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James Stewart
One of the Indian trail trees, the location of which are kept secret.

A Group’s Quest to Find and Save Indian Trail Trees

Lynn Armitage
5/3/13

In 2002, a group of retired men began hiking together once a week in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and started finding old, scenic trails they claimed nobody knew about. They decided to revive these trails and make them available to the public, first forming a nonprofit group called Mountain Stewards, headed by president Don Wells.

Operating initially under an agreement with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Mountain Stewards began work on their first trails in 2005. With the help of grants and private donations, the group has refurbished and interconnected more than 70 miles of hiking and water trails in Georgia, and constructed a number of bridges and canoe launch sites, providing safe outdoor recreation to the public and preserving the region’s cultural and historic beauty.

The location of trees is kept secret to protect them.“It’s refreshing; you get out in nature. It’s like our own personal health-care program,” the 73-year-old Wells says by way of explaining what motivated this “trail crew of nine old men” to work two days a week, 46 weeks a year for about five hours a day.

During some of their hikes, the Mountain Stewards discovered something unexpected. “We started finding Indian trails that we could document from historical maps… and we were locating oddly shaped trees on these trails that had been bent by Indians,” Wells said, adding that Native Americans used these trees like ancient global positioning systems, to help them find their way to and from a particular destination.

Realizing they had stumbled upon living Native relics, the Mountain Stewards, in collaboration with Wild South, and people from five other states, started the Indian Trail Tree Project and Indian Trails Mapping Program that aimed to map Indian trails and document these amazing trail trees not only in Georgia, but all across the country, in the highly confidential National Trail Trees database that now includes 2,034 trees in 40 states.

Now known as the Indian Cultural Heritage Program, these trail-saving efforts have evolved into a book written by Wells and his wife, Diane. Mystery of the Trees, published in December 2011, caught the attention of Sam Proctor, an elder and culture consultant with the Muskogee (Creek) Nation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, who had a dream about a particular bent tree more than a decade ago. “When I was visiting down in south Georgia, I dreamed that my ancestors showed me a trail they used back and forth from the village to the watering hole. They also showed me this oddly shaped tree and I never even thought anything about it until I saw Don Wells’s book,” Proctor said.

Wells knew the exact spot Proctor had seen in his dream, and on a visit hosted by the author and his wife, they found the bent tree and watering hole once used by the Muskogee (Creek) Indians. “It was a very spiritual experience,” Proctor recalled.

Since then, Wells has confirmed seven other Muskogee (Creek) trail sites in Georgia and Alabama, and is making plans with Proctor for future visits. Wells has also helped elders from a number of other tribes find their ancestral roots—literally.

ICTMN talked with Wells about the Indian trail trees. A documentary about them is also in the works.

What are Indian trail trees?
Back in the 1600s and 1700s, when Indians were traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Canada to Mexico, there were trails all over the United States. They didn’t have GPS or a map, so to find their way from A to B and back home again, they had marker trees, or trail trees, or a signal tree or a yoke tree—they had all kinds of different names for them. These trees would be bent as saplings, when they were about ¾-inch in size, and tied down. They would be left that way for a year and lock into that position. They used them to mark trails, crossing points on streams, springs to find water and medicinal sites where they would get plants.

Are these trees sacred?
The Indians believe the trees are sacred, and one reason it was hard to find a lot of information about them is because Indians didn’t want the white folks to know about them. Because, like everything else we’ve touched, we destroyed. When Indians are standing near these trees, they believe their ancestors are there or nearby. Particularly the Ute Indians, who call their trees prayer trees. They think these trees are very sacred, so we treat them that way.

Does your book tell people where these trees are?
No, it does not. These trees are not protected by national preservation laws, so people can cut them down, damage them or do bad things to them. You can go to our website…and get a bigger picture, but all you know is that tree is somewhere within 1,000 square miles in a certain state. You will never be able to find it from the information that we show. People call us all the time and say, “Please tell us where this tree is, we want to go see it.” And I say, “No, I’m not going to tell you because I don’t want you to go destroy them.”

How do you find these trees?
Not easily. With urban development and agriculture, we have lost hundreds, if not thousands of them. So where you can find them is in national forests and areas that have not been greatly disturbed, mountain community areas. We also rely on the public to tell us, if Wells started the project in 2005. (Lamar Marshall)someone comes across one.

How does someone report a tree to you?
Go to our website MountainStewards.org, and under Trail Tree Project, click on Submit a Tree. Then we dialogue with you. We have some researchers scattered around the country, and if one is near that tree, we’ll ask them to go look at it and collect data.

How do you confirm that the tree is an authentic Indian trail tree?
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 Indians. 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.

What is the most spectacular trail tree you have seen?
Probably the one that is on the front cover of our book—it is in northeast Georgia. That tree is roughly three feet in diameter, bent fairly close to the ground, and stretched out about 20 feet before it goes up vertically. You look at that and say, “No way in heck could that have ever been done by mother nature.”

What do these trees tell you about Native Americans from many years ago?
That they were very smart and very close to the Earth. They could name every plant and know what they could use it for. They knew the trees and could use them to their benefit. That’s why pioneers hired Indians as guides—that’s the only way they could get around. These people knew a lot and they were very smart and very knowledgeable. Unfortunately, a lot of knowledge is gone now because we lost the elders.

Tell us about the documentary.
About the same time we were publishing the book, a friend named Robert Wells (no kin to me), who is a filmmaker, said we needed to make a documentary about the trees. So in 2007, we started traveling across the Southeast and out West to interview Native American elders from numerous tribes who have confirmed that their ancestors bent the trees. We have 80 hours of film in the can, and about half is edited. We are in the script writing stages right now, and we have narrators and a music guy lined up. Hopefully by this summer, we will have the first hour of a three-hour series that will be in a DVD format, to go with the book. We also want to produce a 21-minute version that will go into a half-hour TV program, and a 42-minute version for a one-hour show. Then we’ll take it to PBS or some public TV group and get them to air it.

So far, you have identified 2,034 trees in 40 states. How many more do you think are still undiscovered?
Every year, I say, “This must be the end of it. We don’t have any more.” Then we find another hundred or so. I don’t know if we will ever find the end of it. They haven’t dried up. There are another 12 states that we haven’t looked in yet. We’re also finding them in Canada.

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Comments

Doortje's picture
Doortje
Submitted by Doortje on
This is my heritage, ages of senceless death and destruction. Every time I read these stories I feel deep regret and shame. I am white.

Will Kendrick's picture
Will Kendrick
Submitted by Will Kendrick on
I remember one from childhood we called elk tree. It's was in the southern Illinois town of Johnston City. About a mile from it was a creek where the tribes camped. I know this cause we use to pick-up arrowheads and other relics. I tryed to get my son to look for it to see if it was still there,but could'nt get him to go look.There's lots of these trees in Illinois

aiahninchi ohoyo's picture
aiahninchi ohoyo
Submitted by aiahninchi ohoyo on
learn something new every day...this info certainly is not in 'history' books...unfortunately trees are not treated with respect in tx...cut down for fence posts, or because they are in the way of builders...

Pat's picture
Pat
Submitted by Pat on
It’s great to see this interesting article about these unusual trees. I enjoyed the article. The first time I heard of Mr. Wells was in the definitive book on Trail Marker Trees by Dennis Downes where he talked about Mr. Wells writing to him about this project and asking his advice. Mr. Downes had been researching and documenting trees across the country for over 30 years. In 2007, Mr. Wells wrote a very nice thank you to Mr. Downes stating “We located your web site and were very impressed with what you have accomplished in the past few decades documenting the legacy of the Indian Trail Trees”. Mr. Downes published this note from Mr. Wells in his recent book, Native American Trail Marker Trees, Marking Paths Through the Wilderness giving credit to Mr. Wells and the Mountain Stewards for their efforts in Georgia with the advice and hopes of Mr. Downes that the trees would remain safe as they worked on this project. Thanks to Dennis Downes for the years of research to start this quest to preserve and document the Trail Marker Trees and the continued progress from the Mountain Stewards and the many groups around the country who are now working to preserve these great trees and keep them safe.

Theresa Ong's picture
Theresa Ong
Submitted by Theresa Ong on
Trees are very sacred to the Seneca and Oneida peoples, two of the Iroquois Nations. The white pine tree is especially so. The love of trees is deep in me and is a part of my 1/16th Seneca and Oneida heritage. The Iroquois people used trees as a form of communication by marking them. I am so happy you are keeping the location of the sacred trees you talk about a secret.

Terri Wood's picture
Terri Wood
Submitted by Terri Wood on
Just read this article about these wonderful trees and these wonderful people who are protecting them. Want to say Thank you. What a awesome thing you are doing to save them. Keep up the good work .

gary donatelli's picture
gary donatelli
Submitted by gary donatelli on
As an amateur historian, professional documentarian, writer, and avid hiker, I applaud the work done by Diane and Don Wells with both the book, and with Mountain Stewards, yet at the same time, I am curious as to why renowned researcher Dennis Downes, author of “Native American Trail Marker Trees – Marking Paths Through The Wilderness” (2011), and Founder of the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society, was not mentioned in the article by Mr. Wells, it being such an in-depth interview. Mr.Downes, who has been documenting trail marker trees for over 30 years, met Mr. Wells when Mr.Downes was doing research for his chapter regarding Georgia, and in fact mentioned Mr.Wells in his book. There is a photo of them together. I certainly wouldn’t expect a plug for Mr.Downes’ book here, but his research was certainly a source for Mystery of The Trees, and it is curious to me why Mr. Wells did not acknowledge him for his contribution to the Wells’ knowledge of this subject. It is my hope that all groups throughout the Americas will work together toward the goal of protecting and recognizing these natural treasures, and that if a documentary as mentioned in the article , is indeed produced, that it entails all of the research done by the recognized, authorities, Native American and otherwise.

Gary Donatelli's picture
Gary Donatelli
Submitted by Gary Donatelli on
After my comments yesterday, I was informed that contrary to what I posted yesterday, Mr. Wells and Mr. Downes did NOT meet in Georgia. In the desire for truth to prevail, I wish to make an adjustment to my statement yesterday, by adding a quote in this regard from Mr. Downes’ book. I apologize for the inaccuracy. As an amateur historian, professional documentarian, writer, and avid hiker, I applaud the work done by Diane and Don Wells with both the book, and with Mountain Stewards, yet at the same time, I am curious as to why renowned researcher Dennis Downes, author of “Native American Trail Marker Trees – Marking Paths Through The Wilderness” (2011), and Founder of the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society, was not mentioned in the article by Mr. Wells, it being such an in-depth interview. Mr.Downes, who has been documenting trail marker trees for over 30 years, mentioned Mr.Wells in his book. Mr. Wells wrote in Dennis’ book: The Mountain Stewards has been studying and documenting Indian Trail Trees in North GA for about five years, way short of what you (Mr. Downes) have accomplished in the Great Lakes Region and elsewhere. We located your website and were very impressed with what you have accomplished in the past few decades documenting the legacy of the Indian Trail trees.” I certainly wouldn’t expect a plug for Mr.Downes’ book here, but his research was certainly a source for Mystery of The Trees, and it is curious to me why Mr. Wells did not acknowledge him for his contribution to the Wells’ knowledge of this subject. It is my hope that all groups throughout the Americas will work together toward the goal of protecting and recognizing these natural treasures, and that if a documentary as mentioned in the article , is indeed produced, that it entails all of the research done by the recognized, authorities, Native American and otherwise.

janet.c.davies@abc.com's picture
janet.c.davies@...
Submitted by janet.c.davies@... on
I discovered a trail marker treee on family property in Michgian. To verify, I was introduced to Dennis Downes. Mr. Downes has exhaustively researched and documented the history and sites of these trees. I am puzzled as to why he is not mentioned by Mr. Wells who obviously has been, in part, influenced by him. Full disclosure - I am a journalist and wrote the intro for Mr. Downe's book. I did so because I was truly impressed by his breadth of knowledge and continue to see him as a foremost authority on this subject.

Mary Lynn Munro's picture
Mary Lynn Munro
Submitted by Mary Lynn Munro on
As a thru hiker of the Appalachian Trail, I saw a number of trees that spoke of old history. One of the most interesting was the kissing trees next to the Pass Mountain Hut in Virginia. After reading your story, I will look with new eyes at the trees I pass hiking.

Liz Fox's picture
Liz Fox
Submitted by Liz Fox on
I am always glad to see more information available about these historic icons. However, I am very curious when the Mountain Stewards changed their position on giving out exact locations of the Trail Marker Trees. For many years, the Mountain Stewards gave out exact GPS coordinates of the trees and had them open to the public on their website. This created some distention between their group and other Trail Marker Tree researchers and enthusiasts. Clearly, it is a new change of heart, and I am glad to see it as it is better late than never. Dennis Downes, who has been researching these trees for over 30 years, has always taken the stance of protecting these Native American icons from the beginning. Something he continued even through the publication of his inclusive book "Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness."

Mike Thompson's picture
Mike Thompson
Submitted by Mike Thompson on
I discovered a trail tree on my property 20 years ago. I would like someone from your group to see and document it! Thanks

julie hopson's picture
julie hopson
Submitted by julie hopson on
There is a HUGE bent tree behind an olde friend of mine's house, between canton and waleska. I told him about the tree story, but I imagine he never contacted you~

julie hopson's picture
julie hopson
Submitted by julie hopson on
There is a HUGE bent tree behind an olde friend of mine's house, between canton and waleska. I told him about the tree story, but I imagine he never contacted you~
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