Maple: America’s Indigenous Sweet

July 1, 2020

This Independence Day, recall the uniquely American history of our favorite, independant, homegrown sweet!

First developed by the native peoples of North America, maple has always been an important food source in this country. It has also been a symbol of, and vehicle for, independence and political action. British colonists protested the Sugar Act of 1764 by exclusive use of maple sugar. And, until slavery was finally repudiated, abolitionists eschewed the cane sugar it produced for the homegrown stuff. An indigenous, virtuous and independent sweet, maple is worth a tip of the hat any day, including Independence Day. Read on to learn more about the early history of maple syrup!

The Early History of Maple

Corn, beans, cotton, tobacco and maple are all crops first developed by the native North Americans. Unlike with the first four products, there were a handful of prominent European immigrants who purported to take credit for the discovery of maple syrup or maple sugar (we’ll call out a certain Jesuit Priest, P.F.X. Charlevoix, on the latter). However, history and common sense weigh heavily against these lonely historical voices. Rather, European writings overwhelmingly describe the processing of maple as a traditional activity engaged in by tribes covering a vast geography of present day United States and Canada, with the language, customs and legends you might expect to attend to any practice of cultural importance.

Contemporaneous European writings indicate that maple sugar making was an activity widely engaged in across the continent among tribes that lived—at least at the time Europeans made landfall—across and even slightly beyond present-day sugar country. To appreciate this geographical scope, note the traditional territories of the Abenaki, Algonquin, Chippewa, Cree, Housatunnuk, Iowa, Iroquois, Kansa, Kickapoo, Menomini, Ojibwe, Omaha, Osage, Ponka, Tuscarora and Winnebago peoples—all of which are among those mentioned in European writings about maple—on this awesome map.

Native American words for maple are interesting too. Algonquins call maple sugar sinzibuckwud (drawn from wood), while the Tuscarora, Omaha/Ponka words for sugar – urenakri and janija – mean, simply “tree sap” (likewise, the Winnebago tanijura niju means “wood water” or “wood rain”). Like present day sugar makers, the Americans appreciated the difference between a maple tree generally—ninautik (Ojibwe for “our own tree”)—and the sugar maple, sheesheegummawis (Ojibwe for “sap flows fast”) too.

Far from being decried as “the cruelest month(s),” however, many Americans celebrated March or March and April as the “sugar moon,” and European accounts of the ceremony, dance, feasting and revelry that attended what we now call “sap season,” “boil-off season,” or “maple syrup time” abound. (This, perhaps, should come as no surprise, as at least one European immigrant noted that maple sugar sometimes functioned as a stopgap against famine here in the early spring months.) According to European writings, an Ojibwe custom involved a tribal leader mixing together maple sugar from the prior year’s harvest with the first grains produced in the present year to kickoff an annual feast, for example. And several tribes recounted to Europeans legends explaining the origins of maple—one as the unintended consequence of cooking with sap instead of water in order to save an arduous trip to the river, and another involving a divine being watering down what used to flow out of the tree as syrup as an instruction in proper work ethic (or rebuke for the lack of same).

The way the Americans made maple sugar, however, will sound quite familiar to the backyard sugar makers of today. As was common among the descendants of European (and other) immigrants up until just half-a-century ago, Americans typically set-out to live in a camp nearer to the family’s sugar stand when the sap began to flow. In a number of traditions, the camps belonged to the women and were passed down matrilineally. Unlike today, where practices vary, it was predominately the women of the family who ran the sugaring show, with the aid of children and youth (and, less often, or for specific tasks, grown men). They made bark sap buckets, bark buckets for transportation and storage of sap, “tapped” the tree with a gash and a wooden chip, and oversaw the boiling itself, which, until Europeans brought and traded metal cookware, took place in hollowed out logs into which were placed hot rocks. Like we do today, the Americans were known to throw the ice off of the top of a sap or sap-storage bucket to concentrate the sugars (it is officially not cheating!), and even store sap in large shallow pans to produce more ice (nature’s reverse osmosis!) to drink the sap, eat fresh syrup and maple toffee (present day “sugar on snow”) during the boil, and make gifts of their maple bounty (typically by pouring almost-sugar into carved wooden molds of animals, birds, people, celestial bodies and more)!

Because of the non-existence (or, after European arrival, scarcity) of glass and metal, however, the bulk of the American maple crop was made all the way into sugar and packed into bark baskets for transportation and year-round storage. This was done, as it is today, by continuing to boil past the sugar and toffee stages, and by stirring constantly until crystallization occurred. (Apparently, the Americans’ maple sugar lumps, like mine, sometimes needed a good whacking in order to resemble sugar. Which is also nice to hear.)

Americans ate maple products on their own (see above) but also relied upon it, in the same way Europeans relied on salt, to season their food. By way of example, European immigrants recorded eating corn porridge sweetened with maple sugar, rice, nut and fruit dishes seasoned with maple sugar, and dipping sauces made from maple sugar and bear fat on dry or cooked venison. American mothers were said to give their children small baskets containing sugar from the year’s first sap run, and lumps of sugar throughout the year when quiet behavior was unattainable using other methods. (Thus vindicating many a modern-day parenting style!).

There’s much more, of course, and we look forward to following the political history of maple in future posts. For more on the early history of maple, start here.