In the northeastern portion of the United States and in the bordering provinces of Canada, late winter into early springtime is characterized by warm days followed by cold, freezing nights. These are the perfect conditions for making maple syrup. At this time of year, steam rises from sugar houses all across the region as sap is gathered from maple trees and boiled to produce a sweetener that is rich in flavor and history.
The early settlers in New England learned the process of making maple syrup from the indigenous people who preferred the taste of the maple sugar over that of the cane sugar brought by the settlers. These Native Americans thought maple sugar was more fragrant and tasted more of the forest. Eventually maple syrup was processed further into blocks of sugar which made storage and transport easier.
Maple syrup’s rich history is also intertwined with the abolitionist movement. The demand for cane sugar grew in the 1700’s and so did sympathy for the slaves in the West Indies who toiled in the sugar trade. Abolitionists in America and Europe pondered with high hopes the commercial possibilities of the sugar maple tree. In 1788 Benjamin Rush, well known physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, along with a group of Philadelphia Quakers, founded the Society for the Manufacture of Maple Sugar. Their expectations were to raise awareness of and promote the manufacture of maple sugar. Their hope was that a rise in popularity of maple sugar would result in a reduced need for the slave trade.
Among the society’s many efforts was a “scientific tea party.” The purpose of the gathering was to see if the guests, preferred maple sugar over cane sugar. Alexander Hamilton was one of the guests. He and his fellow experimenters sipped cups of hyson tea sweetened with equal amounts of maple and cane sugar. The guests, which included Alexander Hamilton, were nearly unanimous in declaring that maple sugar was just as sweet as sugar made from cane.
By 1790, Thomas Jefferson, along with many national leaders, joined this throng of maple enthusiasts. Benjamin Rush relayed in an essay his sentiment for the maple tree. Rush stated, “I cannot help contemplating a sugar maple tree with a species of affection and even veneration, for I have persuaded myself to behold in it the happy means of rendering the commerce and slavery of our African brethren in the sugar islands as unnecessary as it has always been inhuman and unjust.”
“Sugar made at home” as printed in a almanac of the time, “must possess a sweeter flavor than that which is mingled with the groans and tears of slavery. …. Make your own sugar and send not to the Indies for it. Feast not on the toil, pain, and misery of the wretched.”
The “Maple Sugar Bubble,” as one historian calls it, was on the rise.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both began plans for maple orchards on their Virginia plantations. In a letter to a friend in England, Jefferson wrote, “What a blessing, to substitute a sugar which requires only the labor of children, for that which is said requires the slavery of blacks necessary.” The sugar maple, he continued, “yields a sugar equal to the best from cane, yields it in great quantity, with no other labor than what the women and girls can bestow.”
In spite of hard work and determination most of the honorable projects came to an end. Saplings planted at Monticello died within a few years. Simultaneously, a Dutch company bought 23,000 acres in Vermont. Maple sugar went back to being a crop localized in the northeastern states.
The art of making maple syrup is alive and well today.
On a personal note, with all due respect to Mr. Jefferson, even in modern times making maple syrup is by no means the work of women and girls. I have participated in the sugar-making process, and I can tell you that trudging through deep snow with heavy buckets of sap, only to stand in a cold sugar house for hours of boiling is not a task this woman could complete with only the help of children.
Despite the hard manual labor that it requires, maple sugar is a miracle of God. There is a simple beauty in making something so delicious by merely gathering sap from a tree and bringing it to a boil. Walking through a sugar maker’s woods and smelling the sweetness of the sugar house as sap is boiled down to syrup is truly enchanting.
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