Maple Sugaring: Legends and Practices

In this month’s Relearning Highlands History, HHLT’s Stewardship Fellow, Joseph Moonjely, describes his experiences tapping maple trees, his discoveries about Indigenous maple sugaring practices, and the evolution of syrup production to this day.
Algonquin Sugar Camp Photo Credit: Harmer, W.M. Collection, National Archives of Canada, C19890

Prior to being HHLT’s Stewardship Fellow, tapping sugar maple trees for sap was not something I ever imagined I would do. I’m from Yonkers, and I was raised with maple-flavored pancake syrup on the breakfast table. When I arrived at Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill with an assignment to help tap sugar maple trees, I had no idea what to expect. I was lucky to be working with Pat Farrell, a Sharpe volunteer who has been tapping maple and black walnut trees on the property for the last six years. She quickly showed me the ropes. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I saw the power drill we’d be using to create holes for the spiles – the spouts inserted in the trees. I didn’t want to hurt the tree, but Pat assured me that drilling holes created wounds that the maple trees could readily recover from without endangering the health of the tree. When we finally finished tapping all the trees, I took a long and satisfied look at our work. Then I checked my watch: How much longer until the maple syrup starts to flow? Pat kindly informed me that tapping sugar maples is just the beginning of a long and intricate process that creates that sweet liquid gold.

While returning the supplies and tools we used, Pat seemed worried – she said she didn’t know how the unusual weather patterns as of late would affect sap production. Nobody did. Three days later, we learned that we had collected only 30% of the sap collected during the same span of time last year. Nature does what nature wants, so we waited. When I returned to Sharpe Reservation the following week, what I heard in the Sharpe forest was music to my ears. Plink…plink…plink…the sap was flowing strong, and maple syrup season was officially in full swing.

Sugar maple trees, or Acer saccharum, are native to eastern North America and abundant in New York. The beautiful leaves of sugar maples are famous for their magnificent yellow, orange, and red colors that continue to captivate us every autumn. Maple trees store starch in their trunks and roots, which gets converted into sugar. The trees “sleep” through the coldest months of the winter. Then, as spring nears, their sap thaws, and the sugar in the sap rises up the tree. Maple trees are tapped when temperatures start fluctuating between freezing and thawing. Nighttime temperatures usually need to be in the 20s, with daytime temperatures around 40 to 50.  Unseasonably warm winters are bad for maple sugarers. The Farmer’s Almanac says: “Sugar’s sweet, but sap is sappier. Cold nights make the farmers happier!”

My experience at Sharpe Reservation made me curious about the origins of maple sugaring. Although we don’t know how long humans have been practicing the art of collecting sap from maple trees, we do know it began with the indigenous people of Northeastern America. There are many legends and folklore regarding the origins of maple syrup. One Iroquois legend tells of a chief who threw his tomahawk into a tree. The tree began to drip with sap, which sparked the idea for his wife to cook meat in the sap. The result was a delicious meal and the chief later referred to the maple syrup as “sinzibuckwud,” which means “to draw from the wood.” Another legend suggests that maple syrup used to run freely from trees until Nanabozho, an Ojibwe trickster figure and culture hero, filled the trees with water, turning the syrup into a sap that required processing to prevent his people from becoming lazy. Regardless of their origin, the legends share a common thread: maple tapping is a practice that has been an essential part of North American culture for centuries.

The earliest recorded evidence of Native Americans collecting sap from sugar maples dates back to the 16th century. In 1557, the French explorer Andre de Thevet wrote an account of maple sugaring by Indigenous tribes in North America in “Les Singularites de la France Antarctique.” Thevet noted, “There is a tree with the thickness and shape of a large walnut tree … It remained unused for a long time until someone tried to cut one down, releasing a kind of sugar, which they found to be as tasty and as delicate as any good wine from Orleans or Beaune.”

The process of making maple syrup was a communal activity that involved the entire tribe. Families moved into sugar camps in the forest and worked together to collect and boil the sap. The men and children focused on gathering firewood and hunting animals. Women generally focused on collecting and boiling the sap. They used axes and stone tools to make V-shaped incisions in the tree bark, and then placed containers underneath to catch the dripping sap. The containers were all wooden, so they would heat up rocks and stones and put them in the maple sap to evaporate the water. This painstakingly long process produced maple sugar, which was easier to store than liquid syrup and lasted longer. Maple sugar was an essential food source for many Native American communities, providing nutrition and energy during the harsh winter months when other food sources were scarce.

Tapping maple trees was about more than sustenance – it also represented the symbiotic relationship between indigenous tribes and their environment. The V-shaped slashes Native Americans made in the trees did not produce as much sap as drilling holes, but it did allow the trees to heal faster. The sap was often used in traditional medicine to treat a range of ailments, including coughs, colds, and skin conditions. Gratitude for the maple tree was not just felt, but physically expressed. In fact, certain tribes burned sacred tobacco or sema as an offering to a sugar maple tree before making incisions for sap to flow out. According to Otsi’tsaken:ra Patton, a Faithkeeper with the Haudenosaunee Ronatháte ne Kanien’kehá:ka Kanonhsésne (Mohawk Trail Longhouse), “…We burn tobacco to encourage the trees to fulfill their responsibility in the cycle of  life.”

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Indigenous tribes taught European settlers how to tap maple trees and harvest sap. Europeans eventually developed new methods, using tools such as augers to drill holes in the trees and boiling the sap in large iron kettles. Increasing sap production led to profitable commercial  sugaring operations. The French botanist Francois Andre Michaux created an inventory of North American trees in the late 1700s, in which he observed that maple sugar accounted for ten million of the eighty million pounds of sugar consumed in the United States. However, by the 1800s, producers switched their focus from maple sugar to syrup as the availability of cane sugar increased. Over time, maple syrup production evolved and integrated newer technology. By the 1890s, mass-produced “evaporators” were used to more efficiently heat and concentrate sap. Many modern day sugarers have also replaced buckets with tubing systems to reduce processing time. Last year, maple syrup production in the U.S. totaled more than five million gallons. New York State was the second leading producer, with a production volume of 845,000 gallons. It’s no wonder our state tree is the sugar maple!

The practice of maple tapping has deeply rooted origins in the Hudson Valley with a sweet legacy we still enjoy today. From the indigenous people who first tapped maple trees to modern-day producers, maple syrup production has been an integral part of the region’s economy and culture for centuries. The Hudson Valley remains a vital center of maple syrup production with local farmers continuing to use the natural resources of the region to create the iconic partner for flapjacks. As the sap we collected at Sharpe Reservation boils in the sugar shack, I can’t help but admire the Indigenous ingenuity in discovering and developing the art of making maple syrup.