The thong tree pictured here is located at Lake of the Ozarks State Park on Route 42 at Kaiser.
American Indian legacies or natural growth?
If you look, you will find them. In the forests of Missouri, on top of ridges and by streams, in isolated hollows and along major highways stand strange trees, bent at right angles as if by some forgotten hand. Their trunks rise about three feet from the ground before taking a sharp horizontal turn and then rising vertically again.
They’ve been called “trail trees” or “thong trees” in folklore, “Indian trail trees” by those who insist they know their origin, or just “trees” by skeptics who are just as certain they are natural deformities.
Folklore says these trees were created by American Indians to point the way to water, good areas for hunting, hideouts, and the most attractive but least likely explanation, buried treasure. Some say that trail trees were used to cure hides. Indians would soak hides in oak ashes and water and rinse them before pulling them back and forth over the rough bark until all the hair was scraped off and the hide was pliable. Then they would hang them on the horizontal part of the trunk to dry.
Laura Hubler of the Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri was one of the first to move beyond folklore and try to find out the truth. In the 1960s and ’70s, she began a one-woman crusade, which grew into a statewide movement, to study these trees and have them recognized as historic artifacts.
Hubler theorized that they were made by bending a sapling, usually a strong but pliable white oak, with a forked stick called a “thong” in local parlance, and buttressing the bend with another thong, hence the name “thong tree.” The tree would then grow horizontally, pointing in the desired direction, until the tree’s natural quest for sunlight sent it growing up vertically again. Hubler mapped dozens of examples in Missouri and followed their directions to springs, caves, and streams.
For the bicentennial, the Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri and the Daughters of the American Revolution put plaques by trail trees in state and federal parks, along roads around the Lake of the Ozarks, and in the Tri-Lakes country of the White River. The National Forest Service marked some trees along Route 21 in southeast Missouri.
But for all of Hubler’s dedication, she wasn’t a scientist, and the riddle of the trees languished in the fuzzy world of folklore and amateur study for decades. The idea that trail trees are manmade continues to be met with a great deal of skepticism. The Archaeological
Survey of Missouri, managed by the University of Missouri anthropology department, has no trail trees in their database of more than thirty-two thousand sites, and there is no state or federal legislation recognizing and protecting them.
The main question is whether the trees were really necessary. While many do point to caves or sources of water, walking in a straight line for any length of time in Missouri will bring you to both of these things. There were game trails leading to natural springs, and since the American Indians had an excellent sense of the land, it’s difficult to say just why they would have needed the trees.
On the other hand, the spread of European settlers uprooted most tribes of North America and pushed them into unfamiliar areas where they needed some help with directions. This would also explain the rarity of American Indian accounts about the trees. If they were secret markers to help them survive the coming of the white man, it’s hardly surprising they haven’t discussed them with outsiders. And with the destruction and forced relocation of so many tribes, the lore of the trees may have been lost to the Indians themselves.
Only recently has a member of the Osage, once the most powerful tribe in what is now Missouri, come forward to state that the trees are indeed genuine. Chief Jim Gray helped create a new trail tree in Forest Park at St. Louis to celebrate the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. The tree points east, toward the rising sun and the direction that the Osage feel they are to travel throughout their path in life.
Dana R. Elliott, former professor of biology at Central Methodist University at Fayette and one of the few scholars to write about the trees, pointed out that most are about 150 years old. In a 1993 article in the Central States Archaeological Journal, he wrote that many Cherokee escaped into the Missouri countryside during the Trail of Tears in the winter of 1838-39. The Cherokee were forcibly moved from Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia through sixteen counties in southern Missouri on the way to reservations in Oklahoma. The majority of trail trees have been found in this region, though it must be said that no scientific survey has ever been conducted. Nor were the Cherokee the only ones to move through Missouri. Several tribes were pushed through the area in the 1830s and 1840s, and Cherokee and Osage from Oklahoma passed through on hunting expeditions as late as the early 1900s.
