The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Maple Sugaring: Thomas Jefferson’s Sugar Maples

"The Sugar maple, it appears, is the most delicate of the whole number, for all of them are totally lost," reported son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph to Thomas Jefferson in a letter dated 27 March 1792. While Jefferson spent most of that year in Philadelphia, Randolph managed the Monticello estate and garden including the planting of 60 sugar maples. Jefferson and Randolph must have delighted in this type of letter for they shared an avid interest in horticulture. Thomas Jefferson considered horticulture a refuge from politics. Thomas Mann Randolph would later become a founder and president of the Albemarle Agricultural Society in Virginia. The loss of the sugar maples in 1792 was undoubtedly disappointing for both horticulturalists. Why had Jefferson cultivated such an interest in sugar maples?

Thomas Jefferson’s interest in these trees can be traced to fellow founding father and physician of Philadelphia, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush extolled the political advantages of maple sugar over West Indies cane sugar in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1791. According to Rush, domestically produced maple sugar would not require the slave labor force used to produce cane sugar, but maple sugar could also be cultivated to supply the domestic demand, lessen dependence on imported cane sugar, and be exported for profit. Resolute in this reasoning despite being a slave owner himself, Jefferson purchased 60 sugar maples in July 1791 from nurseryman William Prince of Flushing, New York, and began his experiment in homegrown maple sugaring. His large order of fruit trees and roses including the sugar maples was completed in November 1791 upon which Randolph began supervising the planting of these specimens.

However, it was not a fruitful year for Monticello according to Randolph. “It gives some consolation however to know with certainty that [the Sugar maple] is abundant about Calf-pasture, & that the hemlock-spruce-fir is a native of [Monticello],” Randolph continued in the letter to Jefferson. “Another unproductive year in y.r orchards of the low country increases the value of the mountains by giving reason to think that their summits in a short time will be the only region of Virginia habitable by fruit trees.” Randolph’s frustration with the meager survival of the trees was evident. Within two years, Jefferson indicates in his garden book that there are only eight sugar maples alive.

Despite Jefferson’s disappointing planting in Virginia, the maple sugaring tradition remains alive and well in New England today. In the Northeast, maple sugaring season starts in February and continues through April. The tapping process collects sap from the trees to be made into maple sugar or maple syrup through boiling. While the neighboring state of Vermont is best known for its quality maple syrup, Massachusetts also produces the sticky pancake accoutrement. Approximately 40-50 gallons of sap are needed to produce one gallon of syrup. Shocking, isn’t it?

If you are not too busy daydreaming about pancakes now, you can find out more about the sugar maples and other fruit trees at Monticello in Jefferson's garden book and correspondence in the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson manuscripts.   

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 3 April, 2013, 8:00 AM


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