Johnny Appleseed. The very name conjures up images of luscious, rosy red apples. But then there’s the legendary character himself: a stalwart pioneer with a bag of apple seed in one hand and a holy Bible in the other, a key figure in America’s national mythology. But Johnny Appleseed was more than a legend; he was a real historical figure called John Chapman. This guy led quite the life, but his actual story has some startling differences from the folk tales.
How has John Chapman — in the form of Johnny Appleseed — become such an iconic figure in America’s national story? Well, the mythologizing about Chapman started as early as 1871, just 26 years after his death.
In 1871 William D’Arcy Haley, who was a preacher and journalist, wrote a highly influential piece about Chapman’s life for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.
Haley is credited with first revealing Johnny Appleseed, based on the real-life John Chapman, to a wider public. He believed that Chapman epitomized “the values of piety, frugality, and charity.”
Another who feted Chapman was Rosella Rice, who’d met the man himself when she was a child. It seems Haley and Rice spurred each other on in creating the legend of Johnny Appleseed.
In his scholarly work of 2012 published in the Antioch Review, William Kerrigan described how Haley and Rice worked together to boost the tale of Johnny Appleseed. Kerrigan wrote that Haley and Rice created “a kind of magical Santa Claus responsible for almost all the apple trees planted across Ohio.”
Haley and Rice’s Appleseed was a “benign symbol to use to celebrate the process of American empire-building.”
After Haley and Rice, various writers composed poems memorializing Johnny Appleseed, while others wrote songs about him. But perhaps one of the most powerful engines of the Johnny Appleseed myth came from the studios of Walt Disney in 1948.
That year Disney launched a 76-minute animated film called Melody Time, which came in seven parts. One of those was dedicated to Johnny Appleseed.
As the Britannica website puts it, “The Disney version emphasized [Johnny Appleseed’s] Christian faith, depicting him as striking out into the wilderness armed only with his Bible and a bag of apple seeds. The cartoon avoided mentioning that Chapman was a Swedenborgian and not a follower of a mainstream Christian denomination.”
In fact, Chapman’s non-conformist religious beliefs are far from the only thing the Disney film glosses over.
The animated version of Appleseed’s life is jolly enough, but it tells us little about the truth of John Chapman’s actual history. So, let’s delve back into the actual biography of the man.
Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in September 1774. It’s reported that his ancestor, Edward Chapman, had arrived in Boston from the English county of Yorkshire sometime in the 1640s.
John was the second child to Elizabeth and Nathaniel, a carpenter and farmer who fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. Although the family wasn’t wealthy, neither was it living in the depths of poverty.
But tragedy struck the Chapmans when Elizabeth died in July 1776, just weeks after giving birth to her third child who died prematurely.
After his mother’s death, verifiable facts about Chapman’s life are almost non-existent for a period of years. We know his father Nathaniel went on to remarry one Lucy Cooley of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and the couple had ten children.
We simply don’t know whether John and his sister went to live with Nathaniel’s new family.
According to the Indiana State website, as a youngster Chapman would have seen the flow of pioneers heading west. That great population movement really got under way after the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 formally declared that settlers could stake claims in the Northwest Territory.
This vast tract of land encompassed the modern states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. There’s a little bit of Minnesota in there as well. Witnessing this great migration, Chapman decided to join it.
Chapman left home in 1792 to start his travels, taking with him his half-brother Nathaniel, who was just 11 at the time. Chapman himself would have been no more than 17 or 18.
The two made their way through New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, before finally meeting up with their father in western Pennsylvania. At this point, Chapman struck out on his own and would remain a solitary type for most of his life.
Chapman’s story reemerges in more concrete form in the final years of the 18th century, when he’s recorded as being in the far western part of what was the Northwest Territory and is now modern-day Pennsylvania. That means he was right at the edge of the expansion of settlers moving west through America.
In fact, according to Britannica, he planted his first apple trees in about 1798 in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Valley.
Illustrating how facts about Chapman’s life are hard to pin down, William Haley’s 1872 piece for Harper’s gives a different account of where Johnny Appleseed originally planted apple trees.
