syruping_0_preview science museum of minnesota

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.

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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.

ojibwe_syrup science museum of minnesota
Women preparing birch bark containers. Photo credit: Museum of Minnesota

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.

wooden spigot

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.

First Nations maple syrup

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.

Sugar-Making_Among_the_Indians_in_the_North Wikipedia
Metal implements were used as they became available.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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.

Algonquian sugar camp Credit Harmer, W.M. Collection, National Archives of Canada, C19890
Algonquin Sugar Camp
Photo Credit: Harmer, W.M. Collection, National Archives of Canada, C19890

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.

The lead photo was provided by The Museum of Minnesota. The remainder of unlabeled photos have unknown origins.

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