Maple Sugaring in Colonial America

Most historians agree that the Native Americans introduced maple sugaring to the European settlers. When the first immigrants arrived, they traded with the indigenous people for many necessities, including maple sugar. Sugaring was known in America long before the land was colonized, as evidenced by old myths that describe how sugaring was discovered. The sap was boiled down not for the syrup, as it is mainly today, but for the crystallized sugar that is left when all the water is boiled away. Early settlers from Virginia and throughout New England readily adapted ways for sugaring as a substitute for cane sugar from the West Indies that was costly.

Maple sugaring begins with warm days, above freezing, and cold nights that trigger the flow of moisture in the roots. The sap (a mixture of sugar and forty parts water) is naturally drawn through the tree to the buds that fatten and open in about six weeks. This occurs in late winter, usually the end of February, and early spring, ending when the buds open, usually around the first or second week of April. The sap slowly drips from cuts or ‘wounds’ to the maple tree and is collected and poured into kettles. The water is gradually boiled away. Leave some of the water and you have syrup. Boil it down completely, and you have crystallized sugar.

There are many Indian legends how maple sugar was first discovered. One Iroquois tale tells how Chief Woksis had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree in late winter. The next day the weather turned warm and sunny. When he removed the hatchet, sap began to flow from the cut in the tree. There happened to be a broken maple limb, or bowl under the tree that collected the sap. The chief’s squaw laid meat in the sap and boiled it for dinner. The common practice was to lay hot stones into the carved out log or bowl that quickly heated the water. As the water in the sap boiled away, a sweet maple taste was left with the meat. Settlers recorded seeing Native Americans sucking on sweetened ice-sickles. On a warm, sunny day in late winter, the sap would form at the end of branches. When the temperature dipped below freezing that night, the sap would ice up and leave a desired treat at the end of the twig.

Native Americans basically used two methods of obtaining sugar from the maple tree. The first, I alluded to by laying hot field stones in the base of a hollowed log or large wooden bowl filled with sap. The stones boiled away the water leaving the sugar. Another way is detailed in Colonel James Smith account of his time among the Caughnewagas of Ohio.

In 1755, eighteen year old Smith had been part of a large detail of Pennsylvanian settlers contracted to build a road through the wilderness upon which British General Bradock’s forces would march. He had been ambushed and taken prisoner by Mohawks and Delawares and later witnessed the aftermath of Bradock’s defeat by the combined French and Indians. He was adopted by the Caughnewagas and spent five years among the Indians until escaping.

During his captivity, he witnessed maple sugar extracted from the water without the use of fire. The following is taken from page 69 and 70 of his written account of his experiences among the natives. “Shortly after we came to this place the squaws began to make sugar. We had no large kettles with us this year, and they made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze, and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.”

Trees were gashed and the sap collected for boiling.

Seventeenth century French missionaries were reported to have first used native methods to make maple sugar. In 1706, Governor Berkley of Virginia wrote about the maple sugar tree: “The Sugar-Tree yields a kind of sap or juice which by boiling is made into sugar. This juice is drawn out, by wounding the trunk of the tree, and placing a receiver under the wound. It is said that the Indians make one pound of sugar out of eight pounds of the liquor. It is bright and moist and a full large grain, the sweetness of it being like that of good Muscovada.”

As the winter months waned, colonialists kept an eye on the maple trees for the first signs that the sap was ‘running’. By late winter (if the season was mild), they would note sap seeping from cuts in trees or the end of twigs. At first, the trees were ‘boxed’ in which a large gash was cut across the side of the trunk and down. The cut wood was removed and the sap would ooze out from the gash and collect in a basin at the base of the trunk. This method proved fatal to the tree and was soon abandoned. The common method adapted was to cut a notch in the trunk of the tree at around four or five feet from the ground. Into the notch was placed a semicircular basswood spout cut and set with a special tool called a tapping-gauge. This spout would guide the sap into a trough, usually made of a butternut log. The trough was about three feet long, dug out, and placed at the end of the spout. Each trough was deep enough to hold about two and a half gallons of sap. The sap was poured into wooden buckets and carried to the kettles that were suspended over fires.

