Most people think they know the story of Johnny Appleseed as a friendly wandering hobo that planted apple orchards out of the goodness of his heart and his love of apples. Not exactly true. The real story is a bit more complicated than that.
John Chapman was born September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts. His father, Nathaniel, was a minuteman in the Revolutionary War and fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The elder Chapman went on to serve under George Washington and help prepare the defenses of New York against the British invasion. However, John’s mother died in childbirth in July 1776. His father returned home after that to care for John and remarried. He and his new wife had ten more children. Little is known about young John’s day to day life, but it is thought his father instructed him in farming, specifically as an orchardist and nurseryman. During this time, the members of the family migrated west and were in Ohio by 1805.
Apples were an important part of frontier life as they could be turned into cider. Apple cider could be used as a preservative, for barter and trade as well as a drink. It was also more healthy than water as water could hide bacteria, and apples provided nutrients that guarded against scurvy and other diseases. Plus it was easier and safer to make and tastier than corn liquor, the other whiskey of choice. In the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes:
“Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider. In rural areas, cider took the place of not only wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water.”
Planting apples was both useful and economical. Also, frontier law stated that a man may make claim to land if he made improvements to the land to create a permanent homestead. One way to do this was to plant at least fifty trees on the land. Chapman traveled throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois planting apple orchards. Once the orchards were on their feet, he would sell them to settlers at a neat profit. He traveled and planted a swath of land estimated at 100,000 acres in his lifetime. At the time of his death, Chapman owned 1,200 acres of valuable land across the frontier.
Despite this wealth, Chapman never lived the life of luxury. One thing that is correct about the legend is Chapman’s appearance. He wore a tin hat and could be wearing up to nine pair of pants at a time- each with a hole in a different place. He also rarely wore shoes. A bag of seeds was slung over his shoulder. He was outdoors most of the time and had a deep reverence for nature and other living creatures. Towards the end of his life, he became a vegetarian, however, throughout his life he was a strong believer in animal rights. There are many stories of him suffering hardship to spare any animals trouble. Henry Howe collected contemporary stories about the living legend in the 1830s in Ohio and gave these two examples:
“One cool autumnal night, while lying by his camp-fire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burned. Johnny, who wore on his head a tin utensil which answered both as a cap and a mush pot, filled it with water and quenched the fire, and afterwards remarked, “God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort, that should be the means of destroying any of His creatures.””
“Another time, he allegedly made a camp-fire in a snowstorm at the end of a hollow log in which he intended to pass the night but found it occupied by a bear and cubs, so he removed his fire to the other end and slept on the snow in the open air, rather than disturb the bear.”
Even his trademark seed bag was a reflection of his beliefs. Chapman felt the practice of grafting hurt the original trees, so his orchards were planted by seed. According to Pollan, this helped developed new strains of apples such as the golden delicious and red delicious. Grafted trees are always like the parent tree, but planting by seeds gives some variety.
These beliefs were unusual for the time and stemmed from Chapman’s membership in the New Church, or the Church of Swedenborg. This was a movement founded by Emanuel Swedenborg which swept the eastern United States in the late 18th century. Along with orchards, Chapman preached this gospel to settlers and Native American tribes alike. Many Native Americans felt Chapman had been touched by the Great Spirit and even tribes who were hostile to settlers left him alone.
Chapman acquired his familiar nickname in 1806, but it wasn’t until after his death in 1845 that his legend grew. Chapman’s legacy morphed into the legend of Johnny Appleseed, and museums and festivals sprang up throughout the Midwest. He even made into a Disney cartoon. However, his orchards were mostly destroyed by overzealous FBI agents trying to keep people from making hard apple cider. There is one of his trees still left that can be visited in Nova, Ohio. It is 176 years old and still produces tart green apples. Apparently through the Historic Tree program, you can get your own cutting from this tree and have a descendant of Johnny Appleseed’s work in your own yard. How cool is that?
So raise a cold glass of apple cider to the John Chapman- evangelist, entrepreneur, and legend.