Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Maple Syrup Production and Slavery

Native Woman collecting sapThe sight of maple sap bubbling away in an evaporator pan, the sweet smell in the air and the camaraderie of sugarin’ season are welcomed signs of spring here in the Adirondacks. It also has an interesting history; there is a connection between maple sugar production, slavery in the United States, and socially responsible investing.

Early settlers watched Native Americans slash the bark of mature maple trees during the “sugar month” (even today the full moon in March is called the “Sugaring Moon”). As the trees released their sap from these gashes the clear sweet liquid would be funneled through a series of concave pieces of birch bark stitched together with reeds to the base of each tree where a sealed birch bark basket stored the sap.

These baskets would be collected and the sweet sap emptied into a cooking pot. Two or three hot stones tossed into the pot caused the sap to boil (two or three boilings were generally deemed sufficient). The result was far from the maple syrup we know today, but it was sweet and considered a good remedy for colds and rheumatisms.

In fact, maple sugaring may be the origin of the term Adirondacker or “bark-eater”. The Algonquin were known to chew the sweet scrapings of the maple tree; especially in the spring after a hard winter when food supplies were low. Studies have since shown that the inner bark of the maple tree contains antioxidants, nutrients such as sugars and starches, and various minerals important for good health.

a_Abolition_SugarCutAntgua02It was however, the sugar that was most important. In the 17th century sugar was a rare and expensive commodity. Fueling the demand for sugar were exotic imports: tea, coffee and chocolate – all bitter drinks enhanced with sugar. Some historians believe that the Molasses Act of 1733 and the Sugar Act of 1764 did as much to incite the American Revolution in Boston as West India Tea.

In the 1600s the sugar plantations of tiny Barbados were worth more than all the other English Colonies combined and everything north of Florida was considered a backwater. When the French and Indian War ended, France was more than willing to give up all of Canada for a few sugar islands in the Caribbean. Production of sugar from sugar cane was cruelly hard and dangerous work however, and the East India Company calculated it cost one slave life for every 450 pounds of sugar produced. Eight families enjoying sugar for nineteen and a half years would result in the death of one hundred slaves.

Gerrit Boon, for whom Booneville in the southwest corner of the Adirondacks is named, was born in Delft, Holland in 1768, the son of a Lutheran minister. As a young man he worked in a sugar refinery in Rotterdam and at 28 immigrated to America where he met John Lincklaen of the Holland Land Company.

Here in Upstate New York, Boon saw Native Americans harvesting the sweet sap of the maple tree. Knowing how valuable sugar was, he saw an opportunity. In 1790, financed by the Holland Land Company, he secured thirty thousand acres of forest near West Canada Creek.  Settling near the Cincinnati and Steuben Creeks (near Trenton Falls in Barnveld), he selected a test patch of land rich with maple trees. He thinned-out the other species and by 1793 began building thin troughs of wood. Boon used these troughs to connect to each maple tree he tapped, and properly arranged and supported, the maple sap would run downhill to his waiting kettles; “free” sugar for the taking.

Cane_syrup_evaporator_1330It was hoped that Boon’s experiment would yield enough sugar to provide a generous return on his backer’s investment. His Dutch investors also hoped this new industry might compete with the sugar cane plantations in the south, and in so doing drive cane sugar from the market and deliver a blow against slavery. This may have been one of the first attempts at Socially Responsible Investing in the Colonies.

The days began to warm. Nights below freezing, sunny days above freezing, and a gentle breeze to wake the trees – perfect sugaring weather. Unfortunately the contrasting cool and warm temperatures caused Boon’s wood troughs to warp. Sap began leaking out, and little made it to the kettles for boiling.

Boone reported to his investors on the problems of the first season. He explained ways he felt he could improve the troughs so they might deliver more sap the next spring, but his backers had had enough. The few hundred pounds of maple sugar Boon had produced cost the company the equivalent of $100,000 (2014 dollars). They ordered the land put up for sale and wrote off the entire venture at a great loss.

Boon continued to try to develop the area, overseeing the construction of a sawmill on Mill Creek, a tributary of Canada Creek. Unfortunately, as his crew was adding a gristmill to the site a fire destroyed the entire project. He then helped settle and develop the Village of Barneveld. The Holland Land Company gave him a budget of thirty thousand dollars (over $4 million today) to hire carpenters, masons, and laborers to build a village for affluent settlers. Progress was slow. A dam and mill were built, but these washed away in a flood in 1797. Boon returned to Holland the next year where he died in 1821, at the age of 53.

The connection between sugar and slavery was not lost, however. During the American Civil War families in the north argued that having slave-produced white cane sugar on your table was a thing of shame. Honey and maple sugar became substitutes for cane sugar in recipes and drinks and maple sugar and syrup became considered the morally correct sweetener by some in the north; especially the Quakers.

Maple Sugar bucket - Glenn PearsallIn one of the ironies of history, according to a May 10, 1796 entry in a journal kept by Simon Desjardins, Pierre Pharoux, Boon himself paradoxically owned slaves and was constantly frustrated that they kept escaping. He didn’t see the contradiction; his personal interest lay solely in making a profit.

Boon’s concept of maple sap gathering is used today, up-dated with a vacuum pumps, plastic tubing, sophisticated reverse osmosis machines and efficient evaporators. New York State is now the second largest producer of maple syrup in the country, surpassed only by Vermont, and approximately one third of all New York State production is made in the twelve counties of the Adirondack Region.

Photos, from above: a native woman collecting sap in the 19th century; slaves cutting sugar cane in the Caribbean; a sugar cane syrup boiler similar in construction to 19th century American maple sugar boilers; and a sap collecting pail.

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Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.

11 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    This is a terrific article on several levels. Thanks!

  2. […] Read more at Maple Syrup Production and Slavery – – The Adirondack Almanack. […]

  3. stan bunal says:

    A nice piece of writing with an unsuspected web of interconnections. I was raised south of Barneveld and now live surrounded by sugar makers in VT. History is so engrossing when it deals with why people did what they did not just who and when.
    Thank you.

  4. Wally Elton says:

    Interesting article about an appropriate topic in between Maple Weekends! Thank you.

  5. Terry says:

    Nice job with this very interesting article, Glenn…yet another reason to be proud of our Adirondack heritage!

  6. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    This article seems to have garnered a lot of interest. Thank you all for the nice comments and the 34 FaceBook “shares” within 24 hours of its posting!

    • Pete Nelson says:


      That’s because this is a really unique, interesting story, as well as very fresh. No one has heard this story – its evocative and fascinating. Thanks for it.


  7. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    This story, in a different format, appeared with 13 others in my book “When Men and Mountains Meet” (Pyramid Press, 2013).

  8. Edythe Ann Quinn, Ph.D. says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. Although not in Adirondacks, a similar episode occurred in the region of Cooperstown, New York, promoted by William Cooper, the region’s major promoter, circa 1789. As discussed in Alan Taylor’s book, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion, “Cooper considered maple sugar the ideal commodity for new settlers…. … Cooper concluded that maple sugar was the key commodity that would unlock the full economic potential of the northern upcountry to the benefit of consumers, settlers, landlords — and even West Indian slaves. … Deprived of their markets for cane sugar, West Indian planters would have to shut down their plantations and liberate their slaves. Produced by free families ‘without exercising the lash…'” [119-26, especially 120-21)

  9. Kevin says:

    Back then it was called slavery, today its called illegal immigrants.

    • John Warren says:

      There is a considerable difference between immigration of any sort and slavery.

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