The History of Maple Sugaring

Iroquois Legend has it that, long, long ago, before the settlers ever reached American shores, a young Native American boy watched a squirrel run up the trunk of a maple tree. The squirrel then proceeded to viciously bite the limbs of the tree in several places, deep enough to cause sap to run out. The curious boy watched the squirrel over the next few days and saw that it returned and licked off the crystallized syrup that had run out of the tree.

Maple Sugaring in NH bookThe Eastern Woodland Indians in New England and Canada were the first to discover that maple sap cooked over an open fire became sweet syrup which could be boiled down even further to maple sugar. Maple sugar was an excellent source of energy and flavoring, and even more important, it did not spoil so that it was a source of food that lasted all year, until the next sugaring season.

All Eastern Woodland Tribes had sugar camps that they returned to each year, no matter how far they had wandered, to tap the trees in the early spring. They would cut a slash in a maple tree and collect the sap into wooden buckets as it dripped out.  The earliest natives hollowed out great legs and poured maple sap into the hollow. Field stones were then heated until white hot and dropped into the sap, causing it to boil and turn to syrup and then to sugar. This early syrup would have been very dark and the flavor would have been very strong. Later Indians discovered that the syrup was better if boiled over an open fire in a clay or metal pot. Alqonquins called maple sugar and maple trees “sinisbuckwud.”  The Ojibway’s word was “sheesheegummavis” (Sap Flows Fast).  The Cree said “sisibaskwattick (maple tree).

Early European explorers wrote that there were three types of maple sugar made by the Indians:  grain sugar (much like today’s brown sugar), cake sugar (syrup that had been poured into a mold and dried into blocks) and wax sugar (jackwax, or sugar on snow – syrup that had been poured onto snow and thenpicked off).

Native Canadians  and Native Americans showed the first settlers how to tap trees, harvest syrup and boil it. Maple syrup and sugar soon became an integral part of American Colonial Life.  In 1685 a quote from The British Royal Society Newspaper read:  “The Savages of Canada, in the time that the sap rises, in the Maple, make an incision in the Tree, by which it runs out, and after they have evaporated eight pounds of liquor, there remains one pound that is sweet….”  A French Missionary, in 1690, was the first settler reported to have made maple syrup.

European settlers in New England and Canada bored holes into maple tree trunks and inserted either wooden or metal spouts into the holes. The sap was collected in wooden buckets and carried back to the boiling kettles via a wooden yoke carried on the sugar maker’s shoulders.  Early settlers stored their maple in the form of maple sugar, just like their native mentors.

Maple sugar became tremendously important to the early colonists.  Soon it was their only sweetener, and this ended their dependence on foreign sugar. Maple sugar later became one of the big differences between northerners and southerners. Northerners produced their own sweetener.  Southerners depended on cane sugar. The labor intensive production of cane sugar was one of the factors that made slavery a very important facet of southern life.

At one time, each New England family made all of maple syrup and sugar that their family would consume.  Later, sugar production became a business and producers made and sold their product to the general product. A lot of these early producers were dairy farmers looking for a way to make some extra money.  As technology advanced, the old yokes were discarded and metal tanks on sleds were used for collection of sap and then the sap was hauled to the sugarhouse on the sled by horses or oxen.

New England maple production was at its peak during the 1860s.  Maple products were a good source of food that didn’t spoil. Northern Civil War soldiers carried maple syrup to war. American foundries started making sheet metal and the tin can was invented. Now maple syrup could be preserved all year round and maple sugur AND sugar was carried by the soldiers. Soon tin maple syrup buckets, with tops, were invented to keep debris out of the sap as it was harvested.

The first ancestor of the modern evaporator was invented in the early 1900s.  It was called a flue pan and was a large, flat bottomed pan with channels in the bottom.  When this pan was used, heat from the fire below could make contact with a larger portion than before of the sap in the pan and the sap boiled down much faster than it did in the old buckets.

Plastic tubing was invented in 1959.  Modern day maple syrup producers drain sap from maples to collection tanks via plastic tubing.  However, it took almost twenty years for various problems to be sorted out with the tubing. Today’s tubing has a vacuum valve on it that helps keep the sap flowing from the tree to the collection tank.

During the energy crisis in the 1970s, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as the Canadian Department of Agriculture, explored energy efficient ways of producing maple syrup. Some sugar producers began using reverse osmosis, which separated water from soluble solids and reduced the time of the boiling process by at least half.

Today Canada makes more than 80% of the world’s maple products.  Vermont is the biggest United States producer, producing 920,000 pounds of maple syrup in 2009.  New York is next with a total of 362,000 pounds of maple syrup and it is followed by New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut, each making less than 120,000 pounds of syrup in 2009. 90,000 pounds of syrup was made in New Hampshire in 2009.

Each year New Hampshire producers tap trees in late February. The season lasts about four to six weeks, depending on the weather. Visit a New Hampshire sugar house to learn more about the ancient tradition of maple sugaring and to taste this most American of all treats!