The Johnny Appleseed story we usually hear is a folk legend. However, his story is based on the life of John Chapman, a man who traveled through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana planting apple seeds.
Walt Disney and other storytellers portray their Johnny Appleseed as an eccentric do-gooder who spread apple seeds as he walked along, giving people the gift of apples to eat. This a cartoon version of the story. (Scroll down to view the 1948 Disney cartoon, “American Legends Volume 1, Johnny Appleseed.”)
The true story of Johnny Appleseed concerns a thoughtful, religious man who saw a need among settlers and realized he could build a business around it.
Pioneers who ventured west were doing so to establish new places to live. The apple seedlings Chapman planted were of value, because it hastened the settlers’ ability to establish a home.
Here’s the story of the man who became known as the “apple seed man.”
Son of a Soldier in the Revolutionary War
John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed was born just before the American Revolution to a farmer and his wife who lived in Leominster, Massachusetts. Farmers throughout Massachusetts organized militias in response to the threats from Great Britain, and Nathaniel Chapman volunteered to serve. When the fighting began in Concord, the men from Leominster were part of the militia. Nathaniel Chapman remained in the military for the next four years.
Life at Home During this Time
Nathaniel and his wife, Elizabeth, had one daughter before Nathaniel went off to fight. In 1774, Elizabeth gave birth to their second child, John. While Nathaniel was away, Elizabeth had a third child in the summer of 1776. Shortly after the birth, she became ill (probably from puerperal fever, which is caused by unsanitary birth methods) and died that July. The newborn died weeks later.
John Chapman and his sister Elizabeth were left in the care of relatives until their father returned from war. At some point, Nathaniel lost possession of his farm. Researchers found no documentation of land ownership, so perhaps Chapman was a leaseholder or sharecropper.
In 1780, Nathaniel Chapman received an honorable discharge from the military. Shortly after, he met and married Lucy Cooley. He and Lucy returned to Leominster to retrieve Elizabeth and John from relatives. They then moved to Longmeadow to establish a new farm.
Lucy and John had ten more children, so John and Elizabeth were part of what became a large clan. When John grew a little older, Nathaniel placed him in an apprenticeship with the owner of an apple orchard.
At that time, apples were rarely eaten; they were grown to make apple cider or to dry the fruit so it could be blended into other foods during the winter. (To read about growing apples that were good for eating, scroll down.)
The Importance of Cider
When the British arrived in this country, they came from a world where community waterways were badly polluted by garbage and waste-water runoff. As a result, no one thought of water as something to be consumed—their experience was that water usually made people sick.
But of course, hard-working people require fluids. As they had in England, they relied on drinks made from malt, cereal grains, and apples. From this produce, colonists could make beer, hard liquor, and apple cider. The apples were also dried and made into apple butter later on.
In the New England climate, apple trees were easy to grow among what were often rocky fields, so apple cider was a common and popular beverage. Children generally started their days with apple cider, just as the adults did.
Though creating a drink that was safer than polluted water was important, there is no doubt that colonists enjoyed drinking alcohol. The consumption quantities for people at this time were considerably greater than what people drink today. And some of the drinks were astoundingly strong. Apples could be brewed into applejack that was 66 proof—enough to make anyone’s “hair stand on end.”
When the Revolutionary War ended, colonists began looking west for space and land ownership. Those who fought in the war agitated for pay, but the new country was broke. Where they could, the government deeded over tracts of land to members of the militia as a way to pay for their services.
This began westward movement. In western Pennsylvania, the Holland Land Group offered large tracts of land at relatively reasonable prices. And in 1792, the Ohio Company extended an offer to new settlers: Anyone willing to establish a permanent homestead in the wilderness would be granted 100 acres of land. To prove that they planned to stay, they were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees over 3 years.
Johnny Appleseed Seized the Opportunity
Since John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed apprenticed with an orchard owner, so he knew the product. Apple trees started from seeds took several years to grow to a decent size. Chapman’s business plan was to precede people moving west and to establish orchards in areas that looked promising for future settlement.
