Bending history
Indian Trail trees offer a look into the past
by SARAH JONES Calhoun Times1E24_trail_tree_0202.JPG

Spotted across the continental United States, Indian trail marker trees offer insight into a heritage and tradition long forgotten.

According to Donald Wells, president of Mountain Stewards out of Jasper, these “funny bent trees” tell the tale of the Native American’s way of life, prior to European colonization.

In his presentation of “Mystery of the Trees — A Lost Native American Culture,”Wells explained the importance of these trees to the Friends of New Echota during the group’s monthly meeting Thursday.

The ancient marker trees marked Native American graves, camp sites, water, trails or “just about anything,” Wells said.

“They bent trees. This was their maker, their sign,” he said. “We probably have the best database (of trees) of all the evidence.”

Mountain Stewards members have been working for years to document all of the Indian marker trees throughout the United States and into Canada.

The process of bending

Although the exact mechanics of how Native Americans bent the trees is unknown, Mountain Stewards has been able to shine light on the basics of the process.

According to Wells, the Indians took a small sapling and bent it horizontal to the ground. The tree was tied to the ground for a year, allowing it to grow into a bend. At the end of that year, the Indians would bend the tree again and begin shaping it for its particular function.

“They bent them all different ways,” he said, and some trees were bent in groups of two or three.

Marker trees typically had a “nose” on the front, which would atrophy or be cut off after the initial bending process.

The bending process usually took between five and 10 years, Wells explained.

Besides trail markers, the trees served as, prayer trees, medicine trees, campsite markers, witness trees and grave markers.

“Trees were spiritual to the Indians,” Wells explained.

The Utes in the west used Ponderosa Pines as prayer trees, he said.. Every year during their spiritual pilgrimage, the tribe would return to their tree and continue the bending process. Once the process was complete, the Utes would offer tobacco to the tree because they believed their ancestors resided there.

The trees also played a part in human healing processes. The cambium layer of bark, inside the outer and inner layer of bark contains as much calcium as nine glasses of milk, Wells said. Indians in some tribes would eat this bark to nourish themselves to survive the winter.

Many of the trees used as markers in the south were white oaks, according to Wells; these trees have been found to mark water and trails.

The Comanche Indians used pecan trees as campsite markers to mark favorable sites with high bluffs and flat ground near water.

Other marker trees known as “witness trees” were carved with messages that only Indians knew how to read, ac-cording to Wells. This practice was adopted by early American settlers for use in surveying, he added.

A lost tradition

The tradition of tree marking faded with the waning population of early Native Americans. The Indians were an orally-based society, Wells explained, and many of their traditions have been lost to time.

After the arrival of Europeans in America, many tribes were forced to abandon certain aspects of their culture.

“The elders are the key (to these traditions),” Wells said. “But over time, they were lost.”

In the late 1800s, many Indian children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were “brainwashed,” Wells said. The children were not allowed to speak their native language or learn about their ancestors.

Therefore, Native American descendants were not allowed to pass on the secret of the trees, and because of this, the tradition has been lost.

“We don’t know a lot about the trees because of 250 years of government policy, lost numbers, lost way of life, lost knowledge, and lost culture,” he said.

Indian culture is on the rebound, however, with many descendants and advocates working to restore it.

“They (the Cherokees) are bringing it back,” Wells said.

Indian trails

In addition to mapping trail marker trees, Mountain Stewards maps old Indian trails throughout the United States.

According to Wells, the majority of the maps from that time period were old surveyor maps. Mountain Stewards members take those maps when available and walk the area to find old Indian trails.

According to Wells, several trails have been found in the New Echota area of Gordon County.

The trail running through New Echota runs from St. Augustine, Fla., to Cincinatti, Ohio, Wells explained, and it’s still there today.

When Mountain Stewards finds a trail, they register it on Google Earth, Wells said.

About Mountain Stewards

Mountain Stewards, a non-profit organization, was founded in 2003 after Wells and four of his friends sparked an interest in bent trees while building hiking trails.

Mountain Stewards began the Trail Tree Project in 2007.

“It just took off like a rocket,” Wells said.

Since its founding, Mountain Stewards has mapped over 1,000 miles of Indian trails and documented more than 1,600 trees in 39 states across the United States.

“We felt like it was something that needed to be done,” he said. “… we’re trying to document this heritage.”

Mountain Stewards has also compiled more 70 hours of documentary film about the trees and trails.

In 2009, the organization teamed up with Cherokee Preservation Project to collaborate with in this effort, and received an additional contract for 2011-2012.

Mountain Stewards has met with various Indian tribes, particularly with the eastern band of the Cherokees, Wells said. He and his team have interviewed several elders to gain knowledge about this culture.

“We’re going to continue as long as we can keep finding things,” he said.

They are now gathering enough materials to present their findings to Congress and change laws to protect the trees, according to Wells. Current legislation does not protect living historical sites, he explained, and Mountain Stewards is working to change that.

Wells is also in the process of publishing “Mystery of the Trees – A Loss of Indian Culture” which is set to come out later this year.

Those who might believe they have found a trail marker tree may report the tree online at

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