Danny Head of Clermont always wondered about the oddly-bent trees near the intersection of the Chattahoochee River and Mossy Creek. Little did he know trees with a similar shape were used by Native Americans to mark trading trails, bodies of water or even battlefield sites.
“I just thought it was a funny-looking tree,” he said.
But Head, along with 30 members of the Clermont Historical Society, learned the full history surrounding the mystery of the bent trees at a recent meeting.
Don Wells, author of “Mystery of the Trees: Native American Markers of a Cultural Way of Life That Soon May Be Gone,” explained trees had multiple purposes for Native American tribes. Some were used for praying and some as a food source, according to the “Mystery of the Trees” website, mysterytrees.org.
But several trees, usually bent at a 45-degree angle, marked the trading trails.
“We knew about the bent trees,” Wells said. “We thought it was just the Cherokee, but others were doing it across the nation.”
And across the nation is where Wells and others are searching for the “marker” trees to document their location and preserve the history and Native American culture.
“People are looking for them regularly,” Wells said. “(But) what’s more important than finding the trees is preserving. They are sacred to Indians. They believe their ancestors are at the sites and they can communicate and connect with them.”
He said as the United States’ population has grown, the bent trees have been removed, cut down or even died.
“Some churches in Alabama knew what they were and saved them,” Wells said.
Finding the remaining trees is a goal of Wells and the Mountain Stewards, a nonprofit organization which helps build mountain trails, document, preserve and educate the public about Native American culture, according to the group’s website, mountainstewards.org.
Some Mountain Stewards hike along trails in national parks to find the unique trees. The trees are bent differently than those by nature. Most bent trees are slanted at a 45-degree angle and are about 20 inches in diameter. Some trees are even shaped like goalposts while others resemble the numeral “4.”
Wells said more than 2,000 trees have been found in the 40 states, including at least 15 in Hall County. Most local “marker” trees are around Lake Lanier where streams meet naturally. Trees also are along Old Federal Road in Flowery Branch, he said.
To create the trees, Wells said, Native Americans bent small saplings and tied them down with a rope. After a year or two, the tree grew horizontally. Then a nose was cut for the tree, allowing it to grow upward.
Each tree was made differently and had a unique meaning, such as pointing to a water source or a trading trail.
“It is a piece of history and that’s important,” Wells said.