In elementary school, American children learn about a historical figure named Johnny Appleseed. Picture this; a happy fellow, walking barefoot through the new frontier (okay, Ohio), wearing a tin pan hat, while carrying a bible in one hand, and a bag of appleseeds in the other. All stories lead to the same conclusion; Johnny Appleseed gave America apples. Big. Red. Juicy. Apples. What is not to believe, this story is as American as apple pie. Or is it? At some point, Johnny Appleseed went from man to folklore hero. We are not saying that we were fibbed to as children, but we are thinking there might have been a slight interpretation of this historical character to make him more palatable for a child. The Disney’s 1948 cartoon classic may also have helped with moving the man from a historical figure to one of legend. Though Johnny was many of those characteristics, he was an incredibly eccentric, nomadic, not a very good businessperson but did have a kind heart and was lovable. Oh, and the apples trees he was planting, they were not for eating.
John Chapman was born in late September 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts to Elizabeth and Nathanial Chapman. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died during childbirth when John was just two. His father left the farm, became a Minute Man in the American Revolutionary War, and served at the famed Battle of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts. After his father returned home, in 1780, Nathanial married his second wife Lucy and had 10 additional children in the western Massachusetts town of Long Meadow. Large families were commonplace at the time. This large family was said to have lived in a 400 square foot home.
In 1792, 18-year-old John and his 11-year-old brother Nathanial left Long Meadow (and that really small house) to explore the new frontier. The brothers walked through Pennsylvania doing odd jobs, moving from one town to the next. The goal was to get to Central and Western Pennsylvania, perhaps beyond. The brothers had heard about the American Frontier Law that would grant land to anyone who laid claim to it by developing a permanent homestead, including creating an orchard of 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees. Along the way, John had honed his skill for growing plants, especially apple trees, however the years had not been easy on John. Nathaniel went back to live with the family and when John was around the age of 21 he was kicked in the head by a horse, and the injury resulted in having to have a part of his skull removed. This traumatic brain injury could account for the eccentricity John would display. In 1798 in Warren, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Allegheny River, a trading post journal has evidence that John purchased supplies for planting trees. It was there that that John received or purchased his first lot of land. John would continue to demonstrate a skill for planting trees, but unfortunately, he was not so good at business; specifically paying bills or taxes. This often resulted in the loss of his orchards.
John was a devout follower of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist and theologian with unusual interpretations of Christian beliefs. The Church of Swedenborg (Also known as The New Church or New Jerusalem) was established in 1787. It is unclear when John became a member, but based on stories about him it appears that he was an early follower. The Church had expectations of the followers to practice humility, resist harming God’s creations (which included animals, insects and vegetation), and there might have been a reference to living a life of abstinence as you will be rewarded in the afterlife with your perfect mate. A story I came across stated that John had a relationship with two spirits – but that is a little too weird to dig into so I am going to move on. Because of many of the Church laws, John became a vocal animal rights activist, and vegetarian. Tales of John’s love for animals are numerous, from the wolf that became his pet after he healed the animals injured leg, to the horse he bought after he heard that it was going to be put down prematurely. The values of the Church may also have played a role in his appearance, including no shoes and threadbare clothes. Lastly, let me address the tin pot hat that he allegedly wore. From all accounts, the “tin pot on the head” was not a true representation of John, and was added to his legend after death.
It is the Church’s beliefs that play the biggest part of the “Johnny Appleseed” story. Apple trees are considered, in the eyes of his Church, one of God creations. A common technique for cultivating apple trees, as well as grape and other fruit trees, is called grafting. In easy terms, grafting is a technique where a section of a stem—with buds—from a particular type of apple tree is inserted into the stock of another tree. This technique has been used as early as 2000BC in China. Apple trees are not native to the United States; history tells us the origin was most likely around the area of modern day Kazakhstan. Through grafting, apple trees have been planted around the world with incredible success. Colonists brought the European apple tree to the new world through grafting however the growing elements (soil, temperature) were different and perhaps the finesse of the technique was lacking, the apples did not taste the same as they had in Europe. Until the perfect apple tree could be grafted and grown, the Colonist took to planting apple seeds. Apple seeds, you see, do not create desired results. For example, if you plant apple seeds from a red delicious apple, you will get a tree but it may not be fruit baring and if it is, the tree will grow much higher than a grafted tree making the fruit difficult to collect. Most importantly, the fruit will not taste the same as the original apple. The Colonists referred to these apples as “spitters” because they would spit them out due to the bitter taste. Thoreau was once quoted as saying that an apple grown from seed tastes "sour enough to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a (blue)jay scream." Leave it to the Colonists to realize that thought the apples were not edible; they certainly can be made into hard cider for drinking. Ah yes, drinking was the great sustainer of the 18-century. Cider became a very popular drink, because it was safer than water and pretty darn delicious. New Englanders were reported to have consumed close to 11 ounces of cider per day; man, woman and child. It would take many tries to finally graft the trees to make the edible apple. But back to John, since the church forbid him from harming the apple tree, he refused to use the grafting technique and instead planted seeds. Now you see where this is going. All of the trees planted by John bared inedible fruit, and could only be used for creating cider, vinegar or liquors.
By the late 1790s, it was said that John Chapman moved from Warren,PA to Western Pennsylvania, and then into Ohio and Indiana. As John moved west, so did his planting of the apple seeds and orchards. It was said that he would build a fence around the orchard, to prevent animals from destroying the crop, and would hand off the ownership to a less than fortunate person who could make an income from the harvest. Though this is certainly possible, it might also be a slight stretch giving the earlier discussion about loosing land for not paying debts. He would in fact give seeds away to anyone that wanted them, while educating them on the Church of Swedenborg. By 1801, John had transported 16 bushels of apple seeds from Western Pennsylvania down the Ohio River. He would walk hundreds of miles each year planting and sharing the seeds. During this “missionary” type work, John earned the respect from the Native Americans that lived in the area. His likable demeanor, conservation, and respect for all things “created” made him well known and liked by the Native Americans, which proved useful on many days for himself and his friends. He became, at times, a liaison between the Native Americans and the Frontier seeking.
In John’s later years, he acquired land in Fort Wayne, Indiana planting apple trees, of course. He planted an apple nursery that produced thousands of apple trees. He would sell or trade the trees, or in some cases, he would just replant the trees some place else.
John died early in March of 1845 in Fort Wayne of “winter plague” when he was 70 years old. Considering the life expectancy of the times was closer to 40 years, John lived a full life devoted to his church, beliefs and apple trees. He died unmarried, and remained celibate for his entire life. At the time of death, he had an estate of over 1,200 acres (490 ha) filled with apple trees, however due to debt remaining the orchard was sold off instead of being provided to his sister. The local paper, The Goshen Democrat published a death notice, "In Fort Wayne, on Tuesday, 18th, 1845, John Chapman, commonly known by the name of Johnny Appleseed, about 70 years of age. Many of our citizens will remember this eccentric individual, as he sauntered through town eating his dry rusk and cold meat, and freely conversing on the mysteries of his religious faith. He was a devoted follower of Emanuel Swedenborg, and notwithstanding his apparent poverty, was reputed to be in good circumstances.“ Though he was called Johnny Appleseed before death, it was after death that John Chapman, the man, became the legend.
Now you wonder, what happened to all those trees? The news is grim. The apple harvest from all those trees made hard cider, vinegar and an apple liquor called Applejack. When the US outlawed alcohol due to prohibition in the 1920s, the trees were chopped down. The only known surviving tree planted by John is on the farm of Richard and Phyllis Algeo of Nova, Ohio. The tree does continue to bare fruit; but it is now grafted to create new apple trees.