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Collecting Maple Sugar

Collecting Maple Sugar


Native Americans. Maple sugar was an important part of the Native American diet in the early spring. In late February, the Sap Moon in the Algonquian calender, the maple sugar season began. At this time the Indians moved to the sugar bush camps so they could be close to the maple grove. In order to keep the grove productive, the Indians maintained it by removing brush, girdling and burning old trees, and taking care of replacement saplings.

Festive Occasion. The work of maple sugaring was shared by men and women; it was one of the few times during the year that their work was integrated. The men cut wood for fires to heat the stones and kettles, and they hunted and fished for the camp. The women had the job of actually tapping the trees, which they did by cutting horizontal gashes in the tree three to four feet above the ground. They inserted cedar spiles at a downward angle, which allowed the sap to drip into elm- or birch-bark buckets. The sap was poured into wooden troughs (eventually replaced by metal pots), where it was boiled by placing hot stones into it. As it boiled it was stirred until granulation occurred. The sugar was stored in birch-bark bags, called mococks. Sugar making was also a festive social affair since it marked the end of winter. John James Audubon came upon a gathering in the sugar bush as he was pursuing birds through Kentucky in 1810. He wrote:

As I approached it I observed forms of different kinds moving to and fro before [the glow of the fire], like specters; and ere long, bursts of laughter, shouts and songs apprized me of some merry-making. I thought at first that I had probably stumbled upon a camp meeting; but I soon perceived that the mirth proceeded from a band of sugar-makers. At times, neighboring families join, and enjoy the labor as if it were a pastime, remaining out day and night for several weeks; for the troughs and kettles must be attended to from the moment when they are first put in requisition until the sugar is produced. The men and boys perform the most laborious part of the business, but the women and girls are not less busy.

Uses. While the sugar was being made, children loved to pour the boiling sap onto the snow to cool it into a chewy candy. Indians drank partially-rendered sap. But there were many more uses for the maple sugar than as a treat. Women used maple molasses to sweeten vegetables, fish, and meat, and they also mixed it with bear grease to store and use for basting meats. As sugar making came at the end of the winter when food stores were low, maple sugar was poured over parched corn, which was often the principal food until the spring crops became available.

Frontier. Maple sugar was also important to frontier farmers. In the early nineteenth century loaves of cane sugar were expensive for farmers who had little cash, so they used locally produced maple sugar, or wild honey, as a sweetener. They also used it to preserve sour fruits, such as crab apples and wild plums, and to cure tobacco leaves in order to produce sweet plugs. Some families wrapped the maple sugar in corn shucks and sold it at the rate of seven to thirteen cents per pound. In some sections of the frontier it was considered legal tender in trade, as was alcohol.


John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek, Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986).

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