The History of the Spirit Little Cedar Tree


The Spirit Little Cedar Tree is a small white cedar that appears to grow out of a rock formation on Hat Point overlooking Lake Superior on the Northeastern tip of Minnesota. Called "Manido Gizhigans" by the indiginous Ojibway people, the tree is located on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. It is estimated to be 300 to 500 years old. It has long a special significance to the Ojibway and Chippewa, who passed along its legend to early settlers.


White cedars (Thuja occidentalis), like the Little Cedar Spirit Tree, are adaptable and can grow in rock crevices as well as on exposed slopes. They are evergreen shrubs or trees with flat, scale-like foliage and tiny light brown cones. Also known as American arborvitae or eastern arborvitae, the plants are used for hedges and foundation plantings. Under cultivation they can grow 20 to 30 feet tall. They are native from Nova Scotia south to North Carolina and as far west as Manitoba (Canada) and Illinois. Many cultivated varieties are commercially available.

History: Native Americans

The Little Cedar Spirit Tree is listed on the United States National Registry of Historic Places. Since 1987 (when it was purchased from a private landowner) it has stood on land that was incorporated into a reservation created in 1854 when the Lake Superior Chippewa signed a treaty ceding a large tract of land in Northeastern Minnesota to the United States.The Ojibwa believed that the tree was home to evil spirits who endangered canoes passing the nearby rocky point. This may have given rise to its other nickname, "witch tree." Gifts, including tobacco, left near the tree were thought to appease the spirits.

History: Voyageurs

The first recorded notation about the "witch tree" came from a French explorer, Sieur de la Verendrye, who observed the twisted, gnarled tree in 1731 and thought that it was already old. Because of its prominence, the tree became a landmark for other explorers and fur traders who traveled on the lake. These fur traders included the "voyageurs," 18th and 19th century French Canadians who contracted with the Hudson Bay Company and its French predecessor to travel into the Canadian interior in search of saleable pelts.

History: Names

According to M. Grieve, in her book "A Modern Herbal," the genus name, "thuja," may come from the Greek word meaning "to fumigate" or another Greek word, "thuo," meaning "to sacrifice". The aromatic wood of Mediterranean cedar species has long been burned as part of religious rituals. The common name of white cedar, "arbor vitae," means "tree of life." It was coined by 16th century botanist Carolus Clusius, who saw a newly imported specimen in the garden of the French royal palace at Fontainebleau.


Because of fears about vandalism or other damage, access to the Little Cedar Spirit Tree is limited. Tourists can only visit the site as part of a guided tour, led by a naturalist from Ojibwa's Grand Portage Lodge. It is also clearly visible from the water.

Keywords: Cedar Spirit Tree, Minnesota witch tree, Spirit Tree History

About this Author

Elisabeth Ginsburg, a writer with twenty years' experience, earned an M.A. from Northwestern University and has done advanced study in horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. Her work has been published in the "New York Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Horticulture Magazine" and other national and regional publications.