Original Document
Original Document
David Zeisberger, On Indian Production of Maple Sugar, circa 1780.

The Moravian missionary David Zeisberger recorded this description of how Indian women produced maple sugar as part of their seasonal labor cycle.

The Delawares call this tree [sugar maple] the Achsunnamunschi, that is, the stone tree, on account of the hardness of the wood. The [Iroquois] Mingoes give it a name signifying the sugar tree, as do the Europeans. From the sap of the tree, sugar is boiled. This is done by the Indians in the early part of the year, beginning in February and continuing to the end of March or beginning of April, according as spring is early or late. . . .

Spring is the proper season for boiling sugar. The following preparations are made. A number of small troughs are made for receiving the sap. Usually the Indians make them out of wood, cutting them out roughly with a hatchet. Some Indians are able to make twenty or thirty of them in a day. Some do not go to so much trouble, but make dishes of the bark or bast of a tree, which serve quite well, but are good for no more than one season. . . . The sap flows most plentifully when it freezes at night and the sun shines during the day. . . .

The sap, which is of a brownish color and becomes darker the longer it boils, is boiled until it gets to be of the consistency of molasses; it is then poured off and kept. When a sufficient quantity of this consistency has been secured, it is boiled over a slow fire until it becomes sugar. It is important to boil this over a slow fire, for the sap readily boils over and is easily burned. If the boiled sap is burned until cold, the sugar becomes granulated and is as fine as the West Indian sugar. As the Indians lack the dishes and do not care to take the time to prepare it in this way, they usually form it into cakes, put it in a kettle or dish, or in default of these, on a stone and let it cool, when it becomes hard and may be easily preserved in baskets. . . .

Sugar boiling is chiefly the employment of women. Even widows are able to earn enough by it to secure clothing and whatever else they may need. While the women are thus engaged, the men hunt and supply meat. As the deerskins are of little value at that season of the year, they generally hunt bear, which they seek in the rocks, hollow trees or thickets in their winter quarters. Bears are at this time generally fat.

Credit: James Axtell, ed., Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 126-28.
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