By Haley’s account, “The first reliable trace of our modest hero finds him in the Territory of Ohio, in 1801, with a horse-load of apple seeds, which he planted in various places on and about the borders of Licking Creek, the first orchard thus originated by him being on the farm of Isaac Staddden.”
Haley says that Chapman was 26 years old when he arrived at Licking Creek. Intriguingly Haley hints at some dark motivation that drove Chapman to become Johnny Appleseed.
He wrote that, “Whether impelled in his eccentricities by some absolute misery of the heart which could only find relief in incessant motion, or governed by a benevolent monomania, his whole after-life was devoted to the work of planting apple seeds in remote places.”
We’re left to speculate as to what that “absolute misery of the heart” might have been caused by, not to mention why it drove him to planting apple trees across the Northwestern Territory. But we have a clearer idea of how Chapman operated thanks to Haley.
He wrote that once Appleseed had used the stock of seeds he carried with him, he’d travel back to Pennsylvania to replenish his supply.
Chapman transported his seeds in leather bags, sometimes using pack horses and on occasion simply hauling his seeds on his back. He used established Native American trails to travel lengthy distances across the western frontier.
As he hiked across largely uncultivated territory, Johnny Appleseed seemed to have a sure instinct about where to establish his orchards.
The Indiana State website notes, “Always with an eye on future markets, he scouted out areas that were prime settlement places along major travel routes. By the time families were ready to settle the area, Johnny’s tracts of land, with apple trees already planted, were ready for sale.
Seldom did he make a poor choice, and it is uncanny how many towns have risen on or near his nursery sites.”
The Indiana website goes on, “Johnny Appleseed was no mere dreamy wanderer. Records reveal him to be a careful, organized, strategic businessman who, over a period of several decades, bought and sold many dozen tracts of land in advance of the frontier expansion.
He created apple orchards in the wildernesses of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana, spanning an estimated area of 100,000 square miles.”
Haley tells us that after Chapman had planted his first orchard in Licking Creek, the next dependable sighting of the man came after a five-year gap in 1806. That was “when a pioneer settler in Jefferson County, Ohio, noticed a peculiar craft, with a remarkable occupant and a curious cargo, slowly dropping down with the current of the Ohio River.”
The man steering the strange vessel was indeed Johnny Appleseed himself.
Haley wrote, “With two canoes lashed together [Chapman] was transporting a load of apple seeds to the Western frontier, for the purpose of creating orchards on the farthest verge of white settlements...
"...his canoe voyage in 1806 appears to have been the only occasion upon which he adopted that method of transporting them, as all his subsequent journeys were made on foot.”
So we have a picture of this Johnny Appleseed wandering the newly settled western lands of America, or on the cusp of being claimed by pioneers. But what of the man’s physical appearance?
Haley wrote, “Chapman was 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.”
But what really set Chapman apart from the average frontiersman of the day was his outfit.
Haley related, “Generally, even in the coldest weather, he went barefooted, but sometimes, for his long journeys, he would make himself a rude pair of sandals; at other times he would wear any cast-off foot-covering he chanced to find — a boot on one foot and an old brogan or a moccasin on the other.”
The rest of Chapman’s garb was scarcely less eccentric — his appearance must surely have caused a sensation wherever he appeared. “His dress was generally composed of cast-off clothing,” wrote Haley.
“His principal garment was made of a coffee sack, in which he cut holes for his head and arms to pass through, and pronounced it ‘a very serviceable cloak, and as good clothing as any man need wear.’”
When it came to headwear, Johnny Appleseed maintained his highly unconventional dress sense. His hat was a tin pot, the same one he used for cooking, with a large visor he’d made himself from card.
It’s perhaps little wonder that, as he wandered the frontier territories, he was a figure that was remembered by those who met him with his sacks of apple seeds. And so the Johnny Appleseed nickname was born.
So Chapman traveled across the western frontier territories establishing apple orchards as he went. But his nomadic existence — he had no permanent home — and his habit of planting apple seeds was far from random.
The truth was that Chapman was pursuing a highly shrewd business plan. His planting of apple orchards may have seemed a benevolent act, but it also