When he first started out, his younger half-brother came along, but later his father, who was deeded land in Ohio instead of payment for his time in the military, moved his wife Lucy and their children to a farm in Ohio. Half-brother Nathaniel opted for a more settled life. He put down roots near his parents, leaving John to travel alone.
John Chapman’s first orchard is thought to have been along the bank of Brokenstraw Creek, west of Pennsylvania’s Alleghany Forest. As he moved west, he planted in parts of Pennsylvania and much in north-central Ohio.
His methodology was the same in each location. He bought land where he could or laid claim to land where no one could be found from whom to buy it. He then cleared the land, planted seeds, built a fence around the seedlings, and looked around for someone to assume responsibility for it.
Because he had no desire to stay in one place, he made business arrangements with someone locally. If they tended the orchard and collected fees for the saplings that settlers wanted, Chapman shared the income with the local person. He did not have in his nature a need to drive hard bargains. Chances are that many settlers were left to claim the income from an orchard all alone.
Seeds and Travel
Seeds, of course, were continually needed for Chapman’s business. He generally returned to cider mills in Massachusetts or western Pennsylvania. No mill owner objected to a scruffy man sorting through the left-over pulp from cider-making in order to retrieve seeds that would otherwise go unused.
He generally left the cider mills with overflowing bags. If he was traveling by water, he lashed two canoes together. He rode in one canoe; the other carried his seeds and supplies.
If his route was over land, he acquired an old horse that most people would consider beyond use. He never rode the steed (not wanting to cause the animal undue pain), but he used it as a pack animal to transport the seeds. When the number of seeds dwindled to the point that he could carry them in a leather bag over his shoulder, he gave the horse away to someone who would benefit.
What Johnny Wore
Clothing cast off by others was Johnny Appleseed’s preferred method of dress. Sometimes his shirt was a burlap coffee bag through which he cut holes for his arms and head. Pants took a beating by previous owners, so Johnny generally worked with a couple of pair. One might have a good waistband and pocket but have a threadbare seat; when he found a pair with a better seat or more complete pant legs, he would fashion a way to wear the pairs of pants together.
Many describe Appleseed wearing a pot on his head, but here, contemporary descriptions tell a different story. Appleseed may have occasionally worn a mushpot as a hat, but most descriptions from those who knew him say he generally wore a hat with a pasteboard bill (like a baseball cap) that he fashioned himself.
He rarely wore a coat, and he preferred to go barefoot. Contemporary writers describe his feet as tough and “horny” from conveying him through all sorts of weather and rough terrain. Occasionally, someone would press upon him a pair of shoes, but he generally discarded them relatively quickly.
Johnny Appleseed held some deeds to his land and sometimes he had cash on hand. Banks were not convenient for him, so he tended to bury what he had that was of value. Whether he retrieved everything he buried is hard to know.
The Importance of Religion
Early in his travels, he encountered a minster who followed a Swedenborgian philosophy. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a scientist who created a life philosophy tied to nature. Swedenborg taught that god was the power and life within all creatures, not just humans. (His belief system was similar to Buddhism and Hindu doctrine.)
As a result of this all-encompassing belief and involvement with nature, Appleseed took seriously all encounters with the world around him. He attempted not to hurt any living thing. One story from a newspaper interview with a man who knew Johnny described his effort to save a yellow jacket wasp after a nasty sting. The insect flew up his pant leg and stung him but Johnny used his hands to maneuver the wasp down his leg to the opening so that the insect could go free.
War of 1812
Johnny Appleseed was well-liked and accepted by white settlers as well as Native Americans and could come and go as he pleased. But he also didn’t want trouble.
During the War of 1812, some of the Native Americans rose up against the incursion of settlers on what they saw as their land, and they planned a massacre.
This was a dire situation where lives would be lost. Appleseed borrowed a horse and he rode it to Mont Vernon, Ohio, and the surrounding farmlands warning of the attack. The settlers learned of this in enough time that they took cover.
