Archived Outdoors

Ancient road signs

Having followed Indians trails and routes for decades, I have learned that some fascinating cultural road markers and signpost elements were and still are to be found along the old travel ways. Two of the most interesting are trail marker trees and dendroglyphs, which are found scattered across the Southeast in association with the old paths. Mountain Stewards, the partnering organization in the Cherokee trails project, has to date documented 1,597 Trail marker trees in 39 states, including Alabama, Georgia and North and South Carolina. (See Recently, a set of twin trail trees was found near Bryson City. Others have been found on the Little Tennessee River. Bending and forming trail trees, sometimes called thong trees, was an art practiced by native people to permanently mark trails. The old trees are hundreds of years old.

Dendroglyphs, also called arborglyphs, are pictographic or lettered carvings in the bark of trees. The American beech was the preferred species in the Southeast as it has a smooth bark and lives upwards of 500 years. Beech trees found along American Indian trails, campsites, village sites, pioneer homesteads and pioneer roads were used extensively as boundary markers, signposts, message boards, religious motifs and artistic expression.

The archaeological and historical significance of pictographs is that the ideographic, written language contained therein adds to the study of other forms of expression, such as the paintings on the cliff walls in the Southwest which honor deities and chronicled events. These trees are living monuments to the past, denoting historical ecology, native history, early American settler history, family presence, and ancient trails and signposts. Early symbols were used to mark territories and scare off intruders. Some denoted forts, villages, tribal symbols, battles, and prisoners or scalps taken. Later they were used as witness trees by the first surveyors. No doubt, there are thousands of these old carved beeches and hundreds of trail trees in Western North Carolina.

The public lands of the national forests are the best places to walk and explore some of these important roadways of the past. Always get permission before setting out across private property. Readers can contact Lamar Marshall at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or and The Smoky Mountain News at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.