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The Thongs of the Ozarks

Recently, my partner Jeff and I found a cool picture book. The book was dedicated to Thong trees. I had no idea these trees even existed, or that thongs were a thing until this book manifested into our lives. (I mean other than thongs you wear, of course.) Needless to say, we became quite intrigued by the history and the purpose of these trees and why they came to be.

With that, I wrote a blog about it. Like to hear it? Here it go . . .

For hundreds of years, here in the Ozark Mountains, Indian tribes, passing through, would create thong trees in the forest to pass along useful information. These are also sometimes known as "signal trees."

The Indians would usually take a young sapling (typically, a white oak) and they would bend it and secure it in place so that it grew into a specific, unusual shape.

Using two Y shaped branches, they would pull the trunk over one Y branch and secure it into place with another (inverted) Y branch. Quite ingenious, actually.

Over time, the tree would continue to grow and as each is unique in and of itself, these would come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

There are said to be over a thousand thong trees in the Ozarks and these trees are (at minimum) usually 140-150 years old. Although these trees are mostly found in the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri, they are mostly in Northwest Arkansas.

As you know, from the history of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the many springs here were considered healing by the Native Americans that visited. They considered the waters here to be sacred. They worshiped the water. They treated the water with kindness, respect and love. They were grateful for it and it showed because they took care of it. Even neighboring tribes could visit and partake of the cold, clear waters without resistance and ancient ceremonies of health and healing were often held in the natural waters here.

Thong trees in this area would usually mark off locations to indicate to other passersby that there is a river near, or stream, or waterfall, or spring - it didn't matter what, so long as it was a reliable source of water.

The Buffalo National River is said to have huge thong trees all along its banks and in the areas surrounding it, to indicate to others in the woods that the river is near.

Many tribes of Indians were attracted to this area of our country, not only for the beauty, and the geography but for the possibility. Deer, elk, turkey and other game meant food. Caves, table-rock, fertile soil, deep hollows and thousands of trees meant shelter.

The basic needs for human life to sustain well were all prevalent here: food, shelter and water (healing water, in fact.)

Numerous thong trees, over time, would mark favorite locations, trails, clearings, water, ideal hunting, and more.

Each tribe had its own way of shaping trees. In Arkansas, white oaks were chosen because they knew that they would maintain their shape and have a long life span. The Cherokees called these trees "day stars" as they were easy to track in daylight through the forests. They sometimes used a leather thong to permanently tie the tree down and change the tree’s shape as it grew.

They also shaped trees differently to indicate a ceremonial site or a specific navigational marker.

Because the trees in Arkansas closely mirror the shaping of trees in Georgia and North and South Carolina, it is believed that thong trees are a product of mostly the Cherokee Tribe, which makes sense. Note: Another cluster is located on the Southeastern border with Louisiana.

Some Cherokees began migrating from their homeland on the East Coast after the Revolutionary War, but before forced relocation through the Indian Removal Act.

The Cherokee worked together to stop this forced relocation, but were unsuccessful; they were eventually forcibly removed by the United States government in a march to the west that later became known as the Trail of Tears. It is likely that these Cherokee are responsible for the signal trees throughout Arkansas.

Thong-marked trails can be found across the state, but mostly in these here parts so when you find yourself out and about here in Eureka Springs, take a moment to appreciate one of the many thong trees and the history that made it so.


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