Long before an expansive network of interstates and highways cut across America, a network of trails were formed and traversed by the Cherokee. Like today’s interstate system, the Cherokee trails ran north to south, east to west. The trails were used for trade, hunting, gathering, and to make war against opposing tribes and settlers that wanted their land.
Marking those trails were trail trees—hardwood trees whose trunks were intentionally bent to grow low and parallel to the ground before rising upward again. Like today’s highway signs, researchers believe the Cherokee shaped trees to point to things that their people needed on long and arduous journeys.
Sometimes called “bent trees”, “marker trees”, or “signal trees”, surviving examples are now two hundred years old or more. Many are dying due to disease, weather, urbanization, and age, giving urgency to a project organized to catalog them before they’re lost forever.
Indian Trail Tree Project
In 2007, the Mountain Stewards—a Georgia-based nonprofit devoted to preserving old Indian and pioneer trails in Northern Georgia and the Southern Appalachian Mountains—began its Indian Cultural Heritage Program, which includes the Indian Trail Tree Project.
Through its research of early historical references, reported firsthand sightings, along with its partnership with tribes across the country; including the Cherokee, Osage, Muscogee, Comanche, and the Senecas, the Indian Trail Tree Project is giving new life to these historical trees.
A result of this research, is a nationwide mapping effort of old Indian trails and the trail trees that mark their existence. In partnership with Wild South, a regional conservation organization based in Ashville, NC, Mountain Stewards has mapped more than 2,450 trail trees in 44 states (2018).While the greatest concentration of trail trees mapped thus far have been on the borders where Georgia and North and South Caroline meet, trail trees have also been discovered as far west as Utah and as far north as Wisconsin.
Cherokee Indian Trails Meet Modern Highways
The Warrior Trail, a Cherokee trail that spanned from Georgia to Pennsylvania and New York, was used for hunting, trading, and as a warpath in which large contingents of Cherokee warriors raced north to fight the Iroquois. Another trail, extending from Charleston, S.C., into western North Carolina, was a primary trading route in which Cherokee traders brought goods back from the coast.
In the years before the American Revolution, the British Army widened portions of Cherokee trails in order for their horses to pull heavy cannons to Fort Loudoun, a British colonial-era fort located in what is now Monroe County, Tennessee. And in 1813, the Cherokee agreed to build a toll road on top of the Unicoi Trail—a trail the Cherokee used from east Tennessee to north Georgia to engage the Creek Indians. Modern explorers can follow the footsteps of the Cherokee by driving the Unicoi Turnpike Trail.Considering the long distances between such destinations, and the fact that the Cherokee were not aided by the use of Google Maps or OnStar, they had to rely upon their keen understanding of geography to map the simplest routes over gaps and between watersheds.
In fact, Indian Trail Tree Project researchers believe that stretches of U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, especially over Newfound Gap, is on top of an old Cherokee trail. And the aforementioned Warrior Trail is buried beneath sections of Interstate 81.
To successfully navigate such vast terrain, the Cherokee relied upon earthly signs to guide them from one destination to the next; with the trail tree being one such sign.
Shaping a Tree
To shape a trail tree, the Cherokee started with young hardwoods such as white and red oaks; species capable of living for hundreds of years. A sapling would be bent low and parallel to the ground and tied down by a variety of methods. One such method may have involved tying the sapling in position with a vine, strip of bark, or rawhide. Methods were largely dependent on customs, available natural resources, and the ingenuity of the Cherokee tasked with bending the tree.
After a year or so, the tree would then be trained to grow upright by tying off the leader (the vertical stem at the top of the trunk) so that it pointed upward. Alternatively, if a branch had begun growing upward from the trunk, the leader would be cut off in favor of the branch, creating a bulb that is often seen on trail trees.
Meaning of Shape & Direction
Trying to definitively determine why a tree is pointed in a specific direction has proven to be the most challenging questions for researchers to answer. While some trail trees point to known Indian settlements or burial sites, others point to destinations unknown. Researchers speculate that some may point to water sources, river crossing, or shelter but those are only assumptions.
After evaluating all of the trees cataloged in the Indian Trail Tree Project database, researchers have started to categorize the various configurations of trail trees. From “Categorizing Indian Marker Trees”:
“Categorically, we can separate our trees into the following groups: Directional, Burial, The 4, the Specialty, Goal-Post, Grafted, Spirit, Story, Treaty/Council and Solstice/Equinox trees. Each of those groups are broken down into sub-categories.
The Directional trees serve many purposes including marking trails, water sources, safe stream crossings, shelter, ceremonial/sacred sites and more. The Burial trees serve as a sentinel marking the graves of Indians many of whom may have been buried without proper ceremonies. During the removal period and before, many that died had to be buried hastily or not at all. Thus, their spirit remains waiting for a proper ceremony by their descendants so that the spirit can go to the afterlife. Unfortunately for most, knowledge of where these graves are located has been lost so the sentinel marker trees remain in the forest and along the byways awaiting the arrival of someone who will care for the deceased.”
In addition to correctly interpreting the meaning of a trail tree, another challenge researchers have faced is distinguishing whether or not trees have been shaped by man at all.
Man vs Nature
Among the many crooked trees that mark our forests and green spaces, only a distinct few have been shaped by man. Weather events such as lightening, wind, sleet, and snow can partially damage a tree, causing deformities or forcing the tree to grow in such a way that resembles a trail tree.
While certainly not fool proof, researchers have used core sampling to determine the age of suspected trail trees. The operation enables researchers to count the rings in the sample to determine if the specimen was growing at a time when only Cherokee inhabited the area.
Despite the best efforts by tribes, conservationists, the National Park System, and organizations like Mountain Stewards, old Indian trails and the trail trees that mark their paths are vanishing.
Every time a trail tree is lost, our history loses one of its most precious witnesses—witnesses that we need to find, research, and document so their stories can be preserved and shared with future generations.