Trail Marker Trees are ancient signposts from a time before GPS, compasses or maps. Shaped and molded by Native Americans while young saplings with the expectation they’d last for centuries, these living cultural navigational aids still point the way long after their makers have moved on.
The Original Grand Trunk Line
Trail Marker Trees generally display several uncommon characteristics which, combined with an unusual number of such similarly “modified” trees and their appearance on known ancient trails and portages, identifies them as original Trail Marker Trees. Most commonly, it appears a young, flexible sapling (usually Oak) was tied down and a branch was allowed to grow upward from the place the tree was bent, thus becoming the main trunk. The original and now horizontal trunk was then cut off, leaving a rounded knob.
Initiatives like The Trail Tree Project and the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition (member Steve Houser shown above) are attempting to catalog and document these trees so as to better understand how they were made, who made them, and why. The pecan tree above is estimated to be over 300 years old and was bent to its current shape by Comanche tribesmen to point the way to a favored campsite.
Ghost Tree Still Here in Spirit
(image via: Indian Trails of Appalachia)
The old growth trail marker tree above is a survivor of sorts – though it has succumbed to age, the trunk still stands amid a grove of smaller, thinner trees that may in all likelihood be its descendants. Located deep in Douthat State Park in Virginia, the ghostly tree symbolizes the wisdom of its original molders: even after its life has ended it continues to fulfill its lifelong purpose.
Dennis Downes Looks Up
“To be a successful hunter, you needed to spot the horizontal shape of a deer in the forest,” explains Dennis Downes, Founder and President of the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society. “An oak or elm tree shaped into a trail marker was another horizontal shape.”
(image via: Just Walking This Earth)
Downes (above, with a massive sculpted Oak located near Fayette, Wisconsin) has spent more than 30 years documenting Trail Marker Trees, many of which are depicted and discussed in his book Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths through the Wilderness.
Hal Sherman’s Historic Inspiration
Ohio artist Hal Sherman favors historical subjects with local relevance, so the concept of depicting an ancient Trail Marker Tree near Zanesfield in east-central Logan County proved irresistible. “Waiting on Elliott at the Indian Marker Tree” illustrates an event circa 1778 in which Loyalist Indian Agents Alexander McKee and Simon Girty met up with fellow Loyalist Matthew Elliott, possibly to hatch plans for a notorious Shawnee massacre of Continental Army troops near Cincinnati in late 1779.