This is a story about a tree. But not just any tree, this story is about a special tree. A tree that leaves its mark on those who notice it.

This is also a story about a girl. A girl who grew up in the shadow of this tree.

Growing up was tough.

Exploring her world was thrilling but also confusing.

Why don’t things last forever? Where do they go when they’re gone? Where do we go when we’re gone?

The questions were as abundant as the adventures.

She learned about stability earlier than many. Identifying it came naturally to her.

When the ground around her was shaky and her emotions unsettled she found peace and comfort beneath the curiously crooked trunk of a special Oak tree.

The tree was short and sturdy, elegant and bold. It stood out amongst the other trees in the forest, defiant, deliberate, determined.

The tree was also inviting and the chiseled, angular branches that emerged from its curiously curved trunk served as a warm welcome to similarly curious company.

This special tree was just like the woman this little girl would grow up to be.

This story is also about a boy. A boy who grew up exploring the forest.

This boy suffered with chronic curiosity which made growing up tough for him too.

The world he saw was like his beloved forest and it existed without boundaries. A mellifluous menagerie of streams, trees, and mountainsides commanding his attention, beckoning him to explore.

He was simultaneously enamored and overwhelmed by the magnitude of beauty he saw around him.

He learned about structure earlier than most. Embracing it did not come natural to him. Man made rules and restrictions, schedules and standards were mandatory protocols he had to learn. They were anathema to his true self and caused him great stress.

When the stress of straight lines overwhelmed him he found peace in the forest sitting quietly with the wind against the perfectly sculpted curves of a gently swaying tree.

The boy and the girl had families that decided to make Pamlico County their home.

Their reasons varied but somehow they both ended up settling down in Arapahoe on the same quiet dirt country road.

Decades passed before they met but when they did it was like the perfect pairing of her tree and his forest.

It wasn’t long before they found themselves leaning against her special tree, falling in love with each other amidst the warm golden light at the end of a sultry summer day.

This story is also about a child, their child, an unbridled spirit, doggedly determined, deeply compassionate and feverishly curious, the perfect blend of her parents.

What was once the little girl’s special tree is now their family’s special tree.

But this wasn’t just the story of any tree and it wasn’t just the story of a special tree.

This was the story of the Elbow Tree, an Indian marker tree, and the story is far from over.

What are Indian Marker Trees?

From what I’ve read, this curiously bent Oak tree is likely a trail marker tree left by a group of North American Indians known as the North Carolina Algonquians. The North Carolina Algonquians consisted of several tribes that shared a common language called Pamlico or Carolina Algonquian. The tribe that lived closest to the Elbow tree would have been the Bear River Indians. Their settlement was named Raudauquaquank. Over the years it seems that Bear River has morphed into what we now call the Bay River.

Marker trees are also known as trail trees, trail marker trees, crooked trees and prayer trees. These trees have been documented across America with large concentrations seen in Northern Georgia and Arkansas. There are few surviving trees due to logging and modern road construction as well as them simply dying of old age.

These trees tend to exhibit a common shape due to the way they were formed which can be seen in the following graphic. It is alleged they were made this way because the horizontal bend stuck out in the forest of vertical trees thus making it visible at great distances.

The purpose of these trees is subject to interpretation as there isn’t a written record of why they placed them where they did. Instances where they exist along an established network of pre-Columbian roads would indicate that they served as directional markers to help guide travelers to their destination. In cases where the tree stands alone, it is speculated that they would be marking something specific and culturally important to the tribe such as a water source or crossing, burial ground, or council circle.

From the research I’ve done online there aren’t many surviving trail marker trees in North Carolina and none documented in Eastern North Carolina. I’ve shared my discovery with our neighbors and they’ve all been fascinated, having assumed all these years that the odd shaped tree got that way naturally.

Chronic curiosity does have its perks.  If you’re similarly afflicted and want to learn more then here are some helpful links about trail marker trees and the Native Americans that used to call this land home. 

Trail Tree Project Map

Trail Trees Wiki

Mysteries of the Trail Marker Trees pulled from web.archive.org

The Pamlico People Wiki

Bear River Indians

North Carolina Algonquians

Indian Towns and Buildings of Eastern NC

Marquette County Trail Marker Trees Part 1

Marquette County Trail Marker Trees Part 2