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Did Southeastern Native Americans create trail trees?

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. 

William Bartram meeting with the leaders of Tuckabatchee

William Bartram meeting with the leaders of Tuckabatchee

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

mysterytrees-wesstudiThe 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.

trailtreemapThe 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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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Some Nordic and costal European ship builders bent trees to be future ribs or other special parts for ship building. I’ve read that these were done a generation or so ahead for harvest much later. Because thy were grown in the roughly desired shape they had much greater strength. There are pics online of groves of old trees all bent the same way. There was also some controversy as to weather this was true?

    • Lee, you made a valid point. See I am not sure that these trees were bent by Native Americans. It could have been done by European explorers or settlers. Thank you for mentioning that.


    Hey Richard,
    I wish my Uncle Voight Starling were still alive to talk about this subject. He spent many years riding horses deep in the mountains of Georgia, the Carolina’s, Tennessee and Virginia. He loved the history of the region so much that on all the trips I went on with him, we took a day to go to a local museum or some other historical site in the area.
    I asked him about how the mountain trails were made and his answer surprised me. He said the mountain trails were made by migrating bison, elk, and other animals, and were here before the Indians. We did not need markers for these trails! On the few trips made with him I saw a lot of trees of all sizes bent into strange shapes by what we thought was nature. I’m sure most were natural. What I remember paying more attention to were the odd rock piles or walls in areas we had to ride half a day to get to, thinking why did the farmers put this here? Now i realize the rock piles were probably carins and the walls for agriculture. I wish I could remember where the were now, it has been about 10 yrs since I last went riding in the mountains. All the people I rode with are gone or to old to ride any more.
    P.Lee Dansby I remember reading in an old Nat Geo. on restoring Old Ironsides ( The USS Constitution) that the reason Cumberland Island was left undeveloped was that the live oaks growing there were a strategic commodity to build ships. The way the trunks bent made them the perfect thing to make “Knees” out of to help hold up the heavy cannon decks. The closest thing man can make to compare is out of laminated wood and is not as strong or durable, nature at its finest. If the Norse bent over trees like that for ship building , it was for the same reason I would think to make a stronger piece.
    Keep up the great work Richard, the last month of articles has been wonderful!


    Full disclosure, this is a tangent, but prior to colonization, practically all of New England was also cultivated, with wooded areas being unusual, c.f., “1491,” by Charles Mann.

    • That’s right! I remember reading that in Charles Mann’s book. He said that there was a terrible smallpox epidemic just before the Pilgrims arrived. Thank you for mentioning it.


    While such bent trees are usually called “trail marker” trees, most writings about them also mention that they may point toward locations of other significant features as well — mines, caves, waterfalls, rock formations, etc.

    • Betty, do you have any tradition in your family of creating trail “marker” trees? What general area of the country did your family live?


        I live near the Little Tennessee River between Franklin, NC, and the Georgia line. There is a marker tree (age unknown to me) in the “Crow’s Pass” section of the old trail that meanders alongside the river, in the stretch where the 1761 and 1762 battles were fought between Cherokee and English troops (that included Indian guides from various tribes, including a famous one named Silverheels). That section of the river has old village sites with Creek names (Coweeta, Echoee, Tessentee), the assumption being that Creeks preceded the Cherokee in the Little Tennessee River watershed. Records of those battles in the South Carolina Office of Indian Affairs Archives (by British traders among the Cherokee and English military who participated, including the Swamp Fox Francis Marion) include an interesting tidbit that, during the battles, the Cherokee warriors shouted “Coweeta! Coweeta!” to strike fear in their assailants since the Creeks had a reputation for being fierce fighters. In recent times, this section of the river was traveled by canoe by Lamar Marshall of WildSouth who mapped the old trails throughout the region for a Google Earth project. Marshall, et. al., say that the tree is a man-made marker tree.


      The one I saw put me in mind of a deer. The “nose” pointed directly to the waterfall from the tree line.


    Richard, on our Heritage Gathering Exhibit Facebook page, we have a photo of Don Wells as he presented Elder Sam Proctor a framed print of Dee’s painting of him standing next to a bent tree in Georgia in 2014 and teaching a group of folks about the trees while visiting in Georgia. Don met with the Muscogee Creek Elders in Oklahoma to present the painting. I understand Elder Proctor’s health is not great, but he may be one who can speak for the SE Creeks.

    • Edna, do you know of any 18th or 19th century documentation of the Muskogee Creeks using bent trees as trail markers? I can find nothing. My great-uncles and Uncle Hal never mentioned Trail Trees, but we are Hitchiti Creeks, not Muskogee Creeks. That is what has me confused. I can find no mention of them in the eyewitness accounts recorded by John Swanton in his famous book about the Creek Indians. However, some Creeks have written in saying that there were trail trees in Middle and Southern Georgia.


        No, Richard, I never heard of the trail markers either until I learned of Don Well’s work through Stan Cartwright. Stan was present when Elder proctor visited and may be able to tell you more, I know there is at least one tree in the Cove where Stan’s ancestors lived.


    I think I have found a good example of a trail tree on the Mattaponi River in Virginia. Could someone help me understand the steps in working to get it validated and recognized appropriately? Have pictures to share.


    As a long-time tree surgeon (owned tree services for over 20 years) and a longer-time naturalist, I’m always amused, though sometimes annoyed, by this notion of every bent tree in the forest being a “trail tree.” In my years as a tree surgeon (especially working storm and hurricane damage), I saw many examples of trees being knocked over by something (usually another tree) and remaining alive to continue growing from its bent trunk. Additionally, I know from my experience that the vast majority of the trees shown in the photographs of “trail trees” are rarely more than 100 – 150 years old. This would make them far too young to have even been alive at a time when Indians could have wanted to mark a trail with them. While this lore may have originated from some factual instances where trail trees were created, I would be surprised if there are more than a few such trees still alive.

    • Yes, I have about three dozen “trail trees” in the woods behind my cabin, which were created by Hurricane Opal in 1995. LOL


    Most trail trees point out water, and/or other specific things along trails. The different Native American tribes had different styles of bending and binding the trees to grow. These trees are in Indiana too.
    Recently I saw one in Northeast Ga at a small waterfall. The tree looked like a deer with the nose pointing directly to the waterfall area.


    This is frustrating, Well I’ll jot down, phone number and call one day. There’s three that I know of around here, Don’t know if they have been documented or not, I’m thinking about looking threw right side of field goal shape tree Right to left, might point the way to the next trail marker tree or the direction the outside part of the elbow is pointing, maybe both ways would lead to another trail tree because one might point to the direction to find water, other indicator might point the way to another Indian camp or something of the sorts. Anyways, if I can find the time this winter, I’m going take pictures of these three tree’s that I know of near the top of the ridge. Hope it can be down loaded at photo store and printed out. I never tried that before from our 35 mil. meter camera. Happens to be. These trees are not to far away from where the trail of tears left from.


    Forgot to mention, I think these two lady’s in the picture at the top of this page found, trail tree intersection, 2 cross roads. I didn’t see the two boxes to check on the first comment I posted. I did on this one. Thanks


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