Sugaring Camp

The village communities or, as in Virginia, the plantation would form a ‘sugar camp. The spouts, troughs, kettles, and all the provisions would be drawn by sleds to the ‘sugar bush.’ The trees would be selected, spouts driven in and troughs placed below. A large, level area was selected, about twenty to thirty feet square, and the snow would be shoveled away. Strong, forked sticks were driven into the ground about twelve feet apart. Sometimes the ground was chosen in which strong, low spreading trees could be trimmed and used as forks. Heavy green sticks were placed from fork to fork and large boiling kettles, as many as six, were hung on the sticks. Dry wood was gathered, many times the wood was stacked the summer before, and constantly feed into the fires below the kettles. During a ‘good run of sap’, it was often necessary to remain at the camp overnight. Many camps had, over time, constructed small huts including fireplaces. Many men enjoyed the camaraderie of a ‘moon-lit night at camp’, indulging themselves with good ‘spirits’, and good talk, especially those with tales of past wars or dealing with the Native Americans.

God makes sech nights, all white an’ still

Fur’z you can look or listen,

Moonshine an’ snow on field an’ hill,

All silence an’ all glisten.

James Russell Lowell 1819-1891

When the end of the year’s sugar harvest was near, sleds or carriages full of family members would come to camp to celebrate with dance and music. Sugar ‘candy’ would be tasted and a kettle of ‘syrup’ that had not been fully crystallized would be poured on snow. All would delight in indulging on ‘sugar on snow’. The sugar left in the kettles after the water is boiled off would be a solid block of granular maple sugar that had a long shelf-life and could easily be transported.

It is interesting that modern texts and many internet sites devoted to sugaring boldly state that slave labor was not involved in the process. Sites will quote, “sugaring was never tinctured with the sweat of the southern slave as was cane sugar.” Or that “maple sugar was an alternative to West Indian ‘slave-produced ‘ cane sugar.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There were sugar camps throughout Virginia and Maryland using slave labor. Thomas Jefferson, one of the largest slave masters of Virginia, started a maple plantation at Monticello in 1791. It is certain he had no problem ‘tincturing’ his sugar production with the ‘sweat of slave labor.’

There is an ongoing assumption that the northern colonies were pure from the evils of slavery. The north was anything but immune in this inhumane treatment of man kind. For decades, New York had more slaves per capita than Virginia. It was Rhode Island, not the southern colonies, that was the center of the slave trade that supplied slave labor from Maine to Georgia. Though Virginia had large plantations with slave communities, most farms and households in the northern colonies had at least one or two slaves. No doubt these slaves worked right alongside their masters cutting trees, draining the sap, hauling the buckets to the kettles, and sweating over boiling water, stirring the sweet treasure reserved for their masters’ consumption.

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Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience. 2010: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York, NY.

Calhoun, Arthur W. A Social History of the American Family from Colonial Times to the Present. 1918: The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio.

Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. 1898: The Berkshire Traveller Press, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Lounsbury, Thomas R., Editor. Yale Book of American Verse. 1912: Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

New England Maple Museum, Pittsford, Vermont.

Smith, James Colonel with editor and illustrations by William M. Darlington. Remarkable Occurances in the Life of Colonel James Smith. 1799: Published by John Bradford, Lexington, Kentucky.    1907: Reprint edited by William M. Darlington & Published by the Robert Clarke Company, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Stanard, Mary Newton.   Colonial Virginia Its People and Customs. 1917: J. B. Lippincott Company Philadelphia, Penn.

University of Vermont Library web site, Burlington, Vermont:

Ward, May Alden. Old Colonial Days. 1896: Roberts Brothers, Boston, Mass.

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