Maple Sugaring - The History and Archaeology of Tapping Trees

01
of 06

Maple Sugaring

Gathering Maple Sap in Gorham, Maine
Gathering Maple Sap in Gorham, Maine. Roger H. Goun

Maple sugaring--obtaining sugar and syrup from maple trees--is primarly a North American phenomenon. Although maple trees (species Acer) are found pretty much throughout the world, only North America has sugar-producing species (especially sugar maple Acer saccharum and black maple Acer nigrum), combined with the right mix of cool nights and warm days that generate enough sap to make sugaring worthwhile.

In general, maple sap collecting occurs in the early spring months of the year (February-April). Sap is produced when the trees experience temperature fluctuations around the freezing mark and there are no leaves on the tree. Although sap does flow in the late fall, spring sap is sweeter (that is, it has an increased content of soluble sugars), and the fall's decreasing temperatures can damage equipment: frost-heave has been known to shove spouts right out from the tree bole.

Maple Sugaring Controversy

The history of maple sugaring has a bit of a controversy, at least in archaeological circles. Basically, some archaeologists and some ethnohistorians disagree about whether tapping maple trees for sugar was practiced by Native Americans before the Europeans landed on American shores.

The controversy is part history and part archaeology, and since that is my favorite kind of story, this photo essay on Maple Sugaring will feature both sides of the issue.

Sources

A bibliography of Maple Sugaring sources has been collected for this project.

 

02
of 06

How to Make Maple Syrup: Collecting the Sap

Maple Sugaring Collection Bags in Iowa County Wisconsin
Maple Sugaring Collection Bags in Iowa County Wisconsin. Bitterroot

Maple syrup (and maple sugar) is made from the concentrated sap from several specific maple trees, primarily in North America.

Today (as in the past) the production technique involves collecting the sap from the tree, and boiling it to remove the water and reduce the sap into sugar or syrup.

How to Make Maple Syrup: Tap Holes

In early spring, the maple syrup and sugar producer creates a tap hole in the tree bole, and hammers a spout or spigot into the hole. A bucket or bag is then hung beneath the spigot. Producers generally put in a new tap hole each season, and, to protect the tree, each tree is only tapped once every year. Only trees that are between 10-12 inches in diameter at chest height are considered strong enough to withstand tapping.

Each tap hole produces about 8-10 gallons of sap during the season. Sap buckets must be emptied several times during high flow periods; some modern maple sugar and syrup producers use plastic tubing, and some commercial firms even use a vacuum process to suck the sap out of the tree. At one point, commercial producers used a microbicide to stop the tap hole from drying out and extend the effective time for sap production, but these were discovered to harm the trees and their use is now illegal.

Sources

Perkins TD, and van den Berg AK. 2009. Chapter 4 Maple Syrup--Production, Composition, Chemistry, and Sensory Characteristics. In: Steve LT, editor. Advances In Food And Nutrition Research: Academic Press. p 101-143. (main source)

A bibliography of Maple Sugaring sources has been collected for this project.

03
of 06

How to Make Maple Syrup: Reducing the Sap

Processing Maple Sap at Kortright Centre for Conservation in Ontario
Processing Maple Sap at Kortright Centre for Conservation in Ontario. Michael Maniezzo

After the sap has trickled out of the tree and into the bucket, the water in the sap must be evaporated out. To do this, the maple sugar and syrup producer pours the liquid into large metal containers which are set over a fire. Wood or oil is used to move the evaporation process along. Traditionally, the heating took place in a "sugar shack" or "maple house"; commercial processors have larger, more efficient operations, with patented evaporators.

Natural sap is clear, and the color and to an extent flavor of a sap is the result of the heating process, the sugar content, the pH, and the chemical makeup of the saps which varies over region.

After evaporation of the water is complete, the sap is filtered, to remove any solids and generate a clear syrup. Often small operations do most of the concentration in the maple groves and finish the last boil at home. Commercial operations use a pressure filter; smaller productions use wool or a synthetic fiber cone. Commercial manufacturers pack the final product into 30-50 gallon stainless steel drums which are shipped for packaging into retail containers.

