How did Native Americans make syrup?

Jan 8, 2020

Native Americans have been making maple syrup and maple sugar in the Northwoods for a long time now.  The methods have changed a little over the millennia, but the process is largely recognizable. 

Maple syrup is a mainstay of the Northwoods and a delicious treat that both residents and visitors appreciate.  The production of maple syrup is a straightforward process that hasn’t changed much over time.  It is a matter of tapping a suitable maple tree, collecting the sap, boiling the sap to reduce it, and finally straining it.  But the question is if this this was how people of the First Nations did it?  The short answer is yes, the process was pretty much the same.  The long answer is a little more involved.

One of the stories common among the Algonquin peoples of the northern woodlands is that long-ago Native Americans drank pure maple syrup straight from the tree.  A spirt figure named Nanabozho saw that this made them idle as no one was hunting or foraging.  Therefore, Nanabozho cast a spell on the maple trees and turned the sap watery, thus making it necessary to process the sap before it could be consumed.

No one knows how far back it was that Native Americans learned to make maple syrup, but the original process went something like this.  Shallow troughs were carved out of bark and sap was collected in the vessels. The bark containers were left out to freeze, which would separate the water from the sugar.  The ice was then removed, leaving the thick syrup behind.  But this was long ago.

The process improved as time went on.  By the first century AD ceramic pottery was being used, and with pottery came the ability to boil the sap to separate the water.  By the time European and American settlers arrived in Wisconsin, the process of making maple syrup and maple sugar was well-developed and perfected.  In 1836, the only sugar available to settlers in Wisconsin was that produced from maple trees by Wisconsin’s First Nations.  It sold for 7 to 8 cents per pound.  One early pioneer named William Wright shared an account from his father of how the Menominee made the syrup.  In 1836 Wright’s father was at Brothertown in the Menominee Nation to help build a saw and grist mill.  By this time the Menominee had obtained metal tools via trade and used them in the production, but the same process could have been done without the use of metal.

According to Wright, the Menominee made a cut in the tree for the sap to ooze from.  They gouged out a puncture into which they inserted a wooden spout to carry the sap into a wooden receptacle made of birch bark.  The birch bark container held about two quarts.  The sap was taken back to camp and poured into receptacles.  The receptacles were for common usage; that is, they cooked meat such as fish or squirrel in them while the sap boiled.  When the meat was done it was removed.  If sugar was the final product desired, then boiling and stirring would continue till it was dry.  If syrup was the final product desired, then the sap was strained through a woolen blanket to remove any detritus left behind by the boiled meat.

While there are minor differences, it is a recognizable process that is still used today.