TRAVERSE CITY -- Dennis Downes traveled 200,000 miles over three decades, a journey to locate Indian trail tree markers around the Great Lakes, including two in Traverse City – one at the Civic Center and another at a Washington Street residence.
The Chicago author and artist returned to the area May 14 with Hilda “Little Fawn” Williams, daughter of Oklahoma Chief Thunder Cloud, who visited this area in the 1930s. Downes met Williams in 2011 at a book signing in Chicago for his book, “Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness.”
Williams told him she was tracing her father’s footsteps by visiting places he had been. She also said her father had made several trips to Traverse City.
“The purpose in making the trip was to reconnect Hilda with another tree her father could have visited,” he said. “Her father promoted oral history of American Indians and traveled around the Great Lakes Region. He was very much involved in keeping Indian history and culture alive.”
Thunder Cloud, an Ottawa, also was called Scott T. Williams. According to his obituary in an unnamed old newspaper, he was born in Cedar City, an earlier name for Cedar in nearby Leelanau County. He lived more than 50 years in Chicago and died Jan. 31, 1967 at age 68, the newspaper reported.
Downes also has an old, undated newspaper photograph of Thunder Cloud and Illinois paleobotanist Raymond Janssen, who spent 11 years researching Indian trail marker trees in 13 states around the Great Lakes, including Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. He said Downes often traveled with Janssen to put plaques on marker trees, but it is unclear if Janssen ever came to Traverse City.
Bill Kennis, director of the History Center of Traverse City, made arrangements with the Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation Department to temporarily remove a section of chain link fence so that Williams and Downes could touch the tree.
Downes lauded the city for placing the protective fence around the old oak. He estimated its age at about 200 years before white settlement, which started in the late 1840s and 1850s in the Traverse City area. He said its “radical V” shape usually indicated a fork in the trail. Traverse City’s other marker outside a Washington Street house is a “traditional’’ directional tree planted along the old 1- to 2-foot Indian trails.
Downes and Williams also traveled to Eyaawing Museum and Cultural Center in Peshawbestown for a book signing.