Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society
Author, Founder, and President Dennis Downes

trail trees trail trees
By Dennis Downes
trail tree research

trail tree research

Trail Marker Trees were an ancient form of land and water navigational aids, as well as a marking system to denote areas of significant importance such as ceremonial sites. These trees were used by many, if not all, of the Native American tribes and later by fur traders and early pioneers. The Trail Marker Trees differed in their appearance and formation from tribe to tribe and from region to region. Examples of these trees have been found all across the United States and throughout Canada. Researcher Dennis Downes was first introduced to the Trail Marker Trees as a young boy and was influenced by his own Native American relative; later being influenced by and following in the footsteps of Dr. Raymond Janssen. Mr. Downes has spent nearly thirty years of his adult life in the field locating, documenting, and educating others about these historical icons. Throughout his research, Downes has worked with numerous Native American tribes and historical experts, archeologists, arborists, and anthropologists across the country to bring further credence to this study.

Downes' research has influenced people across the country and brought greater awareness of the Trail Marker Trees to the public. He has traveled to nearly every state and presented over 100 Trail Marker Tree exhibits and lectures. As a result, he has been consulted by many newly formed interest groups regarding the Trail Marker Trees from across the country and Canada including the Almond Historical Society in New York, the Mountain Stewards in Georgia, the Heritage State Parkway Project based in Wisconsin, the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition in Texas, and many others. In his newly completed book, Downes reflects on many of his interactions with different groups across the country and urges them to focus on factual research and preservation of these Native American historical icons. Downes' decades of research truly have helped to raise awareness and guide this new generation of researchers and interest groups in the right direction.

With the completion of his book, Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness, Downes was able to share insight from his thirty year study. The book not only gives factual and photographic documentation of the Trail Trees; it also tells a story about the involvement of numerous individuals and groups throughout history in forming, preserving, and protecting these landmarks. Numerous Native American Tribes, explorers, pioneers, historians, garden clubs, and interest groups have been involved with the Trail Marker Trees throughout their existence. Over the past century and even today groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Boy and Girl Scouts of America, and Historical Societies around the country have made efforts to raise awareness about these rapidly disappearing culturally modified landmarks. Downes' 264 page book is both historically factual and artistically beautiful, although it is by no means the end of his continuous study.

"The Native American community could not ask for a better friend and supporter," Johnson told Downes." You are gifted; you're a man of passion, tenacity and intergrity. You have pursued a quest that sometimes seem thankless, but we are here today to thank you. You are a good and honorable man. You are our brother."
(Andrew Johnson, Executive Director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, representing over 100 Tribes.)

Antioch, Illinois (2018)
Installation of the Bronze Trail Marker Tree by artist Dennis Downes and Blessing Ceremony.

Special Guest, Emmy Award wining producer/director & cameraman Gary Donatelli filmed the event for his trail marker tree documentary. Cherokee elder Andrew Johnson, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce for Illinois performed a blessing ceremony and giving a short talk. Hilda "Little Fawn" Williams, Ottawa and direct decendant of Chief Pontiac also spoke on her father's Chief Thundercloud and his knowledge of the Lake County Trail Marker Trees.

Traverse City Michigan
Trail Marker Tree Dedication
Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation Department
Trail Marker Tree Dedication Ceremony

Author, artist and trail marker tree expert Dennis Downes' consultation, vast knowledge, and experience was invaluable to the Native American Trail Marker Tree placemaking project at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center in Traverse City. From crafting accurate language for the signage, to educating project managers about the tree's historical significance in our region and the greater context of our nation, Dennis' enthusiasm, passion, and generosity will always be appreciated by out community, especially the Grand Traverse Tribe of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, who were honored during a special ceremony at the tree on October 25, 2016. I am grateful to know Dennis and to have leaned so much about trail marker trees. I've received many compliments on the project and on the ceremony from those who attended. It's one of the greatest things that's happened for County Parks and Recreation this year. I will never look at a tree the same, now, and seek out such trees when traveling. What a gift!"
Kristine Erickson, Director, Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation Department

This group photo was taken after the Trail Marker Tree Lecture presented by Dennis Downes at the 13th Annual Grove Solo Show and Trail Marker Tree Exhibit. In attendance at the event were: Hilda "Little Fawn" Williams (Chief Thundercloud's Daughter), Dan Melone (Cook County archeologist), Verlyn "Buzz" Spreeman (member of the Menominee Nation), Michael Griem (Trail Tree Advocate), Nancy Canova (Vice Regent and Illinois District IV of the Daughters of the American Revolution), additional representatives of District IV DAR, Susan Kelsey (author and Assistant Scout Master), numerous Lake Forest Scout Troop 46 Boy and Eagle Scouts, Steve Swanson (Director of the Grove Redfield Estate), Eli Suzukovich III PhD (anthropologist, Cree/Chippewa descendant), and Joseph Podlasek (Executive Director of the American Indian Center, Chicago).

