Volume VI, No. 2, Winter 1978
Story and drawings by Teresa Maddux, Photography by Mary Schmalstig
We weren't archeologists digging in a burial site nor adventurers penetrating an uncharted wilderness, but nevertheless right on Mary's land, we were discoverers of living evidence of a lost culture. We stared with mixed excitement and disbelief at the old misshapen oak tree right in front of us. This unusual tree, undoubtedly seen by many people and spared from the ax because its knotty wood was of no value for lumber or firewood, stood out like a sore thumb in the winter woods of smaller second growth trees. This old veteran was without question an Indian thong tree, shaped and marked on this very spot generations ago--and we discovered it!
Even though we weren't the first white people to see it, we were the first ones seeing it that were able to read its message, for having learned that the Indians had a timber language, we had gone out looking. Knowing what to search for and being told by Mary's father of some trees like we described, we became the true discoverers.
With mounting excitement we followed where this tree pointed and found another. The second tree pointed to still another leading down a gentle draw to the creek. The trees pointed out the easiest passage to the water. Everywhere else on this side the creek was bordered by bluffs or steep hills. On the other side of the creek where the approach to the bank was gentle rolling hills, the tree we found pointed straight to the creek. Awed and feeling almost like trespassers on our own land and in our own time, we read the ancient message that told us as plainly as if the words were painted on a big sign with a red arrow pointing the way, "This is the best way to reach the creek."
After our first discovery, we found several other thong trees on rough forest land which was never suited for farming or even clearing for pasture land. Spared from burning, storms and the ax alike, a few of the many trees once vital to Indian communication and survival are alive still today talking to anyone who knows how to listen.
Though used for centuries by Indians, the timber language was virtually unknown to white man until recent years. All tribes of Indians from the northeastern woodsmen on the east coast, to the seed gatherers on the west depended on the messages in the thong trees. Many tribes were involved in the bending of these trees in the Ozark region--among them the Fox and Sioux and the Big and Little Osage, whose territory prior to 1820 extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
The area south of the Osage River in central Missouri was once international Indian treaty ground. In fact, the Indian chiefs from the western half of the country met with the emissary from President Jefferson to sign the agreement at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in the area where Ha Ha Tonka is now, close to where we found our thong trees. This meant that Indians from different areas of the country could come in peace to hunt and fish. Leaving the warriors behind to protect their villages, they brought their women and children and made temporary hunting camps throughout the Missouri hills. This tradition was so strong that even in the memory of our older residents small groups of Indians from Oklahoma reservations would occasionally come through on hunting parties. Since different Indian groups used the area frequently and mainly for hunting, the thong trees were of special importance.
The white man did not understand these trees. The Indian word for "thong" was a well-kept, sacred, tribal secret, as were the trees themselves. In referring to these trees, thong does not mean a leather strap, but the forked stick used to form the trees. As far as we know, the Indians had no name for these trees.
The thong trees told where living water, escape caves or medicinal herbs were located. Some said, "Good place to cross the river ahead." Some trees acted as arrows leading to other trees pointing directly to springs.
Every tribal nation had its own timber language which everyone in the tribe knew how to read. There was also a general timber language consisting of a few markings to help distant travelers find their way and survive on unfamiliar ground.
It was quite simple to shape a thong tree. A stone ax to cut the two thongs was the only tool needed. The thongs were sturdy forked green sticks in the shape of a Y, heavy enough to hold the weight of the sapling and thick enough not to rot out in the ground for the few years necessary to set the tree in its desired shape. The base of the fork would have been at least six inches in diameter if the sapling was the size of a thumb.
The sapling chosen was usually white oak because it was supple enough to bend easily and had less likelihood of splitting and causing the tree to die. If white oak was not available, any nearby hardwood was used--even sassafras.
To shape the sapling the Indians first drove the base of one forked stick into the ground near the foot of the sapling. They bent the trunk through the fork to form the first or hip bend. Then they placed the other forked stick upside down over the trunk some two or three feet toward the crown of the tree, driving the two prongs into the ground. Though the trunk was imprisoned in a sort of inverted J pattern, the top of the tree was left to either grow up toward the light or rot away, thus forming the second bend which became the nose. The further shape of the tree depended upon the location of small branches on the trunk of the sapling. Most of the side branches were trimmed off, but sometimes they would leave one on top causing the tree to grow in the shape of a 4 with the two branches growing upward. One occasionally finds a tree with three or more branches.
We think it probably took three to four years for a white oak tree to hold its shape on its own. By then the forked stick, would have rotted. Many thong trees found today appear to be smaller than would be expected from their great age. Their lack of size could be due to a number of reasons other than the stunting resulting from bending. Drought and lack of sunlight on the sapling, poor soil, frequent burnings or other natural reasons may have stunted the trees. Also, it is logical that more of the puny-looking trees have survived man's cutting than the larger ones since the gnarled and close-grained trunks would not have been worth the labor it took to chop them down. Some trees have been found as small as twelve inches in diameter, but the only way to tell the age of these trees is to have a trained forester do an increment bore. Often this is not possible because of some heart rot in parts of the trees. Some are much older than others, even though they may be the same size.
Sometimes the messages these trees tell are more than the directions they point. Anyone could read that. The Indians also made marks, caused knobs to grow and included other indications on the tree for more sophisticated information. These marks were usually on the nose or hip bend. Most of the marks were on the hip because the first bend was there immediately available for inserting the markings. The nose markings could not be made for a few years until the tree top straightened up.
The trees were marked by slitting the bark and inserting charred bark of the same kind as the tree. The slit was then sealed with rosin or pitch to keep out insects. As the tree matured, it grew around these places making permanent bumps and marks.
The marks on the nose were made in the same fashion probably two to three years later. The marks meant various things--water, caves, medicinal herbs. Two large knobs above the nose meant, "Entering hostile Indian territory, so don't go any farther."When the government began forcing the Indians further west after 1800, the Indians probably added the last mark to the thong tree. This one gave directions to a secure hiding place. More often than not this refuge was one of the numerous caves located in the Ozarks. Soldiers would often lose a whole band during a night without finding a trace of them. The Indians had simply read the knobs on the trees which said the Indian equivalent of, "Hunted and weary? This way to a hidden cave with fresh water and a back exit." While we were looking for thong trees, we'd see trees or be told of trees which resembled them, but a closer look showed them to be misshapen by natural causes. These trees are called casualties. Trees could be bent by storms or another tree limb which had fallen on a sapling may have caused it to grow in a similar formation. A true thong tree has well defined thong scars in the bark under the hip bend and on top of the second bend. This is the only positive way to identify them.
There is no telling how many thong trees have been destroyed by cutting, burning, or by natural means. To preserve as many as possible, some garden clubs and interested individuals have located, authenticated and mapped thong trees and have marked them with signs or plaques. They want to save them, not only as living landmarks of another culture, but also for further study, as there is much not yet known about this timber talk.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.