Maple Sugaring at Mackinac

As winter snow and frigid temperatures finally give way to spring, maple sugaring season begins in northern Michigan. For many centuries, Native American families living at the Straits of Mackinac moved each spring from small winter hunting camps to groves of maple trees. There, they gathered and processed the first plant-based food of the year, harvesting maple sap and boiling it into sweet, calorie-rich maple sugar.

  Early origins of maple sugaring are preserved in oral traditions of Anishinaabeg and other tribes of northeastern North America. When European missionaries and traders became established at Mackinac in the 18th century, local accounts of sugaring also began to appear in letters, journals, and other documents. Several such records offer a glimpse into historical methods and customs of sugar making in northern Michigan.

Sweet Science

  No matter which specific methods are used, the basic science of converting maple sap into syrup or sugar remains the same. As temperatures rise above freezing during the day, liquid sap within trees thaws and starts to flow through sapwood. Sapwood is a living layer of wood within a tree which serves as a pipeline for moving water up to leaves so they can grow. The hard center of a tree, called heartwood, contains dead cells which provide rigidity but lack the ability to transport water.

Maple leaves  While sap is mostly water, it’s not 100%. In trees, sugar maples contain the most sugar, from 2-4%. In a sense, trees plan ahead, as these complex carbohydrates were created last year, when green leaves converted sun’s energy into food through photosynthesis. Stored through winter, this energy flows to tips of branches in spring, stimulating buds to open. In late spring, when temperatures remain above freezing at night, pressure within a tree equalizes and sap stops flowing. If buds start to open, it also turns cloudy and tastes bitter.

  When sap is freely flowing, a hole is made in a tree and a spout or spile inserted, directing drips into a waiting container. Traditionally, these containers were called mokuks, made of birch bark with sealed seams. When enough sap is gathered, it’s boiled over an open fire. Averaging about 2% sugar, sap must be boiled until it concentrates to 66% sugar in order to make syrup, with further boiling required for granular sugar. Generally, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which can make about 8 pounds of sugar.

Maple Sugar Making in 1763

  Alexander Henry, a British trader at Fort Michilimackinac, was one of the first to describe the Anishinaabeg method of sugar making in Michigan’s north woods. He recorded the following as he recalled a visit to an Ojibwe encampment near Sault Ste. Marie in March 1763:

“The next day was employed in gathering the bark of white birch-trees, with which to make vessels to catch the wine or sap. The trees were now cut or tapped, and spouts or ducts introduced into the wound. The bark vessels were placed under the ducts; and, as they filled, the liquor was taken out in buckets, and conveyed into the reservoirs or vats of moose-skin, each vat containing a hundred gallons. From these, we supplied the boilers, of which we had twelve, of from twelve to twenty gallons each, with fires constantly under them, day and night. While the women collected the sap, boiled it, and completed the sugar, the men were not less busy in cutting wood, making fires, and in hunting and fishing, in part of our supply of food.

The earlier part of the spring it that best adapted to making maple-sugar. The sap runs only in the day; and it will not run, unless there has been a frost the night before. When, in the morning, there is a clear sun, and the night has left ice of the thickness of a dollar, the greatest quantity is produced.

  Henry noted that work ended on April 25, resulting in 1,600 pounds of maple sugar, 36 gallons of  gallons of syrup, and “…we certainly consumed three hundred weight. Though, as I have said, we hunted and fished, yet sugar was our principal food, during the whole month of April.” If his calculations are correct, this single camp collected about 16,640 gallons of maple sap. With an average of about 15 gallons of sap per tap, this would have required well over 1,000 taps to produce.

The Maple Sugar Trade

  By the turn of the 19th century, maple sugar had become a regular item of trade at Mackinac, frequently appearing on manifests of trading vessels. In 1803, records from the U.S. Customs House on Mackinac Island included many dozens of kegs and mokuks of maple sugar transported by schooner and canoe. Traders such as George Schindler, Michael Dousman, Joseph Bailly, Jean Baptiste La Borde, Pierre Pyant, and many others appear time and again on such records. On July 19, 1810, for example, 489 “makaks” of sugar left Mackinac Island on the schooner Mary, bound for Detroit. There, advertisements for the newly arrived resource were published in newspapers, including the following example at the “Commission Store,” printed in issues of the Detroit Gazette throughout the winter of 1817-1818.

Bois Blanc Sugar Camp

  A lengthy account of a maple sugar camp at the Straits of Mackinac was recorded by Elizabeth Therese (Fisher) Baird. Born in 1810, to parents of Scottish, French and Odawa ancestry, Elizabeth spent much of her youth on Mackinac Island. Fond childhood recollections of her family’s maple sugar camp were first published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, on December 29, 1886. In part, she wrote,

Indian Sugar Camp by Seth Eastman, 1853.

“A visit to the sugar camp was a great treat to the young folks as well as to the old… All who were able, possessed a sugar camp. My grand-mother had a sugar camp on Bois Blanc Island, about five miles east of Mackinac.

About the first of March nearly half of the inhabitants of our town, as well as many from the garrison, would move to Bois Blanc to prepare for the work. Would that I could describe the lovely spot! Our camp was delightfully situated in the midst of a forest of maple, or a maple grove. One  thousand or more trees claimed our care, and three men and two women were employed to do the work

  After describing methods and materials for making maple syrup, Elizabeth recalled the process of sugar making. In part, she described,

The modus operandi thus: a very bright, brass kettle, was placed over a slow fire…containing about three gallons of syrup, if it was to be made into cakes; if… granulated sugar, two gallons of syrup were used. For the sugar cakes, a board of bass-wood about five or six inches wide, with moulds set in, in form of bears, diamonds, crosses, rabbits, turtles, spheres, etc. When the sugar was cooked to a certain degree it was poured into these moulds. For the granulated sugar, the stirring is continued for a longer time; this being done with a long paddle which looks like a mush stick. This sugar had to be put into the mokok while warm as it was not pack well if cold…”

  Today, many Michiganders still enjoy the smell and taste of pure maple products each spring. Though methods have changed, we can all give thanks for trees which produce such sweet sap (with extra to spare), and for many generations of Native Americans whose skills in making maple products were passed down for thousands of years, ensuring we can still share these sweet gifts of the North Woods during this special time of year.

