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Native Americans and Maple Sugaring

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By Christina Grand Porter

In the early 1600s, before the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans were already tapping sugar maples and processing maple sugar. Early tribes moved their families to woods thick with sugar maples for the season and set up sugar camps. At that time, they made V-shaped slashes in the tree as a method to collect the sap in wooden vessels such as birch bark buckets. Then, it was taken to a hollowed-out log. A nearby fire was burning to heat stones, which were then dropped into the sap until the temperature reached the boiling point. The water slowly evaporated and the sugar remained in a sticky, gooey, slow dripping form. To determine if it were ready, a twig would be dipped into it and blown upon – if a bubble appeared, it was finished. If it continued to cook, the sugar would stick to the sides of the vessel to be scraped off in a granulated form that could be dissolved later in water for a sweet drink or added to food as seasoning. Both types would be used year-round. 

Some of the hot sugar could be dropped on the snow. If it partially froze and created a “taffy like” substance, the process was complete. Then, it could be poured on the ice or snow to cool into solid form and was packed into birch bark cones for storage; it was frequently eaten as candy or for quick energy. Europeans formed the sticky sugar into cake shapes which were easily stored and were broken apart by an auger like tool called a sugar devil. 

Native Americans in New England used maple syrup to makegrain sugar, cake sugar, and wax sugar. Grain sugar is similar to what we now call brown sugar. Cake sugar was in block form, shaped by pouring the syrup into molds and allowing it to harden, which made it easier to store. Finally, wax sugar, or sugar on snow, is the result of the aforementioned method of pouring maple syrup heated to high temperatures on the snow to create a taffy-like consistency.  

Native Americans regarded the sap of the maple tree as a direct gift from the Great Spirit. They welcomed the sugaring season each year with a great thanksgiving celebration. Maple syrup, and the directions to make it, were among the first gifts given to white settlers, who embraced the process of tapping the trees and making maple syrup, something that was an important part of surviving the long, cold northern winters for the Native Americans and settlers alike.

All known accounts of the time are silent on how the discovery and cookery of maple sap first came about, but they do indicate that the Indians of the Lake States, southeastern Canada, New England and the Appalachian Mountains knew and used maple syrup a long time before the first explorers and colonists came to America. One Iroquois legend tells of an Indian chief pulling his tomahawk from a maple tree and going off on a hunt. The weather was warm and the gash dripped sap into a bark vessel under the tree. The chief’s squaw needed water for cooking and used the water from the tree to save a trip to the spring. When the chief neared home, he smelled the odor of the sweet syrup and when he ate his meal, he found the meat very tasty. Other versions of the story vary slightly, inserting a daughter or mother, rather than a wife, who saved time going for water by using the tree water, but the story line remains the same. 

In the 1790s, European settlers began to drill a small hole into the trunk instead of V-shaped slashes, a method still used today. The sap was allowed to drip into a vessel for collection and was then boiled down into syrup in large metal pots. The syrup was then poured into molds to create sugar blocks, as maple sugar was historically more common than maple syrup. The maple sugar produced from sugaring became an important commodity for New England colonists to be sold and traded. It is still important today, and as the natural food movement picks up steam, maple syrup will become, along with honey, an increasingly attractive alternative to processed cane sugar.

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