Signal Trees

Anybody who spends much time in the woods is likely to come across a curiously misshapen tree and wonder, “how did this happen?” If you were whisked back in time 300 – 400 years ago, you would soon realize that these “signal” or “boundary trees” were shaped by the hands of Native Americans. These trees were used to mark boundaries among tribes, to delineate a trail, to provide direction to a water source, and to signal some medicinal plants, burial sites or safe crossing locations. A specific bend in the tree, or the direction of the bend, had particular significance, and they were widely employed and understood by many Indian Nations. Signal trees were created by bending a small tree in place using vines, skins, or cordage, and letting the tree grow in this unusual manner. Trees were chosen based on criteria such as location of the tree, and whether or not that particular tree was long lived.

Over the years, many of these trees have been removed in the course of developing the country, or they simply died of old age. Sometime in the late 1800’s, our nation began to realize that Signal Trees had special significance as part of our national heritage, and there were many attempts to locate, understand, and protect these living monuments. A number of states and localities created parks and historical sites around some of the remaining trees; some exist to this day.

Raymond E. Janssen was a well-regarded geologist who located and studied Signal Trees and their significances, and wrote many articles about them throughout the 1930’s. More recently, Dennis Downes also studied and identified many signal trees. According to Downes, a signal must meet three criteria: 1) The tree has to be greater than 250 years of age; 2) The bend in the tree has to be below five feet in height; and 3) the tree should be indicating some sort of feature such as a water body, trail, etc.

Could some undiscovered Signal Trees remain on the landscape? Consider this: nestled near a stream, deep in the forest in the northwest part of Frederick County, in an area once occupied by Shawnee and other Ohio Valley Tribes, where Native American artifacts have been found, is an oddly shaped tree. Could this be a Signal Tree? If not, then what natural circumstance might explain its shape?

Article and photos by Charles Herrick, Tyler Marshall and FCFCDB Board member

Nature note for 11/7/2020