It takes approximately 40 gallons of natural sap to produce one gallon of syrup. Today, annual syrup production is about 8-9 million gallons, about 85% of which is produced in Canada.

Sources

Perkins TD, and van den Berg AK. 2009. Chapter 4 Maple Syrup--Production, Composition, Chemistry, and Sensory Characteristics. In: Steve LT, editor. Advances In Food And Nutrition Research: Academic Press. p 101-143. (main source)

A bibliography of Maple Sugaring sources has been collected for this project.

04
of 06

History of Maple Sugaring

Vermont Maple Sugar Camp, 1900-1906
Vermont Maple Sugar Camp, 1900-1906. Library of Congress LC-D4-19210, Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection

The first documented report of Native Americans tapping maples for sap, is from 1634, in Jesuit Relations where Father Paul Le Jeune describes members of the Montagnais/Innu tribe of Ontario "[eating] the shavings or bark of a certain tree, which they call Michtan, which they split in the spring to get from it a juice, sweet as honey or as sugar".

The French loved it. By the 1670s, maple sugar in the form of small loaves was regularly sent home to France, and in 1706, 30,000 pounds of sugar were manufactured in the vicinity of Montreal. Henry Schoolcraft reported that during the 1850s, seven hundred Ottawas at Ft. Michlimackinac, Michigan, made 325,000 pounds of maple sugar in one year.

The English were somewhat slower to adopt maple sugaring in the Americas: maple sugar consumption among the English didn't become commonplace until the mid 1750s. By the 19th century, maple sugar produced in the US may have totaled 10 million pounds annually; but even by then, cane sugar and sugar beets accounted for five times that amount. Today, with the exception of some commercial farms, maple sugaring is by and large a minor farm activity, with some farmers keeping a "sugar bush", a small stand of trees that the farmers use to generate part-time revenue.

Technological Advances in Maple Tapping

The earliest recorded tapping was by making a gash in the tree, and inserting a wooden tongue into the hole which directed the sap towards a wooden bucket. Unfortunately, the repeated gashing of a tree eventually kills it after about 10 years. So, augers replaced the axe by the late 18th century, introducing less-damaging, smaller tap holes. Essentially, the technological improvements have simply mechanized the original steps of tap, boil, filter and bottle.

Sources

Whitney GG, and Upmeyer MM. 2004. Sweet trees, sour circumstances: the long search for sustainability in the North American maple products industry. Forest Ecology and Management 200(1-3):313-333. (main source)

A bibliography of Maple Sugaring sources has been collected for this project.

 

05
of 06

Who Tapped that Maple Tree First?

Steamy Sugar Shack at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Massachusetts
Steamy Sugar Shack at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Massachusetts. Logan Ingalls

The archaeological controversy over maple sugaring lies in whether Native Americans and First Peoples tapped sugar maple trees before the Europeans got to the Americas. Although different levels of investigations have been undertaken for some 300 years, archaeologists and historians have not come to any consensus.

There is no doubt that maple sugar products were of importance to many Native American groups in North America by the 17th century. Native American groups report and ethnohistories from the 19th century agree that maple syrup and sugar loaves were traded and given as gifts, among other things. Apart from the sweet rush, maple syrup and sugar preserve well and can be easily transported, making maple products useful foodstuffs for anyone early in American history.

But did Native Americans begin harvesting sap from maples prior to European colonization? To solve this puzzle, investigators have looked at early descriptions of Native American activities, as well as at established traditions and mythology, and terminology for sugaring tools, and the results are equivocal.

Archaeological Evidence of Maple Exploitation

The problem really rests on the archaeological evidence. What would be considered archaeological evidence of prehistoric sugar processing?

