Dear Straight Dope: What’s the story behind Johnny Appleseed? Did some guy really wander around spreading apple seeds? Where did he get all the seeds? Are any of his trees still left? M. Crawford
SDStaff Dex replies:
I’ve been accused of being long winded, so here’s the short answer:
The story of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, is intimately tied to the domestication of America. In the early 1800s, he wandered what was then the frontier, planting apple seeds and helping to make the wilderness a home for the advancing pioneers. He planted over a hundred thousand square miles of apple orchards in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
Some of the orchards are well documented and still exist. The trees in the orchards may well be descended, by seed or by grafting, from the ones he planted.
Johnny Appleseed was, to put it kindly, eccentric. He was a vegetarian and traveled barefoot, and, equally out of character with his times, showed kindness to animals and befriended the Indians. He preached a Christianity that was close to nature-worship. He was known as “Johnny Appleseed” in his lifetime, a folk hero about whom legends and stories were told, then and since. He became a mythic figure, who helped to tame the wilderness by planting apple orchards. He embodied two extremes: the rugged individualist and the gentle humanitarian.
So much for the short answer. The definitive biography was written by Robert Price (see resources at the end of this article), based on writings by people who knew him. We have lots of documentation of the bare bones of his story, such as land leases and promissory notes. But many of the memoirs were written long after the fact and so are of dubious trustworthiness.
Before we get into Johnny Appleseed’s life, though, we need to learn something about apples. Much of the following comes from Michael Pollan’s wonderful book, The Botany of Desire, also cited below. If you took Pomology 101, you’d learn that apples don’t “grow true” from seeds. An apple tree grown from a seed bears little resemblance to its parent, and the fruit normally is almost inedible, very sour or bitter. To get edible apples, you graft trees, producing a clone of a tree that you know bears tasty fruit, rather than plant from seeds.
Apples were brought to the New World by the earliest immigrants. Trees grown from seedlings, called “pippins,” prospered in New England, especially after the colonists imported honeybees to improve pollination.
Soil, climate, and sunlight hours in America were different from those in Europe, but the apple was able to adapt to the New World in a remarkably short time. Pollan says, “Every time an apple failed to germinate or thrive in American soil, every time an American winter killed a tree or a freeze in May nipped its buds, an evolutionary vote was cast, and the apples that survived this great winnowing became ever so slightly more American. A somewhat different kind of vote was then cast by the discriminating orchardist. Whenever a tree somehow distinguished itself for the hardiness of its constitution, the redness of its skin, the excellence of its flavor – it would promptly be named, grafted, publicized, and multiplied.” The adaptation of the apple to America was thus the result of a “simultaneous process of natural and cultural selection.”
Here’s something else you probably didn’t know. In the 1700s and 1800s, most apples were grown not for eating but for making hard cider. Johnny Appleseed didn’t just bring fresh fruit to the frontier, he brought the alcoholic drink of choice.
Cider was safer, tastier, and easier to make than corn liquor. You pressed the apples to produce juice, let the juice ferment in a barrel for a few weeks, and presto! you had a mildly alcoholic beverage, about half the strength of wine. For something stronger, the cider could be distilled into brandy or frozen into applejack (about 66 proof). In rural areas, cider took the place not only of wine and beer but also of coffee, juice, even water.
We stopped drinking apples and started eating them in the early 1900s. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union publicized the evils of alcohol, the movement towards Prohibition was gaining momentum, and the apple industry saw the need to re-position the apple. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was an old adage, dating from the late 1800s, that was updated into an advertising slogan, promoted by apple growers fearful that prohibition would cut sales. We can thank prohibition for shifting the image of the apple to the healthy, wholesome, American-as-apple-pie fruit that it is today.
Back to Johnny Appleseed. John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774, the son of Nathaniel Chapman, a farmer and carpenter and later one of the “Minute Men” who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill and elsewhere. His mother died in 1776. His father remarried and the family moved to Longmeadow, Massachusetts, along the Connecticut River. He had a half-sister, but there is no authenticated account of his childhood.
He went west around November 1797 and wintered in western Pennsylvania. In the spring of 1798, he found a spot along a tributary of the Allegheny River, near what is now Warren, Pennsylvania, and planted his first apple nursery.
