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Bent Trees: Native American Trail Markers

Friday, Apr 19, 2019  |  admin  |  Outdoor Living


If you’ve ever seen an oddly bent tree in our local woods, you may have happened upon a trail tree. These special trees are unique. Created by Native Americans as navigational tools, they represent ancient trail markers that helped them traverse long distances with ease. 

As land development continues today, these special trees are, unfortunately, vanishing at an increased rate. Good land stewards that we are, we know how fortunate we are at Harbor Club to have one of these fascinating Native American legacies. Better yet, our bent tree is alive, well, and protected within our gates.

Bent trees were originally saplings that were purposely bent in the correct direction for accurate trail navigation. The bend of a baby hardwood tree (typically a white oak) was secured with items such as sinew, rawhide, or vines. Alternatively, the saplings were weighted down with dirt or rocks. The tree would be left bent in the bent position for about year. After that, the tie-downs were released. The tree would then continue to grow with the “elbow” pointing in the proper direction.

The practice of creating the bends in the saplings did not kill the trees. It did, however, change their development. As the trees continued to grow, the bends would sometimes touch the ground. When that happened, it would often produce a second set of roots and possibly form an additional trunk.

What were the trees pointing to? While trail designation was the most popular use, the trees could have been manipulated toward other significant things. These could be an ideal spot to cross a stream, sites for medicinal plants, council circles, trading posts, and sacred burial grounds.

The Trail Tree Project, maintained by The Mountain Stewards nonprofit group, keeps a database of bent trees that exist throughout the eastern part of the United States. Trail trees are not protected by law, so to keep them safe, the database only shows a large general area in which a particular bent tree is located.

If you happen upon a bent tree, ours in particular, be respectful of it and its historical significance. Please do not climb or sit on the tree and its fragile branches. We want to ensure that these unique living relics continue to thrive for others to admire and appreciate in the future.

If you come to Harbor Club for a tour, we’d be happy to show you our cherished bent tree. It’s one of many fantastic things to see and experience at our Southern Living-Inspired Community. Start planning your visit today.