Grove Show Trail Marker Tree Exhibit Glenview Illinois

"Trickster Art Gallery is honored to meet our organizational mission by hosting a unique art exhibit and book signing about how our Native history continues to influence our future. Dennis Downes' amazing research has brought light on an untold story of this country, the Native Trail Marker Trees. The book that connects to the very ground we live on today is a must read. The connection discovered by Dennis to the history and family of Ms. Hilda Williams, a Native Elder, is one that historians, educators, and environmentalists must see and read. Join us at the VIP Reception on April 11th to share in the research Native People around the country are proud of."
- Joseph Podlasek, Ojibwe, LCO, Trickster Art Gallery

Trickster Art Gallery Chicago

Dennis with Buzz Spreeman during the Robinson's Woods Walk led by archeologist, Dan Melone. Dan and Buzz have attended several events with Dennis regarding the Trail Marker Tree Study.

" Being a fifth generation descendent of Alexander Robinson's first wife Sasohs a Menominee Indian, I know how vital trail trees were to all American Indians. Providing information to help guide them through forests for easier and safe passage to their destinations near and far."
-Buzz Spreeman-

Buzz Spreeman Menominee Indian

Lecture and Book Signing at Lookout Mountain Nature Center, Colorado "We had an enthusiastic crowd that evening who gained a great deal from the presentation. You are doing unique and important work and I found the subject matter and evidence that you presented to be very compelling. I'm sure participants really appreciated all of the supporting materials you brought along and that really helped bring the story of marker trees to life." (Tim Sandsmark, Supervisor-Nature Education of Lookout Region Parks Supervisor)

Look Out Mountain Colorado

The Park District of Highland Park (Natural Areas Manager, Rebecca Grill), along with JoBe Cerny (producer and director), and Rob Rotering (Highland Park Historical Society President) helped to organize an event commemorating and replacing a documented Trail Marker Tree in Sunset Woods Park, Highland Park, Illinois. A sapling oak tree was planted as the first step in this project; in the future this oak will be shaped into a Trail Marker Tree for future generations to see. This event was also attended by Illinois State Senator, Judith Morrison of the 29th Legislative District; Judith Inglese, historian; Francis Sheahen (witnessed the original documented Trail Marker Tree as a child), Alyssa Knonbel (Highland Park City Council Woman), and David Knapp (Highland Park City Manager).

Sunset Woods Park Highland Park Illinois

Nora Lloyd (Native American cultural consultant and historian) and Terry Straus (author, editor, and professor), both associated with the American Indian Center of Chicago, with Mr. Downes for a private showing of his educational Trail Marker Tree Exhibit in Chicago.

American Indian Center Chicago

Lecture and Book Signing in Dallas, Texas hosted by the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition (DHTC). Mary Graves, President of the DHTC, made the following review of this event: "We were honored to host Dennis Downes for a lecture and book signing in Dallas, Texas. The event was a great success, drawing over 120 people.” professors, students, Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, American Indians, families with young children, and people who simply love to hear about these wonderful Trail Marker Trees. Many traveled to hear Dennis speak, some as far as 350 miles. The appeal of this subject is wide, and we were delighted to showcase Downes' depth of knowledge and good information to so many enthusiastic listeners. The lecture was interesting, and the photographs and supporting material were excellent. After the lecture, the momentum continued as many attendees stayed to talk with the author and to have him sign their books.
It was a rare opportunity to hear one who has invested a lifetime in this research, and for a moment, we got a glimpse of what it must be like to walk those trails with Dennis, and to live in a world that requires an entirely different set of skills to survive. As a group that works to bring the stories of these great historic trees to the public, we were delighted for the awareness that Dennis raised in our community. Best of all, as a result of Dennis' lecture, there are new enthusiasts in our landscapes watching for these trees, and there is a greater urgency to learn about them, protect them and recognize them for the treasures that they are.

Dallas Historic Tree Coalition DHTC

Little Fawn, Chief Thundercloud's daughter, and Mr. Downes by his Trail Marker Tree sculpture during one of Little Fawn's several visits to Illinois to discuss the Trail Marker Trees with Mr. Downes.

