Did Southeastern Native Americans create trail trees?
It is an oh-so-confusing subject, which brings out the passions in believers and non-believers. There are millions of trees in Eastern North America that were bent by something or someone, then grew back into a vertical position. Many of these trees are now interpreted as having been bent intentionally by Injuns. Several in the Midwest are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
In contrast, there are well over a hundred “Trail Trees” in the woods behind my cabin. The older ones were created by Hurricane Opal on October 5, 1995. The younger ones were created by a bad ice storm in 2013. However, there are other “Trail Trees” elsewhere in this region that were definitely created by surveyors in the 1700s and 1800s, who tied the tips of saplings with colored ribbons to iron posts in order to mark corner boundaries in dense forests.
Trail Trees have been part of the local folklore of the Midwest for two centuries. The sanctification of various “Trail Trees” was made possible in the Midwest almost instantaneously because most of the Native American inhabitants, south of the Great Lakes, had just been exterminated. Many communities in the Midwest maintain traditions of Native American worship sites being marked by trees, intentionally bent to portray secret symbols.
There may be some truth to these legends. The Algonquin tribes of Canada and the Great Lakes Region definitely have a tradition of bending trees to transmit messages. Yet one the most famous of the Midwestern trail trees in Southern Michigan was recently debunked by discovery of a written eyewitness account of this tree being bent over in a storm.
So what are the facts about trail trees or supposed trail trees in the Southeast? The Muskogeans and Uchees are entirely different peoples, genetically and culturally, than the Northern Tribes.
The skeptical viewpoint of a forester and outdoorsman
Daniel M. Roper has degrees in forestry and law. He is also the publisher of Georgia Backroads, an outstanding quarterly magazine that is dedicated to telling the true history of the rural South. He should like People of One Fire. That is what we are about also.
Roper spoke to a large crowd at the Blue Ridge Archaeological Guild in Dahlonega, GA on the evening of September 14, 2016. He is definitely a non-believer and had several convincing arguments. The most convincing fact was that none of the famous explorers of the Southeast in the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s . . . including William Bartram between 1773 and 1776 . . . mentioned seeing trail trees, created by Native Americans. One would think that, given the prominent adoration now given to trail trees, they would have been landmarks in the Southeast as apparently they were in many locations near the Great Lakes Basin.
In 1773, Bartram accompanied the survey party, which marked the new boundary of the Creek Nation after the Treaty of Augusta. He stated that Creek surveyors replaced the British surveyors, when the British surveyors proved to be incompetent. He described the Creek surveyors MARKING TREES, but never mentioned trees being bent over. Even though they used equipment that the whites accompanying the expedition did not understand, the Creek surveyors were paid the full amount that was supposed to be paid to the the British surveyor, since their work was so much more accurate.
In 1776, Bartram visited the southern edge of the Cherokee Nation in what is now the Franklin, NC area, but had turn around quickly when word reached him that the Cherokees were going on the warpath as allies of the British against the Patriots. Twenty-two miles south of the Cherokee village, which hosted Bartram, was the northern boundary of the Creek Nation in present day Habersham County, GA. So Bartram really didn’t see much of the Cherokee lands and there COULD have been Cherokee trail trees in Western North Carolina. However, during the decade I lived in Western North Carolina, I hiked and canoed the region thoroughly. In that era, no one, including the Cherokees, ever mentioned trail trees.
About 98% of Bartram’s travels were in the lands of the Muskogee Creeks, Upper Creeks, Hitchiti Creeks, Apalachicola Creeks and Seminole Creeks. Nowhere in his descriptions of his journeys did he mention trail trees. He did mention stacks of stones and marked trees, but not trees bent over.
Roper’s other main argument was logical, but difficult to prove or disprove. He asked, “Why did the Cherokees even need trail trees? They were thoroughly familiar with the trails that connected their villages. These trails were heavily traveled. The Cherokees were known for walking long distances. They thought nothing of walking 70 or 90 miles to visit friends.”
The opposite viewpoint of Mountain Stewards
The presentation then shifted to the diametrically opposite viewpoint of an organization known as the Mountain Stewards. Since 2003, Mountain Stewards has completed numerous projects in the Southern Appalachians involving the creation and improvement of hiking trails, the improvement of environmental quality, the study of trail trees and the study of old Native American trails in Western North Carolina, North Georgia and East Tennessee. From early on in the organization’s existence the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was the primary source of information about the past and the organization’s funding.
