This Day in History: The legend (and the truth) behind Johnny Appleseed

On or around this day in 1845, Johnny Appleseed passes away in Indiana. Of course, that wasn’t his real name! Johnny Appleseed’s real name was John Chapman.

Chapman was born in the years immediately before the American Revolution. We know that his father served at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but many details of his early life are sketchy. He may have been apprenticed to an orchardist and nurseryman, but no one is really sure. As a young adult, he decided to take advantage of an opportunity in the Northwest Territory. Unclaimed land was available to settlers, but settlers had to plant fruit trees to prove intent to stay for an extended period of time. (Planting an orchard was evidence of an intent to stay because the trees took so long to bear fruit.)

You can probably guess what Chapman did next. He collected leftover apple seeds from cider presses in Pennsylvania and he set off for the Northwest Territory.

Chapman’s goal was to stay just a little bit ahead of the settlers. He planted orchards as he went, anchoring his legal claim to the land. Then he came back, got more seeds, and sold his lands to settlers. Sometimes, he simply sold his apple seeds or seedlings to other settlers who needed them. One account has Chapman taking a load of apple seeds down the Ohio River with two canoes strapped to each other, enabling him to make his trek!

“It might have been a nice business model,” one of his biographers notes, “if he had been inclined to run it that way. But Chapman gave too much of his nursery stock away to those who couldn’t pay and treated his own property, and interest and tax payments, far too cavalierly. . . . Chapman had the eye of a speculator, the heart of a philanthropist, the courage of a frontiersman, and the wandering instincts of a Bedouin nomad.”

Interestingly, the apples that Chapman planted were largely inedible. Apple trees planted directly by seed tend to produce small, sour apples. Edible apples are usually produced by grafting trees, but Chapman would not graft a tree because he believed the tree would suffer. Nevertheless, his apples had another purpose: They could be used to make hard apple cider, then a staple of American life.

Chapman became more and more eccentric over the years. He eventually stopped wearing shoes and wore a coffee sack with arm holes, instead of clothes. He was once described as a “small, wiry man, full of restless activity; he had long dark hair, a scanty beard that was never shaved, and keen black eyes that sparkled with a peculiar brightness.” He was an adherent to the Swedenborg Church (the “New Church”) and preached about his beliefs as he traveled.

Perhaps Chapman wasn’t especially trying to help the apple industry, but he may have done so by accident. During Chapman’s day, edible apples were grafted from European trees. Chapman’s trees grew more naturally and had to adapt to harsher conditions in American soil. “It was the seeds, and the cider,” one botanist notes, “that give the apple the opportunity to discover by trial and error the precise combination of traits required to prosper in the New World.” The result? We have apples in American varieties, such as the Golden Delicious.

When Chapman passed away, he was already a bit of a folk hero. Of his death, General William Tecumseh Sherman reportedly said: “Johnny Appleseed’s name will never be forgotten. . . . We will keep his memory green, and future generations of boys and girls will love him as we, who knew him, have learned to love him.”

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