A Native American Mystery: Bent Tree Trail Markers
How bent oak trees have led preservationists down a path of mystery.
Squatting low now, tired from running bare foot through the wilderness since day broke on my back. Sun casts long shadow on my face while I stroke soft moss of tree at my side. The tender young oak bends as I tug and tie a shoot of the sapling down to earth with sinew, tendons pulled from the leg of a deer killed by my bow and arrow. I think how I will revisit this spot each bright moon slowly persuading the growing oak into a crook to mark a trail my sons and their sons will follow over many seasons. Each deformed and dwarfed tree spaced along my path may guide their footsteps towards…
These could have been the thoughts of a Native American who helped leave behind a legacy. Mysterious crooked oak trees have been found all around the country, including in Norcross. But we may never know what the people who shaped them were thinking.
Do they mark a safe river crossing or a place to gather and trade furs or tobacco? Do they help identify a spot where gold was buried in hopes of hiding it away from encroaching white settlers? Or perhaps the deformed trees direct people to a burial ground where Native Americans have rested for centuries?
The oaks, dispersed curiously along known Native American trails, have become known as Bent Tree Trail Markers, and a group called The Mountain Stewards is working to protect them from destruction. Look for them locally in the area where Dekalb and Gwinnett split, near Hightower Trail off Winters Chapel Road. Also, bent trees have been reported locally in the area along the Chattahoochee known as Simpsonwood and on Reps Miller Road.
Next time you visit Stone Mountain, hike across the covered bridge onto “Indian Island.” There a plaque is posted to clue hikers into the possibility of trees along their path, including the one pictured in this article, which the author is proud to have discovered and helped to protect.
Questions about bent trees are mixed with fascination and disbelief. Hikers spot them along ridgeline mountain trails, golfers try to slice around them along the fairways of golf courses, horticulturists work them into the landscapes of affluent neighborhoods. Whether a tree trunk has the distinctive nose or elbow, seemingly bent into a point, or its branches grow sideways shooting abruptly skyward, an Indian bent tree may be a silent living relic, mysteriously hidden in plain view.
Of the many legends and lore surrounding Georgia area tribes of Cherokee, Creek, Navajo, Sioux, Algonquian, Seminole, Mohican, Comanche and Hopi, trail markers are one of the most fascinating--and most misunderstood. Councils once met squatting deep within sacred mounds, built by their ancestors in 2500 BC, or tethered their canoes together at points of river conversions like the spot on the Chattahoochee River Indians called “Standing Pitch Tree.”
The Chattahoochee, translated “shallow place,” had to be crossed by both the Indians and the earliest of Spanish, German and English settlers.
Tribal trails in Georgia mesmerized author Elaine Jordan who provided much insight about them in her book “Indian Trail Trees,” which she presented to many groups throughout North Georgia in her lifetime.
During one such presentation in Dahlonega a part Cherokee man approached her to talk about the trees. He explained that his grandparents were full Cherokee and had told him of the trail trees. Jordan photographed and painted trees located in and around her home in Elijay, Georgia.
Mysterious and silent, much like the peoples who formed them, many of these trees continue to live hidden away in deep forests or in the backyards of homes within the Norcross.