Friday, June 3, 2022

Trail Trees

by Rebecca May Davie

Trees. They are majestic, awe-inspiring, and life-giving. As a child, I had a favorite tree and spent time perched on its limbs. Now, I live among trees with my family. Those sentinels who have watched countless people and animals cross their paths, the older and ancient trees - they are the most alluring. As Tolkien wisely declared, “I am at home among the trees.”

Here are photos, above and below, of a Live Oak we had the pleasure of visiting in Colonial Williamsburg last weekend. Isn’t it glorious? Oh, what this tree has witnessed over time. 

Live Oak in Williamsburg, VALive Oak Tree in Williamsburg, VA

Countless stories and books feature trees. Three favorites are… the Ents in the Lord of the Rings, Shel Silverstein’s, The Giving Tree, and The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. Yet, these are stories told about trees. What if the trees are the ones doing the telling? Long ago, there were people who told stories with the trees and enabled the trees themselves to share for generations to come.

Possible Trail Tree in GA
I am referring to Trail Trees. These trees are beautiful representations of Native Americans using what they had at their disposal to meet a need.
Have you passed by a tree that has an unnatural bend or does not look as if the elements caused the appearance? It could be a Trail Tree.
A Trail Tree is a tree that the Native Americans modified to fulfill a purpose. Bent trees point in a certain direction. These help travelers (who understand the meanings) to follow a path. These trees could lead toward meeting grounds, burial sites, water, or other important locations. Often there are trees, one hundred yards apart (in our measurements), until the destination appears. Other trees are markers for something lying beneath or in the direct vicinity. Yet even more are communication trees. Hollows contain messages, relayed with sticks or other implements.
Trail Tree sketch of how they might have been created
Native Americans formed Trail Trees using a “thong” or a sling-shot shaped sapling. This supported the tree as they bent it 90 degrees. They held the tree down by a rope or sinew and anchored it to the ground. Another bend allowed the rest of the tree to grow toward the sky. Just before this upward limb, they altered the “nose” (bend in the tree). Depending on the purpose of the tree, they hollowed out the nose, packed it with bark and moss, and then sealed it with sap/resin. Sometimes, they cut the nose. Hopefully, this rough sketch will help to explain the process.
We do not know what information these noses hold. There are no records of the meanings and the descendants who might know are not sharing this knowledge. It is understandable that they would guard these traditions. The original creators disguised communications so that others who do not have the key, will gloss over the occurrence, and keep on moving.

Two acres from our home is a tree that I would like to believe is a Trail Tree. I am not sure if it is old enough and I have yet to seek confirmation. Years of soil and leaves hide the bottom of this tree, yet you can still see the nose. It is pointing toward the mountain.

Possible Trail Tree in GAPossible Trail Tree in GA

Trees on Etowah River in GA

While walking, you can view Trail Trees at eye-level. They are
often along waterways. Bent trees show where it is safe to cross. Where we used to live at the junction of a creek and a river there were two Trail Trees, one pointing to each body of water. Sadly, in the time that we lived there, one of the trees broke and only the base remains. The image to the left shows an example of a Safe Crossing tree. Though this one is probably too young to be authentic, you get the idea.

Horse and Rider Trail Tree in Crab Orchard, TN
Beyond the trees giving direction at ground level, there are others fashioned so a rider on horseback can locate them – Horse and Rider Trail Trees. These specimens have bends around eight to ten feet or more off the ground. This image shows an example. Thank you to Linda Shaffer, who shared her photo from Crab Orchard, Tennessee.

July 3rd, please check back here at Heroes, Heroines, and History, to read about Message Trees in Part II of this series. Also, you will find suggested resources that could help you learn more. Do you think you might have an example on your property or near where you live? There is an organization studying and protecting these precious remnants from the past. They would like to hear from you and may help you determine the possibility. Read next month to find out how you can submit a query.


As a child, Rebecca loved to write. She nurtured this skill as an educator and
later as an editor for an online magazine. 
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Rebecca then joined the Cru Ministry - NBS2GO/Neighbor Bible Studies 2GO, at its inception. As the YouVersion Content Creator, she uploaded over 75 plans on the app.

Rebecca lives in the mountains with her husband, the youngest of their two sons, and a rescued dog named Ranger. If it were up to her, she would be traveling - right now. As a member of ACFW, FHLCW, Jerry’s Guild, and Hope*Writers, Rebecca learns the craft of fiction while networking with a host of generous writers. She is working on her first fiction novel. This story unfolds from the 1830s in Northern Georgia.

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  1. Fascinating post! I love to hike, but never knew about trail trees. I will approach the woods with new eyes to see if I can find any in our woods here in New Hampshire.

    1. How fun! Please come back and let us know if you find any. Happy hiking and trail tree hunting!

  2. Thanks for posting! This is very interesting. I haven't heard of these before. I wonder if there would be some Trail Trees up north in Maine where there is more of a Native presence.

    1. Perhaps? It would be worth searching. In Part II of this post, there is a link to Dennis Downes' website. He is up north and spent 30 years studying the trees in his area. I imagine there is a full network spanning the country... wherever there are trees that is.

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