The History of Maple Syrup
Maple sugar has been a part of American history since before Europeans settled in the colonies. Native Americans even have legends about how maple sugar was discovered. The story has it that Chief Woksis of the Iroquois found the sweet (syrup) when he threw his tomahawk at a maple tree in the cold of winter. The next day, the sun warmed the sap inside the tree, and from the hole sprung forth the tasty syrup. Woksis's wife cooked their meat in the sap, and it was so delicious that the natives began to make maple sugar a part of their lives.
Another explanation of the Native Americans' discovery is based on the fact that maple trees can create "sapsicles" in the winter. These are icicles with frozen sap in the middle of them that form when a twig breaks and releases sap from the tree. It is believed that Native Americans may have come upon these "sapsicles" and discovered the maple tree's sweet surprise.
What is known for sure is that there is written history dating back as far as 1609 recording the Native American process for creating maple sugar from maple sap. Considering that maple syrup bottles line grocery store shelves to this day, it is obvious that maple sugar is an important part of American history.
Native American Maple Sugar Production
The Native American process of creating maple sugar was very organized. As spring approached, the Native Americans would create sugar camps near large groups of maple trees and prepare for the time when the sap would begin to flow. They would then cut into the trunk of the tree and collect the sap in pots or bottles. The sap would then be boiled by placing hot rocks into the containers holding the sap.
The Native Americans made three types of maple sugar: grain sugar, cake sugar, and wax sugar. Grain sugar consists of granules and is much like the brown sugar we know today. Cake sugar was molded into blocks by pouring the heated mix into wooden molds, and wax sugar was created by pouring boiled syrup on snow.
Maple sugar was far more common that the maple syrup that is now found in a plastic syrup bottle at the supermarket. Dry maple sugar was much easier to store than liquid syrup, so it made more sense to create that instead. Maple sugar was given as gifts and used in trade. It was also eaten with berries and grains and even mixed with bear fat.
Maple Sugar and Early Settlers
Early New England settlers saw what the Native Americans were doing, and initially, they copied the process. They even set up their own sugar camps in the maple groves of New England. Around 1790, these settlers discovered that a more efficient way of gathering the sap from a tree was to bore a hole into the tree and place a spile into the hole to let the sap run out. A vessel like a hollow log could be placed under the hole to collect the sap.
Early settlers developed their own process for creating sugar. They began with the collection of sap in wooden buckets and then boiled the sap in a row of iron kettles. As the syrup would thicken, the sugar-maker would spoon the thicker syrup into the next kettle and add more sap into the first pot. This ensured a more efficient process, with the last iron kettle always containing nearly finished syrup. The syrup in the last pot would be stirred until it crystalized, then molded into blocks that could be stored for later use.
Maple sugar was not only used as a food product by the settlers of New England. The colonists made such an excess of sugar that they could use it as a trade item. It also made the colonists less dependent on sugar from outside of the country and kept money in the local economy instead of it flowing to foreign plantations in the West Indies.
Changes in Maple Sugar Production
Maple sugar production saw several changes throughout the years. Metal buckets and spouts replaced their wooden counterparts, and the vessels that stored the sugar also became metal. Early settlers also began to use flat pans instead of iron kettles over their fires. This change in shape allowed the sap to spread out and heat more quickly. Also, special buildings called sugar houses were constructed for the process of making maple sugar.
The Economics of Maple Sugar
The importation of cane sugar had a large effect on maple sugar suppliers. In 1890, white cane sugar was no longer subject to an import tax, and suddenly, cane sugar was outselling maple sugar. Meanwhile, a man from Vermont had created the first maple sugar evaporator, a specialized heating pan that contained channels shaped to let fresh sap flow through, so that you could constantly add sap to one end and get syrup from the other. Using this device, maple sugar producers began making maple syrup and selling it in glass syrup bottles throughout New England. Centuries later, people are still enjoying the sweet flavor that Native Americans discovered almost 300 years ago.