Thursday, February 19, 2009

Trail trees of the Ozarks

Indians bent trees to making living signs

By Mike Walker

Road signs, billboards, and maps are crucial to find a service or location, and it would certainly turn into a real adventure in Missouri without knowing the way. Signs today are much larger than they were 70 years ago because increased speeds make reading the message a much shorter experience. Signs on major roadways are overused, and many go ignored because the displayed message is not important to the reader. As signs evolved, logos were introduced, which allowed the reader to selectively identify and determine in a split second the specific type of food, fuel, or other services offered.
American Indians, long ago, had similar needs when traveling and used signs to lead them throughout the trails of Missouri. A natural approach was used offering a long lasting and interesting item to find while traveling. Without understanding what to look for, many drive by these signs without noticing them.
American Indian trail trees may be the remains of Missouri's first "living" signs, standing silent and unrecognized for many years. While little has been written about the trees, many people know of their existence, but others deny them and state they only occur naturally.
Early settlers have always left some type of sign to mark a significant feature. Blaze marks were used to mark property lines and roadways. An axe or broad knife was used to slice away a section of the tree's bark. Major roadways have significantly changed in the last century with the exception of our secondary roads. Along these secondary roads is where you will find the majority of trail trees.
In the early days before Europeans arrived, American Indians followed game for food. Larger game, such as deer and elk, left trails throughout Missouri by taking the easiest route on ridges and spurs; a twisting winding route was not of importance or likely noted because it was easier to travel. Likewise, American Indians knew to follow these paths of migration leading to areas of necessity; for example, a game-feeding area became a hunting area. Along the way trail trees were constructed to point to springs, low-water crossings, caves for shelter, and areas to gather medicine. The result of all this traffic became a trail, similar to what we use today in the form of roads.
Early settlers did not mind the twisting, turning trails we have in Missouri because they traveled at a snail's pace on horseback. In sharp comparison the speeds at which we travel today on Interstate 44 from Rolla to St. Robert is a good example of the change that has occurred over time.
Previously, Interstate 44 was a series of twisting s-turns, and two years ago it was re-routed along this section to provide a straighter roadway. Interstate 44 was a former trail leading early settlers from St. Louis westward. After the introduction of the horse came wagons, then motorized traffic appeared in early 1900. The need to have two-way roads thus widened the trails. Modernization was bad for the trail tree; an undetermined number have been cut down because these natural signs were no longer needed and the historical importance was not understood.
Trail trees have been referred to as language trees, bent trees, thong trees, signal trees, and Indian marker trees, depending upon the graphical part of the United States where they have been found. Elaine Jordan wrote "Indian Trail Trees," the only book on the subject. Jordan has found and documented more than 300 trail trees in northern Georgia.
The Central District Garden Clubs of Missouri previously affixed small white metal signs next to trail trees in Missouri. Two trail trees with signs can be found near Indian Bridal Cave outside Camdenton and Lake Saint Louis. Trail trees exist in Pulaski, Texas, Phelps, Camden, and Laclede counties. Of those identified, all are white oak. The oldest and largest have been found in Texas County, though hundreds more wait to be discovered.
Not all bent trees are considered trail trees because a tree falling upon another in the forest can bend it to mistakenly resemble a trail tree, though it is missing other indicators, including:
* Predominate bump or nose. This is a very significant feature and is the result of the tree being topped (top section of the tree removed). This stops the tree from growing as a normal one would, then the sapling tethered to the ground allows the branches to grow skyward rather than horizontally. This bump has been duplicated in design several times leaving different configurations, some with single, double, and triple vertical risers. Bumps on the tree can appear in other areas other than where the tree was topped.
* Located near roads or trails. The American Indians traveled upon our current roads, used trail trees, and left signs for future reference.
* Typically white oak. American Indians knew of the trees' hardiness, longevity, and ability to withstand bending.
* A final and true discriminator would be to find a trail tree pointing in the direction of another trail tree of similar diameter and construction. A series of four of these trees lead to a fording site on the Roubidoux River in Pulaski County.
The surrounding area where trail trees are found may provide information from the past. As the loggers of Missouri harvested timber and clear-cut many areas, they had no use for a bent tree and possibly knew of their significance, so some trail trees were left.
Finding trail trees is easiest during the winter when the majority of leaves have fallen; it also helps after it snows because snow will fall and rest upon the horizontal areas of the tree discriminating it from other trees. In a given area the largest tree in diameter may be the trail tree, or the trail tree may be surrounded by short-leaf pine, as it grew in place of the previous oaks that had been deforested. Trail trees with leaves on can be found by using an approach used by hunters. Look deeper than normal and search for horizontal lines. Most vertical lines appear naturally by foliage growing toward the sun. Train your eyes to look at objects horizontal.
Oak trees die from the inside; the hollowing of the inside weakens the tree, and it falls over. A good example of this is located on Fort Leonard Wood and can be seen along Oklahoma Avenue. This tree was cored in 2002, and the installation forester determined that it was at least 152 years old, though not all of the rings were counted because it is hollow. This tree has cracks on both sides allowing you to see through the tree. Five trail trees have been located on Fort Leonard Wood so far; all have a predominate bump, are located next to a road or trail, and are White Oak.
Until you have seen a trail tree up close and examined the bumps and bends, it is difficult to understand or describe the greatness it beholds; photos do not give it justice.
Many of the remaining trail trees are located on private property, and the land owners' permission must be gained before viewing them any closer than from the car. Trail trees in Missouri are quickly vanishing due to modernization and the widening and straightening of our secondary roads. Because of their age, the majority may not last another century. If anyone has seen or found a trail tree in the Pulaski County area, contact me at or 573.759.3908.

Mike Walker lives in Dixon and works for the Quality Assurance Element, United States Army Engineer School Fort Leonard Wood, has a BA in history, and has studied and researched American Indian trail trees throughout the Ozarks of Missouri since 1997.

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