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  • Bruce Moreton

Indian Trail Trees

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

An Indian trail tree at Night Eagle Wilderness in Vermont

The following article by Laura Moss from the Mother Nature Network was sent to us by Fisher Cares. He thinks we may have a “trail tree” in camp (above)!

“If you’ve ever encountered a bent tree while hiking in North American woods, you may have simply happened upon a tree that was bowed by weather, disease or other natural causes. However, you might have stumbled upon an ancient trail marker created by Native Americans hundreds of years ago.

Known as trail trees, these markers were used to designate trails, crossing points on streams, medicinal sites to find plants, and areas of significance like council circles.

“[Native Americans] were very smart and very close to the Earth,” Don Wells, who helps map these trees as part of the Trail Tree Project, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They could name every plant and know what they could use it for. They knew the trees and could use them to their benefit.”

Centuries ago, these bent trees could be found across the United States, allowing Native Americans to navigate easily across vast distances. While many of these trees remain today, the gaps between them are becoming wider as land is developed, and those that have endured can be difficult to find, as their locations are kept secret to protect them.

When making a trail marker, an American Indian would look for a sapling with a trunk about three-fourths of an inch in diameter. The sapling would be bent in the direction that should be followed and then secured in that position by one of several methods.

Sometimes the saplings would be tied down with rawhide, bark or vines, but other times the tiny trees would be weighted down by a rock or a pile of dirt. Once secured, the sapling would be left in this bent shape for a year to lock it in position, at which point, even after it was released, it would continue to grow pointing in the intended direction. While being forced into an unnatural position didn’t kill the trees, it did affect their development.

Having been bent toward the ground, these trees would typically establish a secondary trunk that grew upward and developed branches and leaves. In most cases, the branches of the original trunk would decay and fall off, leaving the original trunk bare. However, sometimes the bent tree trunk would come in contact with the ground and the tree would develop a second set of roots.

How to make a trail tree marker

Despite being manipulated by man, the trees would continue to grow, expanding in diameter as they pointed in the direction of the path one should take. To this day, remaining trail trees still point in the same direction they were bent hundreds of years ago. To the untrained eye, differentiating between a trail tree and one that’s naturally deformed can be difficult — sometimes even for experts.”

NOTE: In another article that I read, the author pointed out that settling pioneers adopted the Indian practice of bending trees to mark trails. Later, many of those trees were lost when roads were built where the trails were or when loggers moved into the area to clear land for development. But whether they were made by American Indians or American pioneers, Indian trail trees (or signal trees) have become a vanishing part of American history. The photographs of the two trees in this blog are both located in Vermont less than twenty miles apart! Who knows how many more are in the area waiting to be discovered?

An Indian trail tree in Vermont


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