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Bent Trees as Trail Markers

Every once in a while, you’ll see a tree that grew horizontally for a while before it returned to growing vertically. These bent trees could have resulted from ice or high winds, but there could be another explanation: they were bent by people, for a reason. Specifically, some trees found in American forests were bent by Native Americans for the purpose of marking trails. They were signposts, meant to last a long time. And many of them did. Dennis Downes heard this reasoning behind bent trees when he was a child, and later spent 28 years researching the idea by documenting trees, scanning the historical records, and interviewing Native Americans.

Much of the older work documenting marker trees happened before World War II and before the interstate highway system swept through the country, which required cutting down forests—be they bent or not. One Native American historian told Downes that before the concrete roads came through, it was much more common to find marker trees in Illinois and Wisconsin, for instance. By the time Downes started rediscovering them, even more had been lost. At one point, there were at least 11 bent trees along a trail that went from the shores of Lake Michigan to Skokie, Illinois, around a swampy area. When Janssen was writing, seven of those remained. Some of those seven have since died.

Perhaps the best evidence for man-made marker trees comes from tribal elders. In one case, for example, Earl Otchingwanigan, a professor emeritus and Smithsonian consultant, showed Downes a marker tree that had been created in 1933, by two men who had been 70 at the time–old enough to have at least learned the practice from people who might have shaped original marker trees.

Read about Downes’ quest to find trail marker trees and discern their meaning at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Dennis Downes)


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