Trail Marker Tree Sculpture

This photo, from 1939, was taken in Highland Park Illinois. Pictured in the photo are Chief Thundercloud and Raymond E. Janssen, Anthropologist and Paleobotanist, PHD. University of Chicago. The photo was taken during a research trip visiting several trail marker tree sites in North East IIllinois. Dr. Janssen's study of the trail marker trees spanned 12 years visiting 13 states from Pennsyvannia to Texas.

Raymond Janssen

Author and artist Dennis Downes was able to relocate the tree pictured above and bring Chief Thunderclouds daughter "Little Fawn" to the same site over 70 years later.

Highland Park Trail Tree

This photo, which was recently located with the help of Chief Thunderclouds daughter "Little Fawn" circa 1940. The photo shows Chief Thundercloud and anthropologist Raymond E. Janessen at the EXMOOR country club. One of the trail marker trees was located near the 7th green, and the other was located behind the clubhouse. The tree on the right in the photo shows the boulder and plaque placed at the tree in 1935. This appears in the authors book. These two trail marker trees were referred to in Dr. John Halsey's book, "History of Lake County", in 1912.

Exmoor Country Club
Chief Thundercloud

The Cumnor Road Trail Marker Tree, referenced in Mr. Downes’ book. Pictured here, Mr. Leuchtner of the Kenilworth Historical Society, and Ben Yahola during the Trail Tree Walk in 2006. During this event local Indian elders held a ceremony to heal the earth.

Cumnor Road Trail Marker Tree Kenilworth Illinois

Lakes region historical Museum awards ceremony far left, Steve young, Kononozo, Pottawattamie historical expert northeastern Illinois, receiving a proclamation from Mayor Lawrence Hansen, for his lifelong contributions to the study and awareness of native American history in this region. The author and Kononozo, have done field research in Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri together regarding his study of the trail marker trees, Gail Downes to the right of Dennis has been a great supporter of her husband's work. Later the author was presented with a proclamation by Mayor Hansen for his part in saving some of the history of the trail marker trees throughout the country, by completing his book.

Lakes region historical Museum

Glenn Jones invited Mr. Downes to visit Benton County Arkansas in regards to trail marker trees. Glenn Jones, from the Cherokee Tribe, (center of the photo) is the Vice President of the Arkansas Trail of Tears Association and member of the Benton County Historical Preservation Commission and Chair Commissioner. Mr. Jones accompanied Mr. Downes to several trail marker tree sites in Benton County and the surrounding area. Mr. Jones is working with people in his area to ensure that these trail trees or signal trees as Mr. Jones refers to them are not forgotten.

Benton County Arkansas

Earl Otchingwanigan is an enrolled member of LAnse [Keweenaw Bay tribe, KBIC] of Lake Superior and dual decadency of Keweenaw Bay and lac Courte Orielles. Earl is a professor Emeritus of the Ojibwe language Minnesota State University 1971 through 2000. Also a consultant to the Museum of The American Indian Washington DC and New York 1975-2004 and co-founder of the Ojibwe Heritage Council of Iron County Michigan. His wife Christie Otchingwanigan, is an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe of Lake Superior Ojibwe, graduate of Michigan Technical University and owner of Niigaanii Surveying Company. They invited Mr. Downes to see a rare example of a trail marker tree shaped in Michigan in 1933 by two local Ojibwe men Ben Scott and John Martin both in their 70s at the time. These two men were given the job of remarking the old Indian trail from Chicaugon Lake to Fortune Lake in true Indian fashion. Mr. Otchingwanigan was kind enough to prepare a paper regarding this event with dates, times and names and his personal knowledge of these individuals, and gave it to Mr. Downes when they met.

"A lot of people don't recognize what they are and they are a really important part of the history of this country" - Earl Otchingwanigan

Earl Otchingwanigan

Eli Suzukovich lll, PhD with the Educational Department of the American Indian Center. He is Cree/Chippewa… Eli discussing the trail marker trees with Dennis at Mr. Downes exhibit. He has known of Mr. Downes and his study since the late 90's. Eli understands the value of this study for all Native Americans and Europeans alike. He said he was glad to see the book completed after all these years.

Educational Department of the American Indian Center

Hilda Williams, daughter of Ottawa Chief Thundercloud, visiting Mr. Downes' exhibit in Chicago on the trail marker tree's. Hilda explained her father knew exactly what the trees were and was photographed by them in the 1920s and 30s. Afterwards she invited Mr. Downes and his wife as her guests to the 58th Annual Powwow that was held in the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier November 19, 2011. Sponsored by the American Indian Center.

American Indian Center

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