Johnny Appleseed never put down roots. He regularly visited his family around Marietta, Ohio, but otherwise, he was on the move all the time.
He sometimes paid for a place to stay; other times he bartered for what he needed.
And every door always opened to Appleseed. He was a cheerful visitor whom families enjoyed. Chapman/Appleseed carried with him medicinal plants and knew a lot about their properties. He could offer treatments using motherwort, dandelion, wintergreen, mayweed, horehound, catnip, or pennyroyal. As he left each town, he often planted herb gardens for people.
Johnny Appleseed always brought news from all parts. After a meal with the family and sharing stories of communities nearby, he loved gathering the children around him to tell them stories about his life.
Later, after the children went to bed, he pulled out his Swedenborgian literature and read the “news straight from heaven.” (He carried Swedenborgian literature in a a makeshift pouch inside his shirt.)
Panic of 1837 Affected Appleseed
The going price of Johnny’s saplings was a “fi’penny bit”(the equivalent of about 6 ¼ cents) per tree. When the U.S. economy plunged in the Panic of 1837, Appleseed had to lower prices. From the “fi’penny bit” he dropped the price of seedlings to only 2-3 cents. Because he paid taxes on all land deeds in his possession, this situation left him in debt.
Died in 1845
Johnny Appleseed traveled less in his later years and spent more time with relatives in Marietta. However, he still actively watched over as many orchards as he could. The story goes that he was out tending to an orchard when a distant neighbor rode in to report that a fence was down and deer were eating saplings in another of his orchards.
Appleseed headed out in haste, only to fall ill on the journey. He was taken into a neighbor’s home to be cared for, but he did not survive. Most think he died of typhoid fever.
Good friends held a funeral for him, and the Archer family requested him being buried in their family burial plot. That plot is now a park in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Each year they celebrate a festival in his honor.
More Information About Apples
Do Any Trees Planted by Johnny Appleseed Still Stand Today?
During Prohibition, many orchards were hacked down to prevent cider-making. However there is one tree on the Algeo Farm near Savannah, Ohio, that is thought to have been planted by John Chapman/Appleseed.
As the tree aged, it suffered. The family did all they could to preserve it, using chains to hold the trunk of the tree together. However, several years ago a strong wind toppled the main trunk of the tree. Miraculously, however, a slender section of the trunk remained and sprouted branches a couple of years later. Locals report that it is again producing apples.
The U.S. government is also aware of the importance of maintaining a genetic library of plants. In Geneva, New York, as part of the USDA Plant Genetics Resource Unit,a section of an orchard is dedicated to trees that would have been spawned by those planted by Johnny Appleseed.
How to Grow Edible Apples
As early as the second millennium, the Chinese people successfully grew apple trees that had delicious-tasting fruit. But to replicate these trees, grafting a branch onto another tree was required. Apple seeds will grow, but they are a “wild card.” You can’t predict what the apple will be like, and it generally producers “spitters.” (If you take a bite, you want to spit it out.)
For delicious fruit to eat, orchard growers cut off a branch of a favored tree and notch the cut branch into a slot cut in another apple tree. Over time, the new branch will make that tree its new home, and the new apple replicates the fruit that came from the favored tree.
Appleseed knew of the grafting process but would never have done it, for he believed that grafting a branch might cause the trees pain.
The Value of Seeds
The value of seeds cannot be discounted.
In his book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan credits Appleseed/Chapman with creating the American apple. Pollan writes that while the orchards Johnny Appleseed planted mainly produced a quality of fruit that was inferior for eating but fine for making into cider or apple butter, Appleseed’s work provided the apple tree with a genetic opportunity to adapt to the ecosystem of North America.
Without this work, America might not enjoy the bountiful number and types of apple trees that can now be grown in much of the U.S. So even today, an apple tree stands as a monument to John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.
To read more about the different variety of apples, read Apple Varieties Identified by Apple Detectives.