Seeing horizontal in a vertical world

By Carol / July 2, 2010 /

I learned of another approach to marking trails while doing research for an article for The Iowan.  “Before highways and road signs” was published in the May/June issue. I’m reprinting the piece here with permission. For other cool articles about Iowa, pick up a copy of the magazine. The July/August issue is on news stands.

Before highways and road signs

Before there were exit ramps and highway signs, people still needed to know where to go and how to find things. Native Americans – even back to archaic times – used a system of shaping trees into markers to serve that purpose.

“People learned to look for horizontal shapes in a vertical world,” says Dennis Downes of Antioch, IL, who has spent the last 30 years researching Trail Marker Trees across the United States. “To be a successful hunter, you needed to spot the horizontal shape of a deer in the forest. An oak or elm tree shaped into a trail marker was another horizontal shape.”

Trail Marker Trees identified the best places to ford a river; marked the way to find fresh water, mineral deposits, or medicinal plants; pointed the directions to find nut trees or hunting areas. “Europeans didn’t know what the markers meant,” says Downes, but Native Americans did. Trail Marker Trees were carefully groomed year after year, allowing people to pass knowledge from generation to generation.”

Another type of arboreal architecture – Landmark Trees – served a similar purpose. One such Landmark Tree was the “Anderson H-tree” that marked a known Indian trail coming off the Skunk River near Story City.  Since succumbing to Dutch elm disease in the mid-1970s, the H-tree is seen only in historical photos.

Downes says Trail Marker Trees – now 200 years old – still exist in Iowa. Some live on only in photos taken by settlers who noticed their unique architecture.

If you spot a possible Trail Marker Tree, contact: For more information, contact:

Photo by Brian Bucholtz

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