It was a business, albeit an unusual one. He tried to predict where the pioneers were likely to settle, in the early days mainly along the tributaries of the Muskingum River in north central Ohio. He would get there first with a canoe loaded with apple seeds. He looked for an attractive piece of land, planted apple seeds, and waited. By the time the settlers arrived, he would have two- to three-year old apple trees ready to sell, at five or six cents apiece.
He developed a routine. In the autumn, he returned to his orchards in Allegheny county to gather apple seeds. In the spring, he would scout for sites, plant nurseries and fence them in. In the summer, he would repair fences in nurseries he’d established earlier and find a local agent to tend the trees. He would then be ready to move on and start the whole process over again.
He wasn’t the first to plant orchards in the area, but his scheme of moving with the frontier was unique, as far as we know. Pollan says, “One could describe him as a shrewd real estate developer. It was not a bad little business.”
One consequence of his approach was that he was constantly on the move and had no fixed residence for his entire adult life. In the 1820s he did spend some time with his half-sister and her family, which is about as close as he ever came to settling down.
In addition to the apples, he brought the seeds of medicinal plants. He was generous to people in need, and always ready to lend a hand with chores. He soon became a familiar figure in the region, and a welcomed one.
By 1806, John Chapman had been nicknamed “Johnny Appleseed” and legends about him began to spread locally. We have first-hand accounts left by the many settlers who welcomed him into their cabins. They gave him a meal and a place to sleep in exchange for apples, apple trees, and news including stories of his own exploits, real and fantastic. Myth and reality became hopelessly intertwined. For the settlers, there was enormous entertainment value in having a guest who was literally a legend in his own time.
He must have been a sight. He was of medium height, sinewy and large-boned, with dark hair down to his shoulders and bright blue eyes. He wore a coffee sack with holes for his arms and legs. Tradition has it that he had a tin kettle that served as both hat and cooking pot, but Price says that’s not authenticated. Contrary to Walt Disney’s 1948 cartoon, he carried a woodsman’s usual equipment, including rifle, tomahawk, knife, etc.
Pollan describes an engraving by a woman who knew him: “Scraggly and barefoot, he’s wearing a sackcloth cinched at the waist like a dress and a tin pot on his head. The man looks completely insane.”
Despite his peculiar attire and personal habits, no contemporary described him as repulsive. To the contrary, people were happy to have him as a guest. But the term “eccentric” seems an understatement.
His lifestyle and preferences were completely opposite the norms of frontier life. He was a vegetarian. He preferred to sleep outdoors and avoided towns and settlements. He thought it cruel to ride a horse, chop down a tree, or kill a rattlesnake. The stories go on. The settlers viewed these attitudes as preposterous and outrageous but amusing as hell.
He went barefoot in any weather, even snow and ice. He would entertain boys by pressing hot coals or needles into the soles of his feet, which had grown tough and leathery. He thawed ice using his bare feet.
He was friendly with the Indians, bringing them medicinal plants. In turn, they treated him kindly and helped him on his way. He blamed much frontier violence on mistreatment of the Indians by white settlers.
During the War of 1812, the Indians were allied with the British, partly to avenge themselves for atrocities that the settlers committed against them. Johnny Appleseed raced 30 miles through the forest from Mansfield to Mount Vernon, Ohio, to warn of impending Indian massacres and to obtain reinforcements, saving the lives of many settlers. The earliest account says he went on horseback, which Price says is likely, but running “barefooted and bareheaded” is the more favored tale.
When he stayed with a family, he preached news “right fresh from Heaven,” often the Sermon on the Mount, but many times adding his own ideas based on the writings of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Chapman saw himself as planting not only seeds but the word of God.
Swedenborg’s doctrine is appreciative of humane values. Everything on earth corresponds directly to something in the afterlife, so the natural world and the spiritual (or mystic) world are intimately interwoven. The key to righteous living is to do good without looking for recompense. To study and love nature promotes one’s spiritual growth. An apple tree in bloom is both a natural process and a “living sermon from God.” We might call this nature worship in the guise of Christianity. To understand and preach this theology took intellect. Chapman may have been eccentric, but he was no dummy.
Pollan suggests that this theology helps explain Chapman’s attitude towards nature. “The same landscape his countrymen treated as hostile and heathen, to be conquered, Chapman saw as beneficent. In his eyes, even the lowliest worm glowed with divine purpose.”
In 1817, the Swedenborg Society in Manchester, England, published an account of Chapman’s career, our first printed account of him.
