Trees of Lore and Legend

Theories and legends abound as to exactly how trail-marker trees were formed and how Native Americans used them. There are many questions regarding these unique trees, but their answers appear to be buried somewhere back in time. Now conjecture surrounds the various shapes of these trees, how they were formed, and their intended use.

Trail-marker trees were apparently important and many tribes used them while traveling. What is certain is that not all marker trees had a "Z" shape. Tribes are thought to have had their own methods of making them, and these methods changed with time. In general, oak saplings were bent and tied to stakes using a rope or strings of animal skin or raw-hide. The direction of the bend indicated the correct course for the traveler. Sometimes rocks were placed on the ground to provide additional emphasis to the direction indicated by the bend of the tree.

Cutting the leader about three feet above one to three lateral branches altered this general method of forming marker trees. Once the sapling was bent and tied down, moss or other material would be packed around the cut leader, hoping to form a nose. With the passage of time, the lateral branches would grow upright, becoming the secondary trunks of the tree. These types of trees sometimes resemble a letter or number, like the white oak once present near Loami in Sangamon County in the 1950s. It was known as the "Old 4 Tree" because of its unusual branching that resembled the number four.

In another method of shaping marker trees, the leader was not cut. The entire sapling was bent to the ground and tied to stakes. With the passage of time, the leader would turn back up toward the sun and continue growing. The bend in these trees tended to be rather dramatic and lengthy, causing these trees to be called "treasure trees." This term fostered legends of buried treasures where the leader was tied to the ground.

photo by Michael R. Jeffords

Some marker trees directed travelers to water, causing pioneers to call them "water trees." It was an appropriate name. A well-known marker tree, located in a state park in Wisconsin, points to a rapidly flowing spring. Though not as commonly named, these trees were also known as "buffalo trees" because Native Americans were supposed to have aired out buffalo robes by hanging them on the low-lying trunks.

Some marker trees became known as "message trees" because their hollow noses were locations where message sticks could have been left for travelers. They were also called "thong trees" due to the use of a rawhide string or thong to tie the tree to stakes. When horses became widely used in the eastern United States, the term "horse and rider tree" was applied to those bent at greater heights so riders could see them. The bend in these trees was about 8 feet from the ground instead of just a few feet as in the days of foot travel.

There were also trees that supposedly marked boundaries between tribes. Instead of being horizontal, these trees were upright with two or three main branches coming off of the main trunk at the same point, much like a candelabra or a football goal post. A few of these "boundary trees" were still present in northern Illinois as recently as the 1970s.

Our forests of today contain numerous trees growing at odd angles, but very few of them could have been authentic trail-marker trees for Native Americans. Such a tree in Illinois would likely be an oak 200 to 300 or more years old, considering that Native Americans have been absent from Illinois since the 1830s. One living trail-marker tree in central Illinois was determined to be nearly 300 years, indicating that it began growth in the early 1700s. Trail-marker trees are also likely to be on high ground or in open country where they could be seen easily. Travel was easier here, and the high land gave travelers the opportunity to see game or enemies at greater distances. Illinois was much wetter in the days before drainage; and sloughs, marshes, and wet prairies abounded. Strong winds also kept the high grounds free of leaves during autumn and snow during winter.

Though many marker trees were once present in Illinois, most have grown old and died. Some probably were cut when forests were cleared for agriculture by pioneers. Others may have been regarded as "wolf trees" and removed in timber management practices. However, not all loggers are willing to cut marker trees. Destroying them was thought to arouse the spirits of the ancients, resulting in some very bad luck.