Ancient Native American trails were marked by bending trees into trail markers

Paul Pinkerton

Not too sure about you but when I am traveling to a new area, I am one of those  who has become entirely reliant on my in-car SatNav.

Funny enough, the other day I was stopped and asked directions by a guy who was using a map. The funny thing is, it shocked me that this guy was using a map. It wasn’t that long ago that we all used them.

So it is hard to imagine how people found their way around the vast country that is the United States before  SatNavs and even before the cartographers arrived and started to map our country. The answer is simpler than you think.

Before the map makers arrived in the USA, Native Americans had an extensive trail system, but it was very easy to get lost in the forest. To fix the challenges that came with safe forest travel, the tribes shaped trees so they could guide travelers throughout the land.

Over time, these trails transformed into a massive network of trails and roads during the pre-Columbian era.

Photo credit

Tribes would create a marker tree that extended horizontally at high points on the tree. This allowed travelers to see the markers across long distances, even in snowy conditions.

Today, trail markers of ancient Native American trails can be found scattered across North America and the well-documented network can still be seen.

Trail Tree - Izard County. Photo credit
Trail Tree – Izard County. Photo credit

Hunters and hikers often run into these strange looking trees that were intentionally shaped. It’s a fun way to remember the history and the heritage of the Native American cultures.

The large trees had distinctive forms and paralleled bends have many names. The most common historical names that have been given to the trail markers are the “Indian trail trees.” However, they have also been called marker trees and signal trees by avid fans of the Native American trail markers.

Advocates of the trail markers say that the trees could have also been modified to mark important places across North America.

A trail marker tree Photo Credit
A trail marker tree Photo Credit

The eastern part of North America has a long history of understanding the marked trees along the area but to this day, whether or not the trees were formed naturally could still be considered controversial.

In the year 1941, Dr. Janssen documented his findings while in the woods. He stated that during his journey, he found trees that were very frequently crooked. However, only a few of these trees were actually trail markers:

“Someone who casually looks for these trail markers tends to have difficulty finding authentic trail markers. Deformed trees can develop a lot of ways. For example, a bigger tree may fall onto a smaller tree and pinned it down for a long period of time.

After this occurs, the smaller tree will have been permanently bent. Another example of tree deformities occurs with lightning strikes. A trunk can become split which creates a leaning tree that “resembles” a true trail marker. Even wind, snow or wildlife can create what seem like Indian markers throughout the trees. So how in the world can you tell what’s authentic and what just looks like a crazy looking tree?”

According to Dr. Janssen, you can easily spot these crazy looking trees by looking for scars along them that look like they are abnormally bent.

Oak marker tree in Traverse City Photo Credit
Oak marker tree in Traverse City Photo Credit

When you look for this, you’ll quickly be able to see that the deformities you encounter are much different than the purposely shaped trees by Native Americans.

Here are seven Indian Trail Markers in the United States of America:

Along the Great Lakes, experts have been studying, analyzing and recording these Native American treasures since the early 1800’s but documentation has been littered across North America. One of the trail makers occurred along the boundaries of Mettawa and West Lake Forest.

It was 1 of 11 purposely shaped trees that created a straight line of oak trees. The most famous marker tree has been widely visited by elder Native Americans named DAR and has been accounted for by Mr. Janssen in the year 1934. It is known as the white oak trail marker tree.The trees helped guide travelers across an important but far less traveled trail inside of the area that expanded from the Highland Park all the way to West Lake Forest. Then it leads to the Chain of Lakes and Antioch before it finally leads them to the mighty Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.

Another tree marker is located in Monterey, Tennessee. It’s one of two markers that land on private property around the area. Before the town was renamed Monterey, it was a Native American site called Standing Stone. Ceremonies are still held in modern times to remember the proud Native American tradition that founded Monterey.

Yet another example of a tree marker can be found in Gilmer County which is located in Georgia. It’s a traditional oak marker that Native Americans used along the surrounding area of the Appalachian Mountains.

The marker known as the white oak in Traverse City is a classical tree marker that has been protected by its citizens for decades. This Native American tree is located in Michigan and is one of two that can be found in Traverse City Park. A fence has been built to protect this Indian landmark and ceremonies have certainly happened at this tree throughout its proud history.

White County in Indiana has two massive oak trees that were transformed into markers by the Native Americans. One of them is speculated to be well over three centuries old. Currently, the tree markers are on private property. The owners take good care of the trees and are constantly helped out by the community. It’s a wonderful display of protecting Indian heritage in Indiana. The Indiana Historian wrote that very little of the tree markers are left in Indiana today. These beautiful gifts from our past are to help travelers find their way back home to their friends and family. An Indian in the area named Buffalo Heart recalled one of the ancient tree markers as Grandfather. She told tales of all of the tree markers that use to reside in her home of Indiana throughout her childhood. Most of the early research for this area was conducted during the 175th anniversary of White County.

A trail marker in Michigan has actually been shaped in the year 1930. A park designer got together with 2 Ojibwa men and asked them to retrace an ancient Native American trail. Instead of paving the trail with cement, the path was created the old fashioned way.


 Trail marker tree in Michigan Photo Credit
Trail marker tree in Michigan Photo Credit

A bent pecan tree has been found at what use to be a Comanche campsite. The area was filled with an abundance of buffalo, turkey, pecans and was luscious with grass for their horses.

There was also a great supply of plums and deer in the area. It’s been said this was a trail marker that the tribe used and it’s located in Dallas, Texas. It can be found in Gateway Park. It has been given a Comanche Proclamation in 1997 by the Chairman of the Comanche Indian Tribe.

This officially meant that the tree had become an official “Indian Marker Tree” through the Constitution of the Comanche Indian Tribe. It has been hopeful that the tribal citizens across the state would come and celebrate the ancient tree with both ceremony and prayer

.It was the first of many marker trees to be declared by the Comanche tribe. Sadly, one year after the proclamation in May of 1998, the area encountered a severe storm. The wind brought down the top of the tree. Steve Houser and the tree’s arborist worked extensively to try to revive the tree. After talking to many plant pathologists, the pecan tree restoration failed.

We have another interesting read for you:The President- The Tree you can’t capture in one photo

These are just a few examples of the amazing tree markers that are neatly situated throughout North America. If you ever spot one, take a picture and do a Google search; you never know, you could be on an ancient Native American trail.


jack-beckett is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival