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Marquette County trail marker trees, part 1

A trail marker tree in southeastern Marquette County is pictured. (Photo courtesy of Bill Van Kosky via the Marquette Regional History Center)

Among the illustrations in my 1948 Boy Scout handbook was a drawing of a strange-looking tree. It was referred to as an Indian trail marker. I never expected to actually see such a thing, but the drawing was unusual enough so that the memory of it stayed in my brain, to lie dormant there for twenty years.

In 1968, when my wife and I wanted to build a house in the country, we bought 50 acres of forested land southeast of Marquette. One day while hiking on a trail through our newly-acquired property, I noticed a deformed tree. I realized that it looked like the picture of a trail marker I remembered from my Scout handbook.

Having no idea of the real significance of this find, I only thought it remarkable that I had never expected to see a trail marker tree, and now, due to pure chance, I apparently owned one. So what? I considered it to be nothing more than an interesting curiosity. The only person I showed it to was my wife. I didn’t think anyone else would be interested.

Another 45 years elapsed. When the Marquette Regional History Center issued its list of 2014 programs, one of the presentations was on the subject of trail marker trees. The program brochure mentioned that the presenter, Illinois resident Dennis Downes, was president of the Midwest Trail Marker Tree Association, and had written a book entitled Native American Trail Marker Trees. Here was a chance for me to learn whatever there was to know about trail markers.

After listening to Downes’ presentation and talking with him afterward, my attitude toward our marker tree underwent a radical change. Now I realized that what I had thought of as an interesting curiosity was actually a historically and culturally significant living link to a bygone era. I invited Downes to come out and look at our tree, but his travel schedule was too tight.

Later I tried to contact Downes, only to learn that he was seriously ill. But, if the man himself was not available for consultation, his book was. The Peter White Public Library had a copy of it, which I read. It transported me back a few centuries to a time when Native American culture was dominant on our continent.

Like other peoples who live close to nature, North American Indians were keen observers of their surroundings. They knew how to use the sun, moon and stars to help them find their way on journeys, and took notice of any distinctive natural objects along the way.

Natural landmarks, where available, were helpful to wilderness travelers, but they were scattered randomly over the land. Indians recognized the need to create markers of some kind (forerunners of what we refer to as sign posts) that could be put at locations of their choosing. This need was greatest in the vast, densely forested region between the Atlantic coast and Mississippi River, where sight distance was limited.

The trail marker tree in our forest is a sugar maple about eighty feet high. Diameter, measured around the curve three feet above the root flare, is twenty-nine inches. Diameter measured just above the elbow where the trunk turns upward, is twenty inches.

I have cut down several nearby sugar maple trees for firewood. All were approximately the same height as the marker tree but were only eight to 10 inches in diameter.

Counting annual rings revealed that these trees were about 110 years old. The trail marker tree is significantly larger in diameter than the firewood trees, and therefore much older. 200 years is, I believe, a very conservative estimate of its age.

If this estimate is reasonably accurate, our trail marker tree was serving its intended purpose before the first white prospectors and settlers began straggling into Marquette County during the 1840s.

In 2020 I sent photographs and dimensions to the Midwest Trail Marker Tree Association. The reply confirmed that our old sugar maple has the identifying characteristics of an authentic trail marker tree.

The tree points southeast, which is also the orientation of the nearby trail. There is no way to tell where this trail led, because bulldozers, mobile timber harvesters and skidders have obliterated all traces of old trails beyond the boundaries of our land.

As for why a marker was located at this particular place, we can only speculate. However, the terrain ahead offers a clue. Veering to the right of the indicated direction would send travelers down a steep incline into a swamp. On the opposite side of the trail, those who strayed too far off line would, after a few minutes of gradual downhill walking, find themselves picking their way across rotten logs and hummocks, to keep from sinking in mud.

The marked trail slopes gently up to a level ridge with low ground on either side. In addition to pointing the way toward a distant destination, the old tree conveys a message that is as useful to present-day hikers as it was to nineteenth century Native Americans who passed this way. It tells us, “This way for easy walking and dry feet.”

Given this region’s rich history of Indian activity, it is highly probable that there are more trail marker trees in Marquette County waiting to be discovered and documented. Any reader who knows of a large old tree resembling the ones shown in the illustrations accompanying this article, is encouraged to contact the Marquette Regional History Center (906-226-3571 or mrhc@marquettehistory.org). A volunteer will arrange to meet with you to view the tree, or photographs of it, to determine if it appears to have the identifying characteristics of an Indian-era trail marker. Requests to keep tree locations confidential will be honored.

To find out more about how these interesting trees were shaped, check back next week.

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