The following is a quote from the organization’s website that describes their mission:
“The Mountain Stewards’ Trail Tree Project is an attempt to answer some of the questions about these trees, and to provide a documented record of their legacy, before time, disease, and urbanization destroy them. We have established a database to record information about the trees that exist today, not only in our area of Georgia, but across the American Continent. You can see the distribution of the over 1760 trees we’ve collected in the graphic below. Clicking on the graphic will display a gallery of the tree photographs. Take a look and see if you agree that these trees are bent by human hands. Also notice the clustering of the trees in the aboriginal domain of the Cherokee Indians [outlined in red].” The last statement is highly inaccurate and will be discussed below.
The website also states that the organization consulted elders of many Native American tribes, who confirmed the locations of trail trees and that their tribe made them.
Oh really? No one in the two Creek tribes that I am a member of and whose ancestors once occupied all of Georgia, western South Carolina and Eastern Alabama, was consulted. I am the Historic Preservation Officer for one of those tribes. No one in Mountain Stewards asked for my opinion, even though I lived in the county for 9 1/2 years, where they were headquartered . The band of Creeks in West Georgia were not consulted. Mountain Stewards didn’t contact the Tama Creeks in SW Georgia or the Savannah River Uchee in Southeast Georgia. So did they use Cherokees in North Carolina as their experts on Georgia’s Native American history?
Not one among my Creek relatives ever mentioned trail trees when I was growing up. Twice, our Uncle Hal took my cousins and I on hikes to show us marked trees overlooking the Broad River. They were ancient carvings in the bark that resembled Maya glyphs. That does not mean that Creeks didn’t sometimes bend over trees to make trail markings. I don’t know. Perhaps readers of POOF will have more information on this question.
Here is another thing to consider. The chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition stated that while the Spaniards were in what is then the homeland of the Creek People, they did not loose sight of houses or cultivated land. All of the Native American words, recorded by these chroniclers, while they were in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama are Muskogean or Maya words. There are no Cherokee words in the De Soto Chronicles. If the indigenous population was so dense before the European Holocaust, why would these people even need to mark trails? According to Creek tradition, roads interconnected the major towns that were regularly maintained by Proto-Creeks, who were obligated to participate in public works projects.
The conversation in the audience began shifting to Cherokee this and Cherokee that. Roper presented a Mountain Stewards slide that showed most of North Georgia as being always Cherokee. That was the last straw. I raised my hand and stated that the Cherokees were not indigenous to Georgia and there were very few living in Georgia until the late 1780s. NOT ONE PERSON, who claims to be a Georgia Cherokee, has ever showed me a DNA test that finds them to be part Native American. They are either Sephardic Jews or just Heinz 57 Americans.
The word Cherokee does not even appear on any maps until 1715. It first appears in North Carolina on a map by John Herbert, published in 1725. Until 1715, the occupants of Western North Carolina were shown to be Creeks, Shawnees and Uchees. The main river through the Cherokee Reservation, the Oconaluftee, is a Creek word that means “Oconee People – Cut off (aka massacred). A large five-sided Creek mound and town site on the reservation were bulldozed in the late 1980s to build the reservation’s sewage treatment plant.
I received very cold stares from many of the people in the room, because of my statements . . . especially by the archaeologists. It doesn’t matter how many maps and colonial archives, one shows most people in the Southern Highlands, they evidently believe that their false concept of the past is written in the Bible. All I can say is that Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, Shawnees and Uchees in the Southeast will just have to keep on, keeping on . . . telling the public the true history of the Southeast, until the public starts listening.
Daniel Roper’s closing statement
Daniel Roper admitted that some supposed trail trees in the Southeast may have been created by the actions of humans, but not necessarily Native Americans. Tree scientists from the University of Georgia have drilled supposed trail trees and stated the trees dated from before the Indian Removal Period. However, Roper pointed out that the results really only proved that the trees were bent by something back then – not that they had special meaning. Roper’s assessment of the Mountain Stewards was that they and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have invested so much money and time in the Tree Trail Project that they cannot back down from previous statements or compromise.
Because we Creeks know for a fact that Cherokees are not indigenous to the Southeast, but are descended from Northern tribes, it is quite possible that they carried southward with them a tradition of bending trees to make trail markers. What their elders are telling Mountain Stewards about the trail trees in North Carolina could have some truth in it. However, the organization should not extend their interpretation of the past to apply to all other indigenous peoples of the Southeast. We are genetically, culturally, physically, emotionally and historically very different than the Cherokees . . . despite their best efforts to incorporate our art into their tribal logos. LOL
Does you family have a tradition that your tribe bent trees to make trail markers? We would like to hear from as many POOF readers as possible.
PS: Lee Dansby made a valid point. Could some or all of these trees been bent by European explorers or settlers? They would have been much less familiar with the trails.
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