Trees provide historic navigation aid

Intentionally misshapen trees provided travel reference to Native Americans.

Earlier this month, you may have seen a Michigan State University Extension news article on wolf trees, or trees that grew wide, spreading branches before the present day forest developed around them. This article focuses on Native American Trail Marker trees, which allow us a different glimpse into the history of our Michigan forests. 

This time of year is the perfect time of year to take a good look at the structure of the trees in your favorite forest or woodlot. Without the leaves, you can easily see the growth pattern of the branches, and how the tree has been shaped by the environment in which it grew. Trail marker trees are easy to spot, if you know what you are looking for, although it was more than the environment that helped give the trees their shape. 

Shaped by Native Americans 

Prior to European settlement of Michigan, Native Americans had developed a method of navigation through the dense, sometimes swampy Michigan landscape. They used trees. Native Americans took great care to create trail marker trees by altering the growth pattern of sapling sized trees. In most cases, small trees would be bent a few feet off the ground by tying down the top of the sapling. Over time, auxiliary branches would be strategically trimmed off or left to grow upward, depending on the signal the tree was being shaped to communicate. Eventually, the branch, or branches, left to grow upward would develop into a leader, or main stem, and would continue to grow as any other tree would with the exception of the dramatic sweep at the base. The top that was originally tied down would be removed leaving a stub or scar that would signal the direction of the landscape feature it was created to mark. 

Marking significant landscape features 

Because each tribe had unique nuances associated with the creation of trail marker trees, it is not entirely clear what each tree signifies. Most were thought to have marked safe travel routes, either by land or by water. Land marker trees could have designated a well-established route; while water marker trees may have denoted a place for safe portage or a connection to an overland trail. Other trees were thought to have marked a watering spring, a campsite with abundant food or a valued mineral deposit. Still others may have been created to mark the boundary of an area of land or to mark trails that led to a culturally or spiritually significant place. Trail marker trees have been found in Colorado that point to Pike’s Peak, or in Michigan pointing to each of the Great Lakes. Trail marker trees are found in various locations throughout the United States, although their presence is quickly disappearing. 

Bygone Era 

Many of the trail marker trees we see today are 200-300 years old and nearing the end of the tree’s natural life span. A great majority of trail marker trees either died or were removed throughout the last 100 years as land was cleared for agriculture or development. Many of the people removing the trees were unaware of their deep cultural significance and simply removed the tree without thought or cause to learn more. 

Today, there are several groups throughout the United States dedicated to preserving trail marker trees through education and awareness. The Great Lakes Trail Tree Society is one of the groups working to find and preserve marker trees that can be found throughout the Michigan landscape. While exact locations of trees are not widely published to protect the trees and prevent trespass issues, there are a few that can be found in public locations. 

Trail Marker Trees in Traverse City 

The Grand Traverse Historical Society has worked to protect trail marker trees since before 1939. One of the trees protected is on Washington Street, one half block east of the Courthouse. It is thought that the Courthouse was built on top of an Indian Mound, and the tree points back to the Mound along the Boardman River. Another trail marker tree can be found near the Civic Center, on Fair Street. Standing next to one of these trees is an experience not to be missed. Be sure to put these trees on your places to visit and spend a moment of quiet reflection in honor of their historic reverence. 

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