By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
In the woods near my home is an unusual tree. At some point in its long life the tree was bent into a distinctive L-shape. The trunk is almost perfectly horizontal and nearly touches the ground, running almost five feet before making an abrupt 90 degree turn towards the heavens. It’s a perfect place for two people to sit back and observe the forest hillside and all its goings on. But it is much more than a handy bench – it is an ancient form of communication and a little-understood piece of Native American cultural history
These unusual trees are known by many names including Indian Trees, Bent Trees, Sign Trees, Marker Trees, and Water Trees – all of which are descriptive names for trees that point to a specific direction, location, or special feature. There are a number of historically confirmed bent trees that were made specifically for areas where special gatherings and ceremonies were held.
According to Wikipedia, a well-defined circle of trees made in 1830 by the Odawa (Ottawa) Indians of Michigan still exists to this day. The trees form a circle around an area where the tribe held important councils. Each tree “takes a sharp bend away from the center of the circle at a height of eight feet and then turns up again; a dramatic and elegant design meant to honor this location that had been and would continue to be sacred to their people.”
Most bent trees are found in the eastern half of the United States – from Texas north to Minnesota and all parts east. I found no reports of such trees from the Great Plains, Desert Southwest, the Pacific Ranges or the Rocky Mountains.
While some bent trees are known to mark locations of special importance, such as council grounds, many far-flung marker trees obviously point to sources of potable water such as a stream, spring or river. For anyone traveling on foot through rugged and unfamiliar territory, as the early Native Americans did before horses arrived on the scene, water would have been the most important of necessities. I’ve done a lot of back country hiking in my day and I can assure you that finding potable water in rugged mountainous and wooded terrain can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
Some researches believe that bent trees may have also been marked with additional “written” signs, such as slashes, drawings, and other unnatural deformations of the tree that more clearly described what lie ahead. It’s not hard to imagine a sign pointing towards a much-used trail, a secure shelter like a cave or bluff, a safe place to camp for the night, good hunting ground, or perhaps even a place where edible or medicinal plants grew in abundance.
To use the bent tree map, all one had to do was follow the direction the tree was growing (or pointing) in until you either found the next marker tree or the thing the first one was pointing to. I decided to follow my bent tree, which pointed down into a hollow with what is now a wet-weather creek. I’ve been told that long ago there was a spring on this property. Perhaps this is what the tree points to. I followed the invisible line the bent tree seemed to be pointing me in and I found two more bent trees – one right after another. Each one begged me to turn slightly to the right a little more each time. At the bottom of the draw I could go no further without trespassing, but I quickly realized that the trees were likely leading me to a major river less than six miles away.
Occasionally, bent trees are referred to as Buffalo Trees because someone once said that indigenous people used the trees to de-fur and tan hides. And while this seems like a good explanation, it doesn’t ring true. In most native cultures, tanning raw hides was the exclusive work of women. And while they might have used trees to de-fur the hides this way, they usually didn’t do it out in the middle of nowhere – they did it in camp where it was safe.
Now, all of this bent tree business fairly begs one to ask how to tell the difference between a regular old tree and a true Indian Bent Tree – and that’s a good question.
True bent trees are very, very old. In the Ozarks, any existing bent tree would have had to have been made by the time the Osage Indians left the area in the early 1820’s. As of 2014, any true bent marker tree would have to be at least 194 years old. The true age of any tree can only be determined through the analysis of tree rings from the lower part of the trunk. Professional arborists use a specific boring tool to remove a small tree ring sample without fatally injuring the tree. Just because a tree isn’t extremely large does not mean it’s not old. Trees bent in this fashion often grow slower than normal trees.
True bent trees often have scars where they were pinned down as saplings. It is believed that young white oak saplings were the trees of choice because they often lived a long time and were flexible enough to bend without breaking the outer bark or the inner cambium just below the bark, which would likely kill the tree.
To bend a tree a large sapling was used. All the branches would be removed leaving only the tip of the tree intact. The sapling would be laid down parallel to the ground from a place along the main trunk close to the base of the tree. Many trees were secured with a heavy leather “thong” or strap wrapped around the trunk and anchored to the ground. For larger saplings, a large branch in the shape of a “Y” might be driven into the ground a little distance from the tree and used as a support to bend, but not break, the trunk and tied in place with leather thongs or plant-fiber rope. Once the main trunk was secured, the tip of the tree was anchored as well.
As the sapling grew, the tip naturally grew upwards, leaving the mature tree in the shape of an “L” or a long curvy “S”. Over time, the leather straps, rope and bracing would rot away, leaving tell-tale scars in the bark.
I can’t make out much scarring on the bent trees on my property, but the sides of every single one have large and unnatural indentations on either side of the horizontal trunk, as if something had pinched the tree from both sides as it grew.
Ross Malone, author of Tales of Missouri and the Heartland, commenting on an article in Missouri Life Magazine entitled Thong Trees, noted that “…some of these trees are huge and ancient but many are not. Some old-timers wrote to me saying that, as children, they fashioned “playground equipment” by bending a sapling over and fastening it with a rope. This little tree would then become a play horse or some such bouncing toy.” I imagine Indian children may have done this as well. Yet, those made by settler’s children would likely be found very near old homesteads and not be nearly as old as a true Indian Bent Tree.
If you have ever walked in the woods or done a lot of hiking, you will instinctively know that a tree bent at a near 90 degree angle is almost unheard of. I have seen many a twisted or curled tree that was the result of having another tree fall on it while it was young. These are known as “casualty trees” and the difference between these and true Indian Bent Trees is pretty stark.
I’m pretty sure I know where the bent trees on my property point to and will follow-up that lead one day after I get permission to cross on to other people’s land. Until then, I will add a new name to the lexicon of bent trees and will christen my bent tree as “The Sitting Tree”, for even if I can’t know for sure where it leads just yet, it fairly begs the weary traveler to come set a spell.
© 2014 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Read more about Indian Bent Trees…
- A Living History of the Ozarks by Phyllis Rossiter
- Ancient Lost Treasures: Groups Identify Trees Bent by American Indians
- Lake History: Thong Trees
- Missouri Life: Thong Trees (Article and Ross Malone quote)
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A Journey of Seasons
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.