Marquette County trail marker trees, part 2

Last week we learned about a Native American trail marker tree here in Marquette County.

Given that trees are the most abundant resource in a forest, it is not surprising that they were used to create the needed trail markers. But, how could one tree be made to look different than those around it?

For a trail marker tree to serve its intended purpose, it had to be easily and unmistakably identified and differentiated from all other trees in the forest. The way in which this problem was solved reminds us that clever people, using logical reasoning and ingenuity, are as likely to be found in primitive societies as in those that are more advanced.

The technique used to transform an ordinary tree into a trail marker, was passed along orally and by demonstration, through numberless generations of Native Americans. Eventually it was revealed to explorers, missionaries, fur traders and other outsiders.

Deciduous (leaf-bearing) trees, rather than conifers, were used to mark trails because they were more limber when young and had long life spans. Among trail marker trees still living, several hardwood species are represented. In the upper Midwest, oak and sugar maple were frequent choices. Having decided on the vicinity in which the marker tree was to be located, a living sapling about the width of a human thumb in diameter and approximately ten feet high was selected. This sapling was pointed in the desired direction, then bent until it was approximately horizontal at waist height. It was fixed in that position, with animal skin strips tied to a stake pounded into the ground. After this first step, the tree needed occasional tending over a period of years to complete the procedure.

Bending a young tree and holding it there, triggers two reactions: the top of it will turn upward toward the light, and buds will form on the upper surface of the now-horizontal trunk. Shoots will sprout upward from the buds, as the tree attempts to generate leaves needed to keep it alive.

One or two growing seasons after the initial bending, a vigorous shoot several feet from the base of the tree was selected to be the eventual new upright trunk. All the other shoots on the bent section were cut off, but the original top of the sapling still extended beyond the point where it was tied down.

This was necessary to assure that the tree had sufficient leaves to promote growth of roots, trunk and top during the years it took for the upright trunk to add enough top growth to take over the job. When it was judged that this time had arrived, the original top was cut off, just beyond where the restraining thong was attached. When the horizontal trunk showed no tendency to spring upward, the tie-down was removed.

The resulting tree shape was unlike anything formed by nature. The horizontal section was far enough above the ground so as not to be mistaken for one of the many fallen trees on the forest floor. Also, it was not a coincidence that the upper surface of this part of a marker tree was about the height of game animals that were an important source of food and skins for Woodland Indian tribes. Hunters through the ages have learned to watch for short horizontal lines among the vertical lines of a forest. This ingrained habit of observation increased the probability that trail marker trees would not be overlooked.

A significant, and very noticeable, feature of a trail marker tree, is the way the trunk transitions from horizontal to vertical. It is abrupt; a right angle or close to it. Without human intervention, the chances of a tree having such a configuration are slight. A tree partially uprooted by wind or water might have a roughly horizontal section of trunk, but its top would sweep upward in a gradual curve toward the light, rather than making a sharp turn.

The tree described in this article is the most frequently-seen type of marker, but trees were altered in other ways, as well. For instance, some marker trees have double and even triple tops.

As of this writing, there is no state or national registry of known trail markers. The records are scattered throughout the country, in file folders stored at universities, museums, volunteer organizations and by other interested parties. It is therefore impossible to say how many marker trees are still standing. Whatever the number, it is inevitably declining. The youngest of them (in this sense, 200 years is young) are likely to be found in areas such as the Upper Peninsula, where the Indian way of life was disrupted by white immigration much later than it was elsewhere in the Midwest and eastern United States

Compasses, surveying instruments, geographic positioning systems, maps and satellite images have demoted marker trees to relic status. Age, storms, floods and chainsaws will continue to further decimate their ranks. The Midwest Trail Marker Association estimates that there are about 50 documented, living original marker trees in Michigan. Almost all of these are located in the Lower Peninsula. My wife and I are proud to be guardians of one in Marquette County.

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.


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