Maple Sugaring:
Native American Lore and History

Melody Kraus
Adams County Master Gardener

Now that the days are beginning to lengthen and the temperatures are rising above 40 degrees in the day, but dipping below freezing at night, the sap in the sugar maple is beginning to flow. It is time to make use of it by turning it into syrup.

Although these trees are associated with New England and Canada, their range encompasses areas with cool and moist climates, including the mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions. Although Adams County, Pennsylvania, is too far south for the commercial production of syrup, local parks, such as Nixon County Park in York County and Fort Hunter Mansion and Park in Dauphin County, have maple sugar festivals about this time of year.

Most likely, the Native Americans of the Eastern woodlands discovered that the sap from maple trees could be boiled into sugar. The various tribes of this region have similar and consistent tales that the Creator filled the trees with thick syrup year round.

One story features a main character named Glooskap, a prankster figure with a variety of powers, whose name varies from group to group.

One day he comes upon a village without any people present. He searches and searches and finally finds them (men, women, children, and even the dogs) in the nearby grove of maples, lying under the trees allowing syrup to drip into their wide open mouths.

Therefore, he decides to bring water in a birch bark bucket from the nearby lake and pour it into the trees until the syrup becomes thin and runny. Then, calling out to the people, he tells them what he has done and warns them that the syrup will stop flowing. Furthermore, in the future, he says, that it will run only in late winter when food is scarce, so they should return to farming, fishing and hunting.

However, he tells them how to work with this new sap. Specifically, they should now gather it in birch bark buckets and collect stones and firewood. The stones should be heated in a fire and dropped into the sap, which has been collected in buckets, until it boils and turns into syrup.

But, outside of the stories, how did the tribes learn about the sweetness of the sap in the trees? Perhaps, it was from the red squirrel, which nibbles the ends of branches or cuts into the bark with its front teeth. Interestingly, the creature absconds, allowing sap to run out of the cut. The water evaporates, leaving the sugar behind, which is consumed by the squirrel later.

This possibility is captured in an Iroquois myth, which tells of a youth who saw a red squirrel climb a tree, bite off a twig, and lick the sap. He, then, tasted it himself, thereby becoming the discoverer of maple sugar.

Unfortunately, no archaeological evidence exists to confirm these myths due to the humid, moist climate in the range of maple trees.

However, the first written descriptions of maple sugaring appear in letters or journals of early Europeans in North America.

In Massachusetts about 1750, John Kathen sent his son Alexander up the Connecticut River to learn the technique of sugaring from the Abenaki Indians.

In 1756, James Smith, who was a prisoner of the Canawaugha/Caughnanagas Indians in Ohio, after being captured at age 18 in Bedford County, wrote that the group he was with made about 100 elm bark vessels that held about 2 gallons each and bark tanks that held 100 gallons each, to hold sap. First, they cut a downward sloping notch. Then, they placed a long wood chip in the lowest end of it to carry the sap away from the trunk and into the vessel at the base of the tree. They collected sap in the buckets and poured it into the tanks.

Overall, the Eastern woodland Indians and earliest settlers used a tomahawk or axe to tap the trees by making a slash or V shape. Interestingly, the red squirrel makes V shaped cuts with its teeth, which, perhaps, proves the Iroquis myth to be true. The tribes did process sap by boiling it with heated stones as described in the story of Glooskap.

Maple syrup proved to be an important contributing food source, when fall stores were running low. It is a labor intensive and time consuming process to create it from sap. As time passed and new cultural influences entered North America, the methods began to change.

Maple Sugaring: History and Technical Advances

After a mythological and historical summary in the last article, this piece will further discuss the practical side of maple sugaring.

When late winter arrived in the northeastern United States, the Eastern woodland Indians and earliest settlers used a tomahawk or axe to tap the trees. Early Europeans made a diagonal or V-shaped cut in the tree and inserted a birch bark quill or thin wooden splint at lowest point in groove for the sap to follow.

These early techniques are reflected in terminology. For example, the Algonquins and Cree called maple sugar Sinzibuckwut and Sisbaskwit, which means drawn from wood.

The sap ran into a birch bark or similar vessel, where it was collected. 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 in a sticky, gooey, slow dripping form remained. To determine if it were ready, a twig could be dipped into it and blown upon. If a bubble appeared, it was finished. Also, 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. Similarly, Europeans formed the sticky sugar into cake shapes which were easily stored and were broken apart by a sugar devil, an auger like tool.

If it continued to be cooked, the sugar would stick to the sides of the vessel. It would 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.

While early European settlers adopted these local ways of maple sugaring, they also began adaptations.

The basic process did not change, but the gathering and cooking implements did. Both round and half-round shaped wooden buckets replaced wooden collection troughs or birch bark buckets under trees.

Vessels made of brass, copper and iron replaced bark and clay. Sap was collected and carried to kettles hanging over open fires where it was boiled. To make hauling easier, a sap yoke or sugar yoke was used. It was a device made of wood that was placed over the shoulders across the back of the neck. A notch could be cut into the middle to fit around the neck for comfort and balance. Buckets were suspended from each end.

Circa 1790, a technique using three different sized kettles was introduced. The largest one was used for boiling; the medium one was filled with liquid beginning to thicken; the smallest finished the boiling process. Wool blankets filtered the liquid. Utensils made of metal were employed.

Around 1800, the technique of gashing trees was interpreted as barbarous, so holes were drilled in trunks with an augur. The original diameter of this tool was 1 inches, but reduced in size over time. Smaller holes healed more quickly, minimizing damage to the tree, since maples grow slowly.

As European settlers became established, they introduced white sugar or cane sugar, which was expensive. Paul LeJeune, who was a Jesuit missionary, wrote in 1634 that the Native Americans called it French snow. Conversely, diaries of early Europeans refer to maple sugar as Indian molasses or Indian sugar.

Maple sugar became a household sweetener in the colonies in Canada and the United States. Europeans did not wish to import it, since they relied on cane sugar. It could be made from trees on one's own property, stored easily and lasted all year, providing self-sufficiency. It was a reliable and predictable agricultural crop. Even the calendar reflects its importance.

The first full moon during the sap running season is called the Maple Moon or the Sugar Moon. The current website for the Old Farmer's Almanac calls the month of March the Full Sap Moon, while February has the Full Hunger Moon.

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