How did people navigate forests before GPS, maps, signs, or even painted trail trackers? If you enjoy hiking in nature, you may have passed by the answer without realizing it. Native Americans found a way to leave clues without infringing on the environment. Plus, their method lasted a long time, much longer than a piece of knotted rope or a stripe of paint. In fact, you can see their handiwork today in the form of trail trees.
The History of Trail Trees
Like street signs today, trail trees pointed to important locations like spots to cross rivers, sites of medicinal plants, and council circles. “[Native Americans] were very smart and very close to the Earth,” said Don Wells, who helps map these trees for the Trail Tree Project. “They could name every plant and know what they could use it for. They knew the trees and could use them to their benefit.” 
However, if you come across one of the trees, you may not be able to follow the trail. Native Americans once used them to cross long distances, but as the United States developed and deforested, the trees became fewer and farther between.
Looking at these specimens today, it may seem impossible to understand how they could have been shaped by people, but the Native Americans’ methods were quite simple. First, they’d find a hardwood sapling only a few inches wide in diameter. Then, they’d bend the sapling in the desired direction and tie it down with vines, rawhide, or bark. Sometimes, a rock or a pile of dirt was sufficient to hold the tiny plant in place. After a year, the sapling would naturally grow into this locked position, and once the rawhide or rock is removed, it would continue to develop this shape on its own. A sprawling of these trees easily led travelers toward specific locations.
Trail trees were the most permanent and commonly used method for mapping. But when saplings were not around, Native Americans would bend a low branch of a large tree in a similar way. And if no trees were available, they’d create markers out of piled stones.
Now, shaping trees like this didn’t hurt them, but it did greatly impact their development. For example, since the sapling was bent toward the earth, it would develop a second trunk that would grow straight upwards and create branches and leaves. The first trunk, now bent, may lose its branches to decay. Or, if it bent enough to reach the ground, it would grow another set of roots. But aside from that, the trees continue to expand upward and in diameter, with one trunk still pointing toward a now-unknown location.
Trail Trees or Regular Trees?
Keep in mind not every bent tree was molded by a Native American. In fact, most aren’t. Trees can look bent or bowed for a number of reasons, including weather beatings, fallen objects, and animal interference. Even experts may struggle to distinguish between naturally bowed trees and trail trees. They depend on finding markers like the bend being close to the ground; nearby trees bent the same way, and proximity to a feature like a path or spring. 
Of course, the trees also have to be old enough to have lived when Native tribes inhabited the area. “The ideal way is to core the tree — find out the age of the tree to determine if it would have been there around the time [of the Native Americans],” said Wells. “But we can’t go all over the country coring trees. Second way is to look for artifacts around the area. We collect as much information as we can, then make the best judgment call.”
Noteworthy Trees in the U.S.
Currently, the National Trail Trees database documents over 2,000 trail trees across 40 states in the U.S. However, because these trees are not under any legal protection, their exact locations remain a closely-kept secret. “All you know is that tree is somewhere within 1,000 square miles in a certain state,” Wells said. “You will never be able to find it from the information that we show.” But the chances of finding one increases in protected areas like national forest lands or mountain communities with limited modern development.
There are a few famous ones, however, like a traditional oak trail tree in Gilmer County, Georgia. It was once used by Native Americans of the Appalachian Mountains. Another classic trail tree, called the White Oak, stands in Traverse City, Michigan, where the residents have protected it with fences and even held ceremonies around it. And two oak trail trees reside in White Country, Indiana, both on private property. The owners and community take care of these trees as a show of respect to their long history and heritage. 
Keep Reading: DNA evidence sheds new light on mystery about where Native Americans came from
- “Trail Trees Are a Living Native American Legacy.” Tree Hugger. Laura Moss. June 17, 2019
- “Did Native Americans Bend These Trees to Mark Trails?” Atlas Obscura. Sarah Laskow. January 5, 2016
- “Trail Trees – Native Americans would bend saplings to make living sign posts.” The Vintage News. Ian Harvey. May 19, 2017