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BEECHEY: Trail trees were roads of the past

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Have you ever wondered how the Indigenous peoples travelled through the forests after they left the waterways, through the towering trees and bush that rarely let the sun through its canopy?

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If some of the 600 people that lived in Tillsonburg’s native village back in the 1400s wanted to visit family and friends regularly at the village near modern-day Brantford, how did they do that with no roads, compasses or GPS? One way was by marking trees or blazing paths with a variety of symbols.

The other way was trail trees.

In 1825, George Tillson was led by an Indigenous person from Normandale to the spot on the Otter Creek that merged with two other creeks. Did they use trail trees to travel to where his town stands today? How did others follow or find there way here?

I was recently contacted by a friend who recognized a trail tree in one of our subdivision parkettes. Most people would think it is just as weirdly deformed tree, but it is not, as it is actually pointing the direction to take until the next rise in land where another tree would be found pointing the way to continue. In some cases it could also point to water or an area with something travellers would need. They were the roads of the past across North America for explorers, immigrants and settlers.

Taller, pliable saplings of hardwoods oak and maple were bent over in the direction the trail was to take and dirt and/or rocks were used to weigh it down in place. New branches would grow straight up and after some years the weight would be removed, the tree now permanently and uniquely disfigured but still alive.

These trees are found all over North America. Needless to say, finding one today is rare. So is trying to find Ontario groups tracking the location of these waymarks.

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There are so many things I would like to know, especially the age of this tree, which could date before 1825 when George Tillson arrived. It is bigger than it looks in photo, but could it actually be almost 200 years old?

To try and figure out where this Tillsonburg trail tree is pointing, I sent the prince of all husbands out with compass and GPS. Many of our roads were once old trails and leading to the same places we still go today… so it was a fun experiment to find out it points east. Is that to get across our three ravines safely, to lead to Jarvis or Fort Erie?

Near the native village (now our soccer fields), not far from this tree, there could be more still standing on farms and conservation areas.

Does anyone know of other trail trees? Is there a group out there I can’t find? A map?

Many walking trails today are old railroad tracks but if anyone off those beaten tracks happens to find a trail tree, could you please share your information, like a location that could be found again; if possible GPS co-ordinates, the direction it points, and a photo. I understand many phones can do all that. If not there are free apps available.

Your assistance would be most appreciated, please give me a call at 519-842-9416.

These are living artifacts that should be preserved and protected.

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