The myth of Johnny Appleseed grew partly from the sense that Chapman’s relationship with nature transcended the man-vs.-nature ethos prevailing in his time. Going barefoot symbolized that. Shoes were part of civilized life, a protective layer between your feet and the earth, for which Chapman had no need: His feet were in touch with another realm, a spiritual realm. In contrast to the typical pioneer, who saw the wilderness as something to be conquered, he was in harmony with nature.
His kindness to animals was well known, even notorious, and often contrary to frontier custom. He often used his profits to purchase lame horses to save them from slaughter. He once freed a wolf he found snared in a trap, nursing it to health and then keeping it as a pet. There is an endless stream of amusing stories about Johnny Appleseed showing mercy to animals such as rattlesnakes or yellow-jackets.
He enjoyed the company of Indians and children. Pollan says, “He moved easily between the societies of the settlers and the Native Americans, even when the two were at war. His ability to freely cross borders that other people believed to be fixed and unbreachable between the red world and the white, between wilderness and civilization, even between this world and the next was one of the hallmarks of his character and probably the thing that most confounded people about the man, both then and now.”
When asked why he had never married, he said that he would “not marry in this world, but have a pure wife in Heaven.” In one account, Chapman went west because a woman stood him up at the altar back in Massachusetts. Another story has Chapman claiming that he would only marry a girl 8 or 10 years old, so that she was a pure and beautiful virgin. In another version, Chapman made an arrangement with a frontier family in 1833 to raise their ten-year-old daughter to be his bride. He paid several visits to the girl, and contributed to her upkeep, until he chanced to witness her flirting with some boys her own age. He abruptly broke off the relationship. We’ll probably never know the truth, but the notion of a child-bride definitely implies a seedy side to his character. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
By the 1830s he was operating a chain of nurseries that reached from western Pennsylvania through central Ohio and into Indiana. He died in Fort Wayne, Indiana in March 1845 at age 70. He showed up on the doorstep of a friend, William Worth, ate his evening meal of bread and milk, read aloud from the Bible, stretched out on the floor to sleep, and didn’t wake up. He left an estate that included some 1,200 acres of prime real estate. Says Pollan, “The barefoot crank died a wealthy man.”
His legend grew after his death. In April 1846, a brief essay about Johnny Appleseed and his peculiar career as a pioneer horticulturalist was published. The author didn’t know that Chapman had died a year earlier and didn’t even know his real name. Other literary publications picked up the tale. In November 1871 a story in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine elevated him to national prominence, and the literary Johnny Appleseed was born. His image evolved from that of a pioneer planter of apple seeds into a “patron saint of horticulture,” a folk hero to this day.
What are we to make of this strange mixture of a man? As I say, he was a paradox, both a frontiersman and a humanitarian. He was deeply religious – sometimes insufferably so – but he drank and took snuff and told jokes. He brought both religion and hard drink to people living in harsh frontier conditions – “two very different kinds of consolation,” says Pollan.
He was an agent of civilization, working to domesticate the wilderness with his apple trees and herbs and religion. At the same time, he shunned civilization and was at home in the wild. He was friendly with the Indians, but he was part of the movement that would destroy their lives and take their lands. Quoting Pollan again:
Imagine how riveting such a figure must have appeared on the American frontier, this gentle wild man who arrived at your door as if straight from the bosom of nature bearing ecstatic news from other worlds and, with his apple trees and cider, promising a measure of sweetness in this one. To a pioneer laboring under the brute facts of frontier life, confronting daily the indifferent face of nature, Johnny Appleseed’s words and seeds offered release from the long sentence of ordinariness, held out a hope of transcendence. I imagine that pioneers struggling to get by in the wilderness regarded Appleseed as a welcome contrast. However straitened your frontier existence might be, you couldn’t gaze on John Chapman without counting your blessings: at least you had leather shoes and a warm hearth, a sociable table and a roof over your head. Your guest’s tales of subsisting one winter on butternuts alone, or sharing a bed of leaves with a wolf, would have warmed the draftiest cabin, deepened the savor of the most meager meal. Sometimes the cause of civilization is best served by a hard stare into the soul of its opposite.
Johnny Appleseed: A Voice in the Wilderness, edited by William E. Jones (2000). A collection of contemporary accounts
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire (2001). Subtitled “A Plant’s-Eye View of the World,” this marvelous book focuses on the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana.
Robert Price, Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth (1967).
SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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