April 10th, 2012 by

When I’m driving in a new area, I am one of those people who become entirely reliant on a GPS. I find it hard to imagine how people found their way around before this nifty invention — or worse, before even paper maps were available. But it turns out that trees played quite the part in keeping early American travelers on the right path.

Native American tree marker

Credit: FlipC/Flickr

Across the U.S., you can find trees that are oddly shaped. Their trunks have odd kinks in them, or bend at strange angles. While some of them may indeed be simple quirks of nature, most of these trees are actually landmarks that helped guide indigenous people on their way. Native Americans would bend young trees to create permanent trail markers, designating safe paths through rough country and pointing travelers toward water, food or other important landmarks. Over the years, the trees have grown, keeping their original shape, but with their purpose all but forgotten as modern life sprang up around them. Today, we may not need these “trail trees” to navigate, but their place in history makes them invaluable. Imagine the stories these trees could tell.

Native American trail marker tree

Credit: Janet Powell

Visitors to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument can see examples of this practice in the many bent ponderosa pines to be found at the site. These trail trees point towards Pikes Peak, which the local Ute Indians believed to be a sacred site. But not every marker tree is so easily spotted. And in fact, looking for a strangely shaped tree isn’t quite enough, since each tribe created slightly different markers. Because most people don’t realize what these trees truly are, they are easily overlooked and can fall victim to development, disaster or disease with no one caring for them. Because trail trees are roughly 150 to 200 years old, many of them won’t be with us for very much longer. We may still be able to see this original roadmap of our country, but the window to do so is closing.

Many groups today are working together to make sure that trail trees are identified and protected for the history they represent. The organizations, like the trees, range across the U.S., from the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition and the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society to the Georgia-based Mountain Stewards, who have created a database of well more than a thousand of these remarkable trees across 39 different states.

These trees can be hiding out in parks, on mountain trails or in any number of places, so in addition to their research, these groups work off of tips from locals who report strange-looking trees. So next time you see a tree that looks just a little bit odd, check and see if it’s possible for it to be a trail tree — you may just find that you’ve stumbled upon a piece of living history.