“Sinzibuckwud’ is the Algonquin name for maple syrup. The literal translation is “drawn from the wood“.
Early in the 16th century, the First Nations people shared their maple syrup making process with Europeans. In 1521, Peter Martyr wrote that “Honey is found in the tree, and is gathered amongst the briar and the bramble bushes.”
I still recall a childhood visit to a sugar shack and my sense of awe over the ingenuity of the pioneers. What magic did they employ to turn the watery sap into that beautiful golden drizzle that laced back and forth across our pancakes? What I don’t recall is being told that it was the First Nations people who first revealed the secrets of the Sugar Maple.
Among the Ojibwe tribes of the Great Lakes area, matrilineal lines dictated ownership of Sugar Maple groves. The responsibility for the collection and processing of the sap, therefore, fell to the women. Each female head of household had her own lodge, or sugar hut, in her grove or in close proximity to it.
The maple sap ran from the first spring thaw until mid March or April, when the buds were transformed into leaves in. Forty gallons of sap was collected to make one gallon of syrup; that’s 640 cups of sap to make 16 cups of syrup. When the sap was running at a consistent output, a tree could produce up to two gallons every 24 hours. Sap was collected daily and brought to camp for boiling.
Rolls of Birch bark were peeled from the trees in early spring, and fashioned into wide shallow storage containers measuring 7 to 10 inches wide, 20 inches long and about 8 inches deep. Seams were stitched together with thin strands pulled from spruce roots or basswood trees and sealed with pine pitch. A woman may have owned 1200 to 1500 such containers, each of which were filled and refilled countless times over the season.
Sap buckets were similarly fashioned with the addition of a thin wood strip around the lip of the bucket to prevent tearing. A cord handle was added to the buckets so they could be suspended from either end of a yoke that was carried across the shoulders. The bucket capacity was 1 to 2 gallons or 4.5 to 9 litres.
Slices were made in the tree trunk. The sap trickled across the surface of a shingle or through a reed inserted into the cut, and then dripped into the birch bark bucket. The sap was clear like water with 2-3% sugar content. The sweetness was barely detectable and there is no maple flavor at this point.
The sap was then poured into a vessel made from a hollowed out log. Heated stones were then placed into the sap to bring it to a consistent and slow rolling boil. (This manner of cooking with stones was documented as early as 1555.) More sap was added as water boiled off. Care was taken not to add too much sap, because if it boiled over, the fire would be doused and hours of vigilance would have been wasted.
Maple syrup usually had 66% sugar content after the water in the sap is boiled away. If the sap boiled for too long, there was a danger of burning it due to the high sugar content. If the sugar content was too low, the syrup was more prone to spoiling. If the sugar content was too high, the syrup may crystalize when stored in liquid form. (These percentages are still relevant.) If left outside overnight in shallow bowls, the water would rise to the surface of the sap and freeze. The layer of ice was removed in the morning before boiling thereby reducing the processing time over the fire.
First Nations people stored the maple syrup in one of three forms: sugar cakes, granular, or taffy.
When most of the water was boiled away, the syrup was poured into mokuks, tight fitting boxes made of birch bark panels sewn together with thin strips of elm bark. Inside the mokuks, the syrup crystalized and formed sugar cakes weighting 20 to 30 pounds each. The sugar filled mokuks were a significant part of First Nations commerce.
The cakes could be beaten into a granular form so that people could carry their own personal supply of maple sugar in a pouch. The First Nations people added bits of sugar to water when they wished to add sweetness to a dish.
Also, warmed syrup could be drizzled onto fresh snow, and within minutes, it transformed into a toffee like consistency that was easily stored.
The people celebrated this time referring to it as the Sugar Month or the Maple Moon. Tribal groups have their own legends to explain the origins of maple syrup. The Abenaki people share a legend that explains maple sugar as a gift from The Creator.
There is an Iroquois legend that accounts for the discovery of maple syrup. Woksis, an Iroquois chief, pierced the bark of a maple tree with his tomahawk. In the morning, his wife discovered that a container at the base of the tree had collected water that ran from the tree overnight. Not one to be wasteful, she decided to use the water in preparation for the evening meal. She tasted the water and found it a bit sweet but not unpleasant. After hours of simmering stew in the sap water, the now familiar maple smell rose from the fire. Woksis and everyone who ate the meal was much pleased by the flavor.
It is important that we remember to thank others for their knowledge. I hope that I have shared this information in a manner of respect and gratitude. Chi miigwetch.
March 13, 2014 at 10:53 pm
This history and legends surrounding maple syrup are very interesting.
