Trees of Wonder

photo by Michael R. Jeffords

Opinions vary as to who or what was responsible for forming trail-marker trees-those old trees with very distinctive shapes that seem to point out destinations. There are those that believe that these strange-looking trees are nothing more than the products of nature. Others believe that early pioneers formed trail-marker trees to direct travel through what they perceived as untamed wilderness, while others are convinced that these trees are entirely of Native American origin. Those advocating formation by Native Americans point out that some trees are far too old to have been fashioned by Europeans, like the 800-year-old live oak marker tree in Georgia. They also point out that early pioneer journals and diaries hardly mention their making-something that someone surely would have recorded if these early travelers had a hand in crafting them.

However, the references to trail-marker trees that do exist give valuable information as does the Lake Zurich Area History of Ela Township: "The township was crisscrossed with Indian trails and because forests, brush, tall prairie grass and sloughs made travel difficult, they [trail-marker trees] were invaluable to the early settlers. Indian tree trail-markers led more than one worried traveler to the safety of his home. Where a trail might be hard to follow, a sapling was bent and its upper end fastened to the ground. As the sapling grew it formed a horizon-tal "Z" that pointed to the next village or point of interest."

Both Native Americans and pioneers could have made them-a view expressed by an early, well-respected archaeologist, Robert E. Ritzenthaler, in an article appearing in the Wisconsin Archeologist, Volume 46, Number 3, 1965. Those under 200 years of age in Illinois would have to have been made by pioneers: Certainly, it is conceivable that early Europeans would have been quick to copy this practice of Native Americans. The oldest ones-those up to 300 years old and older-would most likely have been made by Native Americans, with only a remote possibility that early French explorers or trappers could have made them.

There is evidence to suggest that these trees may have directed Native Americans along a vast network of trails throughout much of the eastern and southwestern portions of the United States. Indeed, the widespread occurrence of trail-marker trees has been noted in several accounts. Raymond E. Janssen, in the February 1940 issue of Natural History magazine, eludes to their far-ranging distribution: "They are most numerous in the region about Chicago, but may also be seen in various locations throughout the Mississippi Valley, in Texas, and in the Great Smoky Mountains and Pocono Mountains in the East. I have seen them in Southern Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas."

The remaining trail-marker trees go relatively unnoticed in today's world, like the white oak along a rural Logan County road. Though it was in a grove containing other trees, there was something unusual about this tree that made it distinct. It had a most peculiar shape. Instead of growing straight and tall like the other trees, its massive trunk bent sharply toward the west, almost running parallel to the ground for a distance of several feet before ending abruptly in a point or "nose."

Local opinions vary on what caused this oak's odd shape. Some believe its form was due to the accumulation of ice during a severe winter storm that bent it to the ground and held it there for a prolonged amount of time, saying it was never able to straighten once the ice was gone. Others insist that another tree fell and pinned it to the ground when it was a sapling, causing it to grow in an irregular manner. Both viewpoints were right about one thing. It had been pinned down, but probably not by ice or another tree.

There is a good chance that Native Americans shaped the tree for use as a trail marker well over 200 years ago. After the tree was bent to the ground, the sapling could have been tied to stakes using strips of animal skin or rawhide, a method described by Ritzenthaler and others. Its form was set by the time the rawhide deteriorated. In this case, it appears that the leader was cut off with the intention of forming a nose pointing in the desired direction. Two vertical sprouts off of the nearly horizontal main trunk became secondary trunks. This tree was at the edge of open woodland where it could have directed travelers west toward Elkhart Hill in Logan County, a high forest-covered site a few miles to the west that offered shade, a high vantage point, and two good springs.

Most trail-marker trees in the eastern United States are oaks: Hickories, maples, and elms were sometimes used because of their strength and flexibility. Although oaks are among the most common trees, abundance alone is not reason enough for their use as trail-marker trees. Oaks are unique because they bend easily without breaking when they are saplings. This is a most important trait because trail-marker trees require a considerable amount of bending during their formation. In addition, white, bur, and post oaks have the potential to live for 300 years or more, and they are very resistant to fire and heart rot. They also have the capacity to heal readily and compartmentalize wounds. This would have been especially valuable because wildland fires were common when Native Americans occupied the land.