Trail Trees

Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

Every day as I drive home from work, just before a sharp 90-degree turn, there is a curiously crooked old tree that sits just on the edge of a northeastern Pennsylvania hardwood forest. I have seen many other trees bent in this distinct manner in other area forests each fall during hunting season. My curiosity got the best of me a few years ago as to why so many trees would be bent like this. It could not be a natural occurrence if so many trees in different forests were bent in a similar way, could it?

Doing a little research was fun and easy. I learned that the appearance of most of these trees was not a natural occurrence. When they were small, these trees (usually oak or maple due to their pliable nature) were manipulated by Native Americans to look like this. Sure, some of the trees that are bent in the forest occur naturally. Sometimes one tree falls on another when the affected tree is young, and the tree grows with a bend. Or maybe the tree was struck by lightning or suffered from a fungus or blight. How a particular tree became bent is up for debate, but Native American "trail trees" do not show the scarring that would be present by other causes found in nature.

Most of these trees marked - you guessed it – trails. For the most part, the trails were used to get to places of significance such as gathering places, villages, or trade routes. Some people believe that these trees also pointed to river crossings, religious sites, or even places of danger. Some also call them crooked trees, prayer trees, or thong trees. Thong trees is a reference to a method used by Native Americans to shape by using a "thong," which was a leather strap or vine used to tie the tree down.

Various groups have made an effort to map and preserve these trees, usually regionally. So, if you know of any of these ancient signposts, feel free to take some time to research if your area has a group that is interested in investigating your tree and adding it to their database. Maybe you will learn about the group or tribe that lived in your area and why your tree was bent.