There’s also the problem of “casualty trees,” those that have been bent naturally by a storm or another tree falling on them. Trail tree enthusiasts say they can tell the difference. With “real” trail trees, the trunk is usually bent at about three feet off the ground and has a sharp ninety-degree bend. With casualty trees, the bend is less pronounced and often higher or lower on the trunk. Elliot wrote that casualty trees are usually not white oak, the most common species used for trail trees.
Now a new generation of researchers has taken up the study, and this time they have scientific tests to give them hard data.
Don Wells, an independent researcher in Georgia, has been fascinated with trail trees for years. He is a member of the Mountain Stewards, an organization working to restore traditional trails in the southern Appalachians, and has recently started an exhaustive study of trail trees. Although the Trail Tree Project just started in 2007, the database already contains more than 450 examples from Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Missouri. Other researchers have found examples in Ohio, Indiana, and states around the Great Lakes. As early as 1905, a member of the Chicago Historical Society wrote about examples in Illinois.
The Mountain Stewards have brought in professional help. Dr. Georgina DeWeese, assistant professor at the University of West Georgia and an expert in dendrochronology (the dating of trees by counting tree rings) has taken numerous core samples of trail trees and has found that two date to the years 1771 and 1782, well within the period of Indian settlement. Most of the other cores were not usable because old, dying white oaks collect water and rot from the inside out, obscuring the tree rings.
“Most of the trees I cored on that first trip were rotten in the center. You can core fifty oaks, and only five will give you what you’re looking for,” she explains. But even the rotten ones date to at least the early to mid-1800s, perhaps earlier, providing evidence that the trees do, indeed, date from the time when the Cherokee still lived in Georgia.
One tree, however, dates to 1860. This could be a casualty tree, or it may be a wrench in the works of the trail-tree theory. One thing is for sure: These trees do not bend this way by themselves.
“There is no known pathogen or fungus that will make a tree in this form,” DeWeese says, but “there are things on the landscape that can make trees like this.”
High winds or another tree falling on it can make a tree bend, she says. Tom Draper, Forestry Regional Supervisor for the Ozark Region for the Missouri Department of Conservation, agrees and notes that these trees are not bent by any known genetic anomaly.
Some researchers point out that many trail trees have marks on the bends that look like the impressions of the thongs that lashed them down, but DeWeese thinks these marks are natural results of the trees’ malformation. She suggests that it would have been much easier to simply find a tree that had a branch pointing in the right direction and cut off everything except that branch.
“This is the most cost- and time-effective method,” she says. “It makes the branch the primary stem.” DeWeese’s archaeological eye for the land has convinced her that these trees are, in fact, man-made.
“Looking at these trees on the landscape, it’s hard to dispute what they are,” DeWeese says. “When you have a line of trees all pointing in the same direction and leading to water, it’s pretty convincing.”
More tests need to be done, however. The Mountain Stewards are constantly adding to their database and plan to do more core samples. DeWeese’s student Brian Parrish plans to analyze more than twenty of them as part of his graduate work at the University of Tennessee starting in 2008. While dendrochronology can determine when a tree was bent, it cannot tell how. But if they accumulate a large number of trees dating to the Indian period, they may yet bring the study into wider academic and public recognition.
But recognition doesn’t save historic sites; respect and laws do. Everyone knows burial mounds are the resting places of prehistoric Indians, but that doesn’t stop looting by artifact hunters. At least this highly disrespectful practice has been made illegal. The Mountain Stewards would like a similar law passed to protect trail trees.
“We are working with the federal, state, and county landowners to educate them about the trees and with that to hopefully get them to preserve them,” Don Wells says. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of naysayers, so we have our work cut out for us.”
Evidence that these trees are actually historic artifacts, silent reminders that the land on which we live had been inhabited by another culture before us that was intimately tied to the natural world, is stronger than ever before. While many people believe that the trees were made by Indians, folklore doesn’t hold up when designating a historic site, so the testimony of professional researchers, such as DeWeese and, someday soon, Parrish, will be vital in the trees’ preservation.