The art of maple sugaring season

  • A young boy harvests maple sap in northern New England about 1940. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

For the Monitor
Published: 4/1/2019 9:32:05 AM

The cold weather was retreating and warmth arriving from the south. The rivers were running strong with the melting snow from the mountains above and the salmon would soon be swimming up the river.

The Native American Penacook people had survived yet another harsh New England winter and optimism ran high.

Two young boys, Mikchich and Pulowech were enjoying the early warmth and strayed into the forest to hunt small game to bring back to the village and share with their younger siblings. The salted salmon supply from the prior year ran out months ago and food was needed. The adults hunted the larger game deeper in the New Hampshire forests while the young boys imitated the older warriors. Mikchich and Pulowech were just boys and enjoyed each other’s company away from the supervision of their mothers as any young boys might.

The boys were startled to see a white man near the river, laden with pelts and ready to trade beaver skins for Penacook wares. The English settlers were pushing further north into New Hampshire each year and limiting the once unencumbered fertile lands that produced beans, corn, squash and pumpkin’s in abundance for the local Native Americans that enjoyed this area for many years.

As the years passed, Mikchich and Pulowech grew, their friendship remained strong and they not only welcomed the English settlers but helped them to survive. They shared some secrets that had lived centuries and are still enjoyed to this day. They taught the early settlers the art of maple sugaring here in Penacook territory.

As the first settlers arrived there was confrontation, but young men like Mikchich and Pulowech represented the next generation and the anger and frustration with the intrusions became more accepted, for with resistance came adversity and war. The Penacook desired peace with the early settlers and agreements were eventually made allowing the disagreements to pass as quickly as the river over smooth stones.

The first settlers in our little town learned many things from the Native Americans. The methods taught were practiced and the soil and forest well known.

Maple syrup was harvested in this area when the Penacook set up spring camp in the maple groves and tapped each maple tree. There were many sugar maples growing naturally for centuries and the supply of sap ran seemingly without limit. They harvested and used the syrup for themselves as well as the purpose of bartering with other tribes and later the English settlers. The methods were practiced for centuries with the Native Americans collecting sap in wooden troughs and dropping scalding hot stones into the troughs to boil the watery liquid down to a thicker composition. They continued to drop hot stones and stir until the maple syrup was ready to be enjoyed.

Native American legend tells us that the origins of maple sugaring dated back hundreds of years in northern New England. It was said that maple sap dripped into a container used to boil venison over an open fire. When the warriors arrived back in camp with fresh deer meat the venison was processed and placed in this container to boil. With the maple sap in the pot they assumed it was clean water. The sap was brought to a boil with the venison cooking slowly over the open fire: the end result a delicious venison flavored with maple syrup. From that day forward the maple grove was visited and the maple tree tapped to harvest this plentiful supply.

The settlers continued to arrive and Penacook was renamed Rumford, New Hampshire. The settlers arrived by ox and cart with their worldly possessions, most carried large iron pots for cooking. The art of maple sugaring continued to improve with the boiling sap in the iron pot. During the colonial period our society enjoyed the bountiful maple harvest and attempts were made to plant maple groves further south for maple sugaring. The results in the south were quite dismal for a cold night and warm day in the spring is the basis for a good sap run.

During the later 1700s and early 1800s the English settlers haphazardly clear-cut much of the old growth forest in New Hampshire to provide wood to build ships, buildings and to heat the early homes. Some people were very opposed for with the clear-cutting process, many of the once abundant sugar maple trees were lost. The farmers knew the bounty that awaited them each spring with the maple sugaring and saved their own trees on their private farms.

As the 1800s were underway and the country battled in the Civil War, it was the northern farmer providing the Union troops with delicious maple syrup and sugar to be enjoyed alongside hardtack. The sugar production from the south was stopped when the sugar cane was used to sustain the southern army.

Many improvements in the collection of maple sap and processing have occurred since young Mikchich and Pulowech roamed the forest surrounding Concord. The Penacook taught the early settlers in Concord how to survive by planting and harvesting in fertile soil and tapping the sugar maples for sap and sugar. Young native people like Mikchich and Pulowech provided a valuable lesson of acceptance and love. When they first met the early settlers and found them to be different but helped them to survive.




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