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Trail Signs

Have you ever wondered how people make their way to where they wanted to go during the colonial period?

A term, “By Guess and By Golly,” came to mean inspired guesswork, an early form of navigation that relied upon experience, intuition, and faith.

Brigadier General Francis Marion as a young man, went to sea. As a sailor, he learned to use a compass and a sextant and the stars to navigate. Those skills served him well when moving from one battle to the next during the Revolutionary War.  His men often remarked at how precise his movements were in the murky swamps of South Carolina. He did not guess his way through.

Many Indians, hunters, and travelers used axe blazes on tree trunks as trail signs. There is a major highway in South Carolina that has the name Two Notch Road, because it was an old buffalo trail that Indians used where they carved two notches in the trees. (And yes, there were buffalo in South Carolina. They migrated from the salt licks in Tennessee to the coast.) Those cuts into the trees cleared a path for others.

In Dr. Thomas Walker’s Journal of Exploration [of Kentucky], 1750, he says, “I Blazed a way from our House to the River.” & “I blazed several trees in the fork and marked T. W. on a Sycamore Tree.”

(Can you imagine having to blaze a trail from our house to a water source?)

John J. Henry’s An accurate account of the hardships of that band of heroes who traversed the wilderness in the campaign against Quebec in 1775 reports, “A path tolerably distinct, which we made more so by blazing the trees.”

Some travelers marked both sides of trees so that the trail could be run both ways. Trees marked on one side indicated a blind trail, used a lot by prospectors who didn’t want anyone following them. Indians usually nicked off small specks of bark with their knives while trappers and settlers may have used hatchets or broad axes. In the universal language of the woods, these marks meant “This is your trail.”

Another trail sign was to reach into an overhanging limb and bend a branch into an “L” shape meaning, “This is the trail.” The twig broken off clean and laid on the ground across the line of march means, “Break from your straight course and go in the line of the butt end.” When a special warning is meant, the butt is pointed toward the one following the trail and raised in a forked twig. If the butt of the twig were raised and pointing to the left, it would mean “Look out, camp, or ourselves, or the enemy, or the game we have killed is out that way.”

But what did one do when finding themselves in a treeless areas such as grasslands or expanses of spartina, desert areas, or rocky regions? They used rocks, pebbles, sticks, and patches (tussocks) of grass.

Thousands of years ago, American Indians along the east coast established a system of paths and trails for hunting, trading and making war on other tribes. Most followed the migration paths of animals and along routes and fords across streams and rivers.

The Great Trading Path, or the Occaneechi Path, was one of many Indian trails in use when the English first explored the Carolina backcountry during the late seventeenth century.

By the early to mid 1700s, the Trading Path provided European-American explorers and colonists a well-traveled route for settlement and trade. They traveled by foot, horseback, and wagon from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia and from South Carolina and Georgia. The Trading Path became known as the Great Wagon Road because of this increased traffic. Following portions of the original path, the Great Wagon Road crossed Virginia into North Carolina. The route was not just one path, but many. One branch of the path led to Charlotte and another through the Waxhaws and on through Charleston, SC, and eventually to Augusta, Ga.

Blazing a trail has taken on a new meaning to me as I have looked at these early days, and I really am glad we have those GPS systems.

Robert Frost examines this in his poem, The Road Less Traveled.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

 

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