March 14, 2014 at 7:35 am
I found this aspect of the research interesting as well. Climate change is shifting the geographic area that can produce maple syrup. Had this change occurred 500 years ago, it would have been interesting to see what legends would have developed. Thanks for writing, Sheryl.
April 27, 2015 at 3:49 pm
Pickering Village prepares maple syrup on a stick in the snow and it’s delicious! I really love the idea of the sugar maples falling under the women’s domain.
April 29, 2018 at 11:36 am
We are making maple syrup as I write, boiling it down slowly. It is hard to believe how sap could be boiled down by putting hot stones into the sap and bringing it to a boil. It would be an incredibly slow process, and wouldn’t the sap be contaminated by ash adhering to the stones? Could someone please clarify.
April 30, 2018 at 12:15 pm
Hello Caleb. You raise interesting questions here. The practice of using stones to boil liquid is known as ‘hot-stone boiling’. Rocks were heated in fires,then removed the heat with a pair of thick sticks acting as tongs or tools fashioned from antlers. The rocks were rinsed free of ash by water then placed in the sap. After 10 to 15 minutes, the rock would be removed and reheated, then returned to the sap again. There would be multiple hot rocks immersed in the sap at a given time. Through this practice, the liquid was kept at a constant low boil which is optimal for making syrup. As a matter of interest, hot-stone cooing was used for cooking stews as well. Thanks for writing, Caleb. I hope to hear from you again.
April 1, 2019 at 12:34 pm
never mind i found some one likr i wish nothing but the best for you
January 19, 2021 at 11:28 pm
Thank you for sharing your history and your knowledge. I went to a “sugaring off” this weekend and clearly the knowledge of the pioneers came from their First Nations neighbours.
January 24, 2021 at 4:55 pm
Hello Penelope. Thanks so much for writing. I grew up in a rural area in southern Ontario. Every spring, the school went on a trip to see maple syrup being made locally. At that time, no discussed the First Nation people’s contibution. I thoroughly enjoyed researching this piece and have since been reading ineresting things about how they helped so many settler families with thier knowledge of medicinal plants.
February 12, 2021 at 6:28 pm
Gwen, beautifully written we stumbled across tour article whilst looking doe how Firt People’s tapped trees before iron and steel. Thank you! Anne and Mike
February 13, 2021 at 7:52 pm
Hello Anne and Mike. I really appreciate your kind note. Thank you. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the piece. My husband and I have since begun tapping our one Maple tree. We only get a couple of small jars of syrup, but it tastes great!
March 29, 2021 at 10:39 am
Hi Gwen. I work with a Youth Activity Program called Game ON! in Renfrew County. We have put together some maple syrup making kits that families can borrow to try making it at home. Would it be ok if I included some of the information you have gathered about the Indigenous history of syrup making? I will include this site as a reference. Thank you
March 29, 2021 at 2:21 pm
Hello Anna. Thank you for the kind enquiry. By all means, use the information here. I would like to be completely transparent about the fact that I am not of a First Nation background. The information here was researhed from a variety of resources.
June 18, 2021 at 7:13 pm
I publish stories and puzzles each week on my non-commercial dead cat’s Facebook site, Cheddar’s Dreams. (I am an Old Man, and it helps keep my mind active) This coming Wednesday I hope to publish a bit about maple trees and maple syrup – I will be using some of the information you have provided here, and I will be citing your website along with others (as is my usual practice) in the comments accompanying the post. Then I hope to make maple walnut butter tart squares (for CanadaDay), imagining the cats are helping me. Thank you for your help.
May 27, 2022 at 2:00 pm
Hello David! Thank you for this very charming note. I’m delighted that this information interests you and look forward to reading your post. Maple walnut butter tart squares sound delicious!
February 14, 2022 at 6:25 pm
Nia:wen for this article.
Nia:wen for acknowledging the original source of Wa’tha & Wa’tha O’ses.
In Ohenton Karihwatekwen (The words that come before all else), we give thanks to all the trees, and bush life and especially Wa’tha the Maple Tree…who is the leader of all Tree Life.
February 15, 2022 at 3:35 pm
Tiohentathe, thank you so much for the generosity of your time. I’m deeply touched by your sharing. And I will remember these words.
February 15, 2022 at 11:42 pm
We would do well to follow your words of thanksgiving and be humble about our sources of food. When I took a science class in Hawaii we said a “prayer” (I can’t remember the word for it) to ask the permission to enter a new area and we promised to care for the land the everything on it…it was amazing that after a moment of silence a bird would fly in front of us as if in approval! Was did the same thing at Kilauea and a mom said to her little girl, that’s what you are learning in school! When I took an outrigger lesson the guide who is Hawaiian many generations back also gave thanks to the mountains and the oceans…we need to acknowledge our place as part of the environment not overlords!