Getewaaking – “At the Place of the Ancient Ones”

P8310131 – Pottery fragments excavated at Getewaaking.

  Mackinac Island is blessed with a lovely natural harbor. The beach terrace above it has always been a center of activity. Today this area is the business district and Marquette Park. Hundreds of years ago this area was a bustling village. Scattered evidence of this village has been encountered during a number of construction projects over the years. A larger portion of the village was systematically excavated in 2009 during the conversion of the Indian Dormitory/old Mackinac Island Public School building into The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. The excavation was carried out by Andrews Cultural Resources, under the direction of Wesley Andrews, through a contract with Mackinac State Historic Parks. All photos in this post were taken by Andrews Cultural Resources staff.

P8300125 – Copper bead excavated at Getewaaking.

  The village, which Andrews called Getewaaking, meaning “at the place of the ancient ones,” was inhabited seasonally from c.500 A.D. to 1600 A.D. Analysis of the animal bones excavated at the site showed that the villagers were fishing for whitefish and lake trout in the fall and burbot in the winter. They supplemented their diet with moose, caribou, beaver, white-tailed deer, black bear, and domesticated dog.

P8300122 – Copper point excavated at Getewaaking.

  A variety of pottery sherds were found, including some with decorations similar to those on sherds found on nearby Bois Blanc Island. An example is on display in the Mackinac Art Museum. [P8310131] Chert projectile points and scrapers were among the stone tools recovered. [P8300101] Copper beads and tools, including a projectile point, a knife and two awls, were also found. [P8300125] [P8300122] [P8300116]

P8300116 – Copper awl excavated at Getewaaking.

P8300101 – Chert projectile point excavated at Getewaaking.

Agriculture at Mill Creek

Watching the sawmill operate is one of the highlights of a visit to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Seeing the original grist mill stones reunited in the American Millwright’s House is the result of good historical detective work. However, milling was the not the only enterprise at Mill Creek.

   According to the original land claim by Robert Campbell’s heirs, the property was “commonly known by the name of Campbell’s farm.” Among the improvements listed on Private Claim 334 were a house, a grist and sawmill, at least 40 cultivated acres, a large orchard and valuable buildings.

   Michael Dousman purchased the property in 1819. He was a large landowner, with additional property on Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands. He held lucrative contracts to supply Fort Mackinac with beef and hay, which he supplied from these farms. The gristmill closed by 1839, and the sawmill was moved to Cheboygan in the mid-1840s.

Historic Mill Creek Archaeology Map

   After Dousman’s death in 1854, Jacob A.T. Wendell of Mackinac Island bought the property. In 1867 Putman’s Magazine published a story about an unsuccessful trout fishing expedition to Mill Creek. It stated, “there had formerly been a cleared spot of land about the mill, but it was fast growing up again.”

   Also shortly after the Civil War, a man named Young, a tenant of Wendell, built a house at the foot of the Mill Creek bluff and engaged in the manufacture of lime. After two years he moved on to other pursuits. At that point Wendell arranged with Charles Bennett to move into the house and see that no one trespassed on the private claim. In 1916 Angeline Bennett, Charles’s widow, testified in an affidavit that they had “lived upon and occupied said property for upwards of fifty years.” One of their descendants visited Historic Mill Creek in 1993 and remembered a farm on the bluff and apple trees.

   The Wendell family sold the property to the Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company in about 1902, but apparently the Bennetts continued living there until the house, which Angeline described as “at the foot of the bluff where the quarry is now located,” burned down in 1911. The Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company mined limestone and clay for road building into the 1920s before letting the land tax revert to the State of Michigan.

Barn Area at Mill Creek.

   Is there any evidence of this agricultural activity visible at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park today? Old apple trees are still scattered among the reconstructed buildings near the creek. Faint traces of two structures are visible across the path from the sawpit at the foot of the hill. They are most visible in the spring before the foliage comes out and in late fall when everything has died back again. Mapping and limited archaeological testing was carried out in 1988.

   The first foundation is a large rectangle, seventy-one feet long by twenty feet wide, with twenty-foot door gaps in the long north and south walls. This would seem most likely to be a barn. Nineteenth- century artifacts, including red transfer-printed ceramic sherds and a metal plate from an instrument case dated 1873, were found here.

Silo area.

   The second ruin is circular, and so has been interpreted as a silo. It is about thirteen feet in diameter. It did not contain as many artifacts, only some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bottles and tin cans. There was evidence for a thin wood floor about two feet below the ground surface.

   Larger scale excavation at both structures in the future may reveal more about this interesting facet of life at Mill Creek.

On This Day: Battle of Mackinac Island, August 4, 1814

American soldiers from the 17th, 19th, and 24th Infantry Regiments joined men from the Corps of Artillery, the Marine Corps, and the Ohio militia during the battle.

On August 4, 1814, war came to Mackinac Island. The island, which had been captured by the British in 1812, was now the focus of an American campaign to reclaim the region. That campaign reached its zenith as hundreds of American troops landed on the island’s north shore, marched inland, and encountered well-entrenched British, Canadian, and Native American troops. (more…)