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Rare Native American trail trees carry mysterious messages from the past

Jim Bissell was driving down a quiet residential street in Sanborn when a dramatic shape in a small grove of trees caught his eye.

There, nestled among a copse of basswood and shagbark hickory, was a white oak with two 90-degree bends in its trunk, turning it horizontal, then vertical again.

Unlike the residents of the house in whose yard the tree stands and the neighbors who saw the tree every day for decades, Bissell, of the Tuscarora Reservation, knew what he was looking at.

The tree – known as a trail tree – is a rare and respected ancient messenger. It is one of a handful of trail trees known to exist on or near the Tuscarora Reservation. The trees were modified by Native Americans centuries ago to point the way to landmarks or destinations.

"When the Indians did anything it was always for the next seven generations," said Katsi'tsiaka:ion Jim Bissell, who has visited the tree several times to examine it more closely. "When the Tuscarora traveled here from the Carolinas, they planted apple trees along the way, although they would never see the fruits of their labors. It was always for the generations that would come after them."

The white oak in Sanborn grows straight, then, about 7 feet off the ground, it bends at a sharp 90-degree angle toward the north. A 6-feet span of the trunk is horizontal, then it takes another abrupt 90-degree turn and heads skyward again.

Like other nearly identical trail trees across the country, Native Americans would have bent the Sanborn white oak at a sharp angle when it was a pliable sapling and bound it that way. With the tree trunk bent sharply, branches that would normally have grown horizontal to the ground would have been growing straight up. After some time had passed, the top of the trunk that was horizontal would have been cut off, leaving a single strong branch to form the now-vertical third segment of the trunk.

The dramatic shape – identical to the shape seen in many parts of the country and documented dozens of times in the book "Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness," by Dennis Downes – is a strong indication that these zig-zag trees were intentionally formed centuries ago. But the proof is the scar from the removal of the original trunk, noted Bissell.

Chief Leo Henry, left, and Jim Bissell, right, stand with an ancient Native American trail tree at a residence in Sanborn. Bissell touches the scar on the tree where the original trunk was cut off when it was made into a trail tree. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"You know that's a trail marker, when the tip is cut off," said Bissell, who visited the tree with his wife, Yehsenaruhcreh Wendy Bissell and Chief Leo Henry.

When Kevin Haseley and his wife, Lori, moved into the house that has the tree on its property some 24 years ago, the previous owner told them that the strange shape was caused when the tree was struck by lightning.

"But this other explanation seems more likely," said Haseley, who estimated the trunk's diameter at about 58 inches.

After meeting the Bissells and Henry when they came by to examine the tree, Lori Haseley googled the term "trail tree." She called her husband and said, "You're not going to believe this."

Online there are photos of dozens upon dozens of such trees, all with the same characteristic double bend as their tree.

Standing near his home with Henry and the Bissells, Haseley added an eerie story to the long history of this trail tree. A few years ago, he grew annoyed because the distinctive white oak was dropping leaves into a decorative pond near its base.

"I was going to cut it down, then I thought, 'You know what? I'm going to get rid of the pond instead,'" said Haseley. "I filled the pond in last year.'

"Now I won't cut it down," he said. "I'm glad I found out about it."

Fred Sahr, who has lived next door to the tree for 35 years, said, "I knew that tree was so unusual, but I didn't know why."

The tree could have been modified as early as the 1700s, said Bissell. "A white oak is a slow-growing tree, and it could have been smaller because it was in with other trees," he said. At least, he said, "It's well over 100 years old."

"It hasn't grown much since we've lived in the house," said Haseley.

Chief Henry agreed that the word "sacred" could be applied to the tree, whose exact location is not being provided to prevent possible damage to the tree and preserve the privacy of the homeowners.

Trail trees, which Downes has documented in 42 states and Canada, were used to point toward a significant site. Bissell said the Sanborn white oak may be pointing toward Johnson's Landing, a settlement at Four-Mile Creek and Lake Ontario, where the Tuscarora lived after the Revolutionary War.

Tuscarora oral history says that from Johnson's Landing, Bissell said, two families traveled to the Niagara Escarpment, where they camped for the winter near "fresh water, nut trees and berries."  In the spring, the rest of the Tuscarora joined them from Johnson's Landing.

In the dappled light under the Sanborn white oak, Wendy Bissell pointed out that the area is important because it was the home of the original clan mother of the Haudenosaunee, the Neutral queen Jikonsaseh.

"It might not have been a Tuscarora that did this to this tree, but it was a native person," said Jim Bissell. "Whether it was one tribe or another tribe, they are all our ancestors."

The Bissells know of at least three other trail trees on the reserve. "They are in the wooded areas, not accessible from the roads," said Jim Bissell. "They are not hidden, but they have other trees around them."

Downes, who also maintains a website about the trees, has dedicated his life to studying them.  "What has always fascinated me about the use of the trees to aid in land and water navigation is how ingenious it was," said Downes. "The Native Americans knew where the main trails were, the Trail Marker Trees acted as exit signs off these main routes, to areas less traveled, or to make new routes to things of value in the Native American way of life."

Dennis Downes, who has extensively studied trail trees, stands at a tree in Michigan with Hilda Little Fawn Williams, an Ottawa and direct descendant of Pontiac.

Not all of the trees are identical, but many on Downes' we site resemble the Sanborn white oak and other trees on the Tuscarora Reservation.

Downes said he became captivated by the trail trees when he visited some as a Cub Scout in the 1950s. The oaks he saw, which were 40 to 50 inches in diameter and marked with bronze plaques "left a lasting impression on me to this day," he said.

In doing his research, Downes followed in the footsteps, sometimes literally, of Dr. Raymond Jansen, who visited 13 states in a 10-year period from the late 1920s into the 1930s in his search for trail trees. When Downes read Jansen's published research in 1985, he said, "I decided to go everywhere he went and conduct interviews, and visit local Native Americans and historians in all those states."

Downes, who insists on examining the trees himself before deciding whether they are authentic trail trees, has found them from West Texas to Colorado, South Alabama and British Columbia. "I have some trees I will be visiting in the fall in several areas of New York State," he said.

Some argue that trail trees could have been formed by nature. A post in the Ohio Geology and Biodiversity blog contains photos of a tree pinned in a near-horizontal position by a larger tree during a windstorm.

Yet many are certain that the trees were made by humans long ago.  Downes called the trees "a living connection to the Native Americans'  past and should be treated with respect; there are very few left."


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