Searching for Trailmarker Trees 2020-11-02

Here’s the first of a series of posts from Dr. Ken Sulak, USGS, retired, whom you may remember we’ve quoted before about sturgeon jumping in the Suwannee River. He’s got several new pursuits that entwine with Suwannee River Basin rivers, and he’s asking for your assistance. He is aware that Indian Trailmarker Trees are still speculative. Maybe with enough examples we can all determine whether they are what they seem to be.

WWALS riverrats –

While exploring old bridge and ferry sites along the Suwannee River and its tributaries, I have encountered five unmistakable Indian Trailmarker Trees (and Brack Barker has shown me a sixth). I won’t say I discovered these, because some human first shaped each, and thousands of Indians and early settlers used these manmade landmarks to navigate through South Georgia and Florida’s 27 million acres of seemingly endless and trackless primordial Longleaf Pine Forest. Sure, there were Indian trails that the settlers also followed, like the Alachua Trail and the Old Salt Road (plural). But that was not necessarily easy. No welcome to Florida signs back then, no road signs, no road maps, no GPS — although the sun and stars provided compass directions.

[Trailmarker Trees, How To, and old map]
Trailmarker Trees, How To, and old map

The noted naturalist Herbert Stoddard came to Florida with his family as a small boy in 1893. Florida became a US Territory in 1822, with settlers arriving in droves thereafter. But even as late as 1893, there were few real roads to follow. Stoddard recalls: “Came a long ride in a horse-drawn wagon over bumpy, one-track roads through the longleaf woods … They were crooked as snakes, for every time a pine tree fell across the road, traffic went around it and continued to do so long after the tree had burned or rotted away.” Finding Florida and navigating to a certain area was not easy.

The Spanish effectively exterminated the Timucuan Indians from North Florida. Bartram estimated the total 1774 population of Spanish, Slaves and Indians at 2,000. An actual count of 2800 was taken in 1770 and another of 2238 in 1815, almost all concentrated in St. Augustine and Pensacola (J. J. Miller. 1998. An Environmental History of Northeast Florida). Florida was virtually an empty pine forest when the Territory of Florida was transferred to the US by Spain. They left only one north-south ‘road’, paralleling the coast from Savannah to St. Augustine, the King’s Highway — and two east to west overgrown tracks from the 1600s, the lower and upper Mission Roads (Camino Real) that once connected the string of Spanish Missions from St. Augustine (lower road) and Jacksonville (later upper road) to Tallahassee/St. Marks and on to Pensacola.

Vacant of Timucuans, Florida attracted Lower Creek Indians, or Seminoles (= ‘wanderers’). The Cherokee neighbors of the Upper Creeks (in northern Georgia) used Trailmarker Trees as landmarkers. There are hundreds of these still remaining. The Upper Creeks seem not to have adopted this trailmarking habit, but the wandering Lower Creeks apparently did, leaving us a living legacy of these distinctive curiously deformed trees. A few years back, I did not even know these existed. Then, I encountered one while hiking in Mill Creek Preserve, a strongly bent over 3-ft diameter ancient Swamp Chestnut Oak, and knew there had to be an interesting story behind such a tree. Mill Creek was farm, cattle range, and planted pine before donated to Alachua County as a preserve. Most of the hardwoods are youngish second growth, but this ~250+ yr old was left uncut, surrounded now by a stand of much younger red maples. This was an important tree. It is not far south of Bellamy Road, and possibly stood along the old Spanish mission road which Bellamy Road approximately follows. If you go looking for this tree, it is on the short deadend ‘scenic overlook’ trail branching off of the ‘orange’ trail. Nifty spot when the grove of surrounding red maples turn color (only in some years).

[Mill Creek Trailmarker Tree]
Mill Creek Trailmarker Tree

When this tree was very young, the trunk was bend over nearly parallel to the ground, the trunk cut off, but one lateral branch (sometimes 2 or3) left in place to become the new upright trunk. The cutoff trunk ‘stump’ became overgrown and rounded off to form a nose.

[How a Trail or Thong Tree was probably bent]
How a Trail or Thong Tree was probably bent
Image from the ‘Trailmarker Tree Project’ website,
in turn from Indian Trail Trees by Elaine Jordan.

For the Mill Creek trailmarker oak, that nose points 290 degrees by compass — aimed at the natural bridge over the Santa Fe River to the west.

[SOSMP Trailmarker Oak]
SOSMP Trailmarker Oak

The other four distinctive trailmarker trees I have encountered on my solo explorations are all live oaks. A second trailmarker tree is located on the upper Suwannee River within the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park property. It sits atop the riverbank, immediately adjacent to the abandoned Atlantic Coastline RR Trestle. This was the site of an old Indian (then settler) ford. The river is unusually narrow and shallow here. I am certain that an important trail crossed the river here. And the existence of both the trail and narrow crossing was why the Confederacy decided to run its GA-FL connector over the Suwannee here. Live Oak became the end point and junction with the east-west rail line. But Live Oak did not exist until the rail connector ended up there. This 5-ft diameter live oak with two upright ‘trunks’ was left uncut, surrounded by very much younger second-growth hardwoods. It was left intact when the adjacent rail grade was cut out. The nose points southeast toward Suwannee Spring, reportedly and important Indian ceremonial gathering site.

[Ichetucknee Trailmarker]
Ichetucknee Trailmarker

A third trailmarker tree is located halfway along the Blue Hole walking trail in Ichetucknee State Park. This ancient gnarled live oak on the shoreline of the Ichetucknee River points 360 degrees, due North. It is unusual in having a second nose which points due East.

The fourth I have encountered is atop the high east bank of the Suwannee River on the north side of Shingle Spring run, south of Branford. This 4.5 ft diameter live oak also has two upright ‘trunks’ and a nose that points 180 degrees, due south. I am speculating wildly that it points to the downstream location of the 1860s Townsend Ferry north of Rock Bluff. That ferry site was an Indian Ford, early settler ford, and then a cattle-crossing before the ferry days.

[Moseley Fry Trailmarker]
Moseley Fry Trailmarker

Finally, I encountered a fifth trailmarker tree when exploring for the site of the Moseley/Zipperer and later on Robert Smith Ferry (at Dell, not the same as the Moseley Ferry at Allen Mill Spring run). Anyway, I landed the kayak on the east river bank where I guessed the Ferry had been located, climbed the bank and found a noble old live oak, possible ferry cable anchor tree. But even better, 25 ft away there is a trailmarker tree. But this one is unusual — a Pecan tree, not so old (maybe 150 yrs old) as the others, and has three upright ‘pseudotrunks’ and two noses. Pecan trees are not native to Florida, but were brought here by settlers from Georgia. I am guessing this tree was planted by a settler, following the Seminole method, and shaped very purposely. The two noses jutting perpendicular to the base of the tree point due south and due west, respectively. Due south takes you to Cooks Hammock where a settler would hit the Seminole War era ‘Old Salt Road’ to the Steinhatchee/Deadman’s Bay location where settlers went to boil down seawater to make salt. Due west points you to toward St. Marks, the most important trading post and port in Florida.

[Brack Barker Trailmarker Tree]
Brack Barker Trailmarker Tree

The sixth Brack Barker trailmarker is located within Madison Blue State Park, close to the main spring and the divers entrance hole. It is adjacent to the track of the park road, which follows the old approach road to the 1839-1844 Driggers Ferry, 0.5 mi south of the spring. The wade-able cross-river shoal right below the spring was probably an Indian and settler ford. Too shallow however for the ferry, which was located a bit downriver. I need to revisit Madison Blue to take photos of that tree and get a good compass fix on its nose. That tree is unusual because it stands in the center of a shallow dry sink. Brack has guessed that the tree and land have sunken together.

OK — so much for my growing inventory of North Florida trailmarker trees. But, I am looking for additional trailmarker trees—with the help of your several sets of eyes and your adventures hiking the trails and kayaking the rivers. Since on my solo trips and one set of eyes have already encountered five, and Brack another, I am guessing there are several more trailmarker trees yet to be ‘discovered’ and mapped. Each one probably deserves an informative historical plaque—and protection from being cut down. Sadly, the new northern expatriotes buying up the riverfront property like to cut down all the trees on the river bank so they can show off their extravagant 15-room ‘cottages’. If you recall seeing such a curiously deformed old oak, let me know where. Or, if you encounter one, take a photo, GPS fix (turn on the GPS function of your digital camera — it records fixes periodically by time, or by snap), and let me know — so that I can pay a visit.

OK—WWALS explorers—let me know if you are aware of additional trailmarker trees in South GA or North FL!!! Thanks

Ken Sulak

See attached photos.

[1977 Florida Trail Map]
1977 Florida Trail Map

PS—I got a response today from Tom Mirti at the Suwannee Water Management District regarding the Mill Creek Trailmarker Tree. Tom states that the Old Providence Road, and important road used by immigrants from GA and SC passed right through the preserve, and had to pass very close to that noble tree. It may indeed have marked the junction of the Old Spanish Trail going E-W and Old Providence Trail going N-S. All such immigrants coming into FL back then would sooner or later need to visit the Government Land Office due south in Newnansville to register their homestead claim and eventually obtain a land patent either by cash purchase ($1.25 per acre) or a grant or warrant (free land) via the 1842 Armed Occupation Act, 1850 Seminole Wars Script Warrant Act, or the 1862 Homestead Act.

There were more old trails and roads that may have been marked, many of them along the Withlacoochee River, crossing between Georgia and Florida. Stay tuned.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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