bend is over 5-6 feet from the ground and likely due to ice accumulation or a perhaps a deadfall from a neighbor.

There are many trees bent unintentionally by people as well. Logging or other activities in forests can cause a sapling to be driven or stepped on, or gear or  equipment could be set on a sapling. Once kinked, the sapling grows at an odd angle. Take a drive down a dirt road in a forest and you’ll see examples of bent, angled, and curved trees along the edges.

Did Native Americans intentionally bend saplings to mark direction of travel, direction to springs, trails that could walk, location of game, etc.? I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched of an idea. But without empirical evidence, which is unlikely to be obtained even if the age is known to be supportive, we cannot say with any reasonable certainty. So why bother? I can’t refer to it as an archaeological feature in a way I can other CMTs, and the probability is just too low.

They’re interesting to look at, but tell us absolutely nothing about the people they’re alleged to be associated with.

About Carl Feagans 321 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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