Friday, October 5, 2007

Native Americans and the Legend of Maple Syrup

Here were two interesting pieces we found about Native American cultures and the history of maple syrup.

One Iroquois Legend Shrouded in the gray mists of history, some early man in North America discovered - long, long ago - that sweet sap runs in the spring time from the sugar maple tree.

Perhaps this same man, or some of his clansmen, or perhaps someone more distant, found that boiling this sap over a fire soon reduced it to a brown syrup; and this syrup, when cooked longer, soon hardened into brownish sugars of various types.

All the books known to us are silent on how this discovery and cookery actually first came about. One Iroquois legend tells of Woksis, an Indian chief, pulling his tomahawk from a maple tree and going off on a hunt. The weather was warm and the gash dripped sap into a bark vessel under the tree. The chief's squaw, toward evening needed water to cook their meal and used the water from the tree to save a trip to the spring. When the chief neared home, he smelled the odor of the sweet syrup and when he ate his meal he found the meat very tasty. And the legend ended with the Indians tapping maple trees to secure this tasty and concentrated source of sweetening.
This however, is a legend, and legends never need truth to be interesting. As a rule of thumb, the more interesting the legend, the less likelihood of its truth. And this legend stands among the most interesting.

Still, all accounts indicate that the Indians of the Lake States, southeastern Canada, New England, the Appalachian Mountains knew and used maple syrup a long time before the first explorers and colonists came to America.
courtesy of the Lewis County New York website

The Legend
The Native Americans were the first people to make maple syrup, which can be expected, since they were the first inhabitants of North America, and this is the only part of the world in which maple syrup can be made. If you think about everything that is needed to make maple syrup, the proper season, the proper tree, all the boiling, it makes you wonder how anyone ever thought to try it.

Below is the Native American legend about how the first maple syrup was made.
One day in early spring, an Indian chief came home from a long day of hunting and stuck his tomahawk in one of the trees outside his longhouse, as he did every night. Now being that maple trees are very abundant in his area, this happened to be a maple.

The next morning the chief woke and left for another hunt, taking his tomahawk from the tree. It just happened that there was a bowl sitting at the base of this tree, directly under the gash made by the chief's tomahawk. As the warm spring sun shone on the maple tree, the sap began to run out of the gash, down the trunk, and dripped into the bowl. As evening approached, the chief's daughter began to prepare dinner. She needed a pail of water to boil dinner in though. As she walked past the tree on her way down to the creek, she noticed the bowl full of "water" sitting by the tree. Rather than walk all the way to the creek, the chief's daughter decided to use this "water." As the dinner boiled, the "water" boiled away, and by the time dinner was done, the "water", which was actually maple sap, had boiled down to the first maple syrup. With a little experimenting, the chief and his daughter discovered how and when to make this new all natural sweetener. From that point on, maple syrup became an important part of the Native American's diet.

courtesy of

Thatcher's Sugarhouse

Dennis and Theresa Thatcher
12 Broom Street Plainfield, MA 01070

Telephone 413-634-5582
FAX 413-634-5785


Unknown said...

"As a rule of thumb, the more interesting the legend, the less likelihood of its truth. And this legend stands among the most interesting."
This is unnecessary. Maple is included in Iroquoian Creation Story, as Western thinkers we do not consider how stories are passed, and their purpose. If you look deeper than just one legend, you will find that many legends are connected and offer a much bigger message. Maple syrup is a form of Indigenous knowledge, why not give them full credit where it is due?

elizabeth said...

I agree with you completely, Theresa.
There is a dismissive tone in most of this otherwise informative post. I hope the author will look at their language critically and take our advice constructively.

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