Archaeological investigations into sugaring activities are hampered by preservation issues--anything used prior to European colonization would of necessity be of perishable wood or bark materials. And even if they did survive, the tools might not look any different from other types of tools used for other things. Writers in the 17th century argued that the process required metal kettles for boiling. Experimental archaeology recreating the techniques has shown that you don't need metal to process maple sugar, that stone boiling and direct heating of saps in pottery vessels and birch bark trays works perfectly well.

The tools associated with processing--troughs, axes, bark trays--could be used for any number of things. The presence of large amount of fire-cracked rock (needed for processing) is compelling, but not really convincing. Residues recovered from the bottoms of pots might work--but so far, maple sugar signatures have not been different enough from other residues to make a convincing argument.

So Who Tapped First?

So we don't really know who had the idea first; and I'm not sure it really matters. What makes the most sense to me is that Native Americans and First Peoples knew about maple sugaring, but it was never a major subsistence source or economic trading force until the sugar-loving Europeans landed.

Sources

Mason CI, and Holman MB. 2000. Maple sugaring in prehistory: Tapping the sources. In: Nassaney MS, and Johnson ES, editors. Interpretations of Native North American Life. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. (main source)

A bibliography of Maple Sugaring sources has been collected for this project.

06
of 06

Bibliography of Maple Sugaring

Vermont Sugar Shack
Vermont Sugar Shack. Putneypics

This photo essay is a part of the About.com guide to the Ancient Foods.

Henning DD. 1966. Maple Sugaring: History of a folk technology. Keystone Folklore Quarterly 11(4):239-274.

Holman MB. 1986. Historic documents and prehistoric sugaring: A matter of cultural context. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 11(1):125-131.

Holman MB, and Egan K. 1984. The identification of Late Woodland maple sugaring sites in the Upper Great Lakes. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 9:63-90.

Holman MB, and Egan K. 1985. Processing maple sap with prehistoric techniques. Journal of Ethnobiology 5:61-75.

Jordan JW. 1980. The summer people and the natives some effects of tourism in a Vermont vacation village. Annals of Tourism Research 7(1):34-55.

Keener CS, Grodon SC, and Nye K. 2010. Uncovering a mid-nineteenth century maple sugar camp and stone furnace at the Petticrew-Taylor farmstead in southwest Ohio. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 35(2):133-166.

Le Clercq C. [1910] New Relation of Gaspesia. Translated and edited by William F. Ganong. Champlain Society: Toronto

Loftus MK. 1977. A Late Historic Period Chippewa sugar maple camp. Wisconsin Archeologist 58(1):71-76.

Mason CI. 1985. Prehistoric maple sugaring sites? Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 10:149-152.

Mason CI. 1986. Prehistoric maple sugaring: A sticky subject. North American Archaeologist 7(4):305-311.

Mason CI. 1987. Maple sugaring again: or the dog that did nothing in the night. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 11:99-107.

Mason CI. 1990. Indians, maple sugaring and the spread of market economies. In: Gibbon G, editor. The Woodland Tradition in the Western Great Lakes: Papers Presented to Elden Johnson. St. Paul: University of Minnesota. p 37-43.

Mason CI. 1990. A sweet small something: Maple sugaring in the New World. In: Clifton JA, editor. The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Mason CI, and Holman MB. 2000. Maple sugaring in prehistory: Tapping the sources. In: Nassaney MS, and Johnson ES, editors. Interpretations of Native North American Life. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Perkins TD, and van den Berg AK. 2009. Chapter 4 Maple Syrup--Production, Composition, Chemistry, and Sensory Characteristics. In: Steve LT, editor. Advances In Food And Nutrition Research: Academic Press. p 101-143.

Thomas MM. 2001. The archaeology of Great Lakes Native American maple sugar production in the Reservation Era. Wisconsin Archeologist 82(1&2):139-199.

Thomas MM. 2005. Historic American Indian maple sugar and syrup production: Boiling arches in Michigan and Wisconsin. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 30(2):299-326.

Whitney GG, and Upmeyer MM. 2004. Sweet trees, sour circumstances: the long search for sustainability in the North American maple products industry. Forest Ecology and Management 200(1-3):313-333.