Sweet historical discoveries at maple sugaring camps

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Maple sugaring artifacts: pot hooks and a trammel. Image: John G. Franzen

By Eric Freedman

Archaeological excavations at four sites in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are shedding new light on historic maple sugaring operations and the people – mostly Native Americans and French-Canadians – who ran them.

The research also sheds light on the “racialization of sugar” based on the race of those who produced it.

Producers used the sites in the Mackinac County section of the Hiawatha National Forest at different periods between the late 1700s and late 1800s when “fur-trade era maple sugar production in northern Michigan was part of the global expansion of industrial capitalism and increases in per capita sugar consumption,” according to a recent study.

“During this period, many residents of the Mackinac Straits spoke both French and Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe or Ottawa) and would have referred to sugar camps as both ‘sucreries’ and ‘ziizbaakdokaanan,’” the study said.

The study published in the journal “Historical Archaeology” noted how Anglo-American and British writers of the time described sugar-making in racial terms by, for example, saying that maple sugar produced by Native Americans was less “clean” or “fine” than that made by the French.

And “racialization of sugar would have had a negative economic impact on ‘non-White’ producers,” it said. “The irony of parsing racial or cultural identity relative to sugar color is that producers, supposedly of different races, may have utilized the same sugaring practices.”

Women were the primary sugar producers at the time. They gathered the sap, maintained the fires and worked the syrup, said Eric Drake, the Hiawatha National Forest archaeologist and heritage program manager who coauthored the study. “It was a very labor-intensive process, and required a group effort.”

Sugar maples were abundant during that time that the camps were active, and maple sugar was more than a mere commercial product. “Producers consumed it as both a year-round seasoning and a significant calorie source during late winter or early spring food shortages,” the study said.

Yet global factors dampened the importance of Great Lakes maple sugar production: In the early 1899s, cane sugar from the West Indies was twice as expensive as maple sugar, but by the 1880s, “commercial maple products became specialty items no longer in direct competition with cane or beet sugar,” according to the study.

Archaeologists explored three of the sites near the shore of Gros Cap along the Lake Michigan coast. The fourth site is in the Pointe Aux Chenes area, also close to Lake Michigan. All are within the Hiawatha National Forest.

They found a wide variety of artifacts, including fragments of iron and flint, clay pipes, nails, wrought iron pothooks, parts of kettles and tools, and a metal bowl. The artifacts are kept at Michigan Technological University.

Lead author John Franzen, the retired Hiawatha National Forest archaeologist, said the personal items found, such as pieces of pipes, reflect the leisure activities that took place while the camp occupants worked.

The other author was Illinois State Museum’s emeritus curator of anthropology, Terrance Martin.

Overall, the study said, “These four sites illustrate both cultural continuity and changes in sugar- making technology.”

For example, there was evidence of technological transition from open-fire boiling of sap in kettles to the use of open pans, which was more efficient and sped up evaporation.

The team also studied the remains of wildlife for insights into the sugar producers’ diets. Among the findings: lake sturgeon, walleye, whitefish and lake trout were common food sources, with a few snowshoe hare and muskrat bones to show that they also ate some meat.

Franzen said the abundance of fish bones confirmed reliance on fish during syruping season in late winter and early spring. “We suspected that was a possibility. It’s the whole idea of what’s available at that time of year.”

And Drake said the fishing weights and other fishing gear found at the sites “tells us part of that group or family was off trying to find the food to feed the families while they were in the sugar camps.”

Discovering that shared division of labor was “most exciting” because “it’s really about these families coming together. – it’s a lifeway, it’s not just an occupation.”

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