Great Lakes Trail Marker Trees tell significant history in area

For generations, Native Americans in the Great Lakes region and beyond used a distinct method to help them traverse through the forest.

Trail Marker Trees are trees that were shaped into a specific configuration by man to be easily distinguished and then used to aid in land or water navigation or mark symbolic Native American sites. There are a few documented trail trees in the region — one is located in Traverse City near the county civic center. Charlevoix has a circle of trail tree maples planted near Greensky Native American Church. Crooked Tree Arts Center is named in reference to this practice.

These trees would help guide Native Americans along the safest route in their journeys and would direct them in finding a variety of natural resources necessary for their way of life.

Dennis Downes has dedicated most of his life to researching this practice. He has taken research trips to ancient sites across the Great Lakes region. He is the founder of the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society.

“The goal is always not to let this slip out of history. The main people that claim any knowledge of trail trees come from our area,” Downes said.

Downes said every year his organization receives thousands of pictures of possible trail trees, but many times they are simply deformed from natural causes. One clue of whether or not it’s a legitimate trail tree is the type.

“When people send us requests, I ask them what’s the species of the tree, which is important, because you need trees with longevity. You don’t take species that don’t live long,” Downes said.

A trail tree is characterized by a trunk that rises up off the ground then curves. Tree shapes vary as they serve different purposes. Different tribes had specific steps in shaping their tree, creating a slight variance between tribes. Regardless, it’s clear these trees were shaped by man and not nature.

“Say the trunk is three feet wide going up, you can see that someone took off the trunk and allowed a branch to become the new tree. That’s one tip-off, because obviously the branch would be different diameter than the original trunk,” Downes said.

“That ingenious part is to get them off onto sub trails, to something significant to their tribe when they’re out of their territory,” Downes said.

The trees also mark portage routes, river crossings, burial sites, exposed copper deposits and more.

“In other words, if you knew there was a rock shelf under the water that was three feet below the surface, but to the left and to the right, the water was muddy at 10 feet deep, wouldn’t you want to know where that crossing was?” he said.

While these trees were a significant help in marking sites, Downes emphasizes these sights are rare as they were placed strategically and for distinct purposes.

“I start my lectures with the same sentence. These were incredibly ingenious forms, a land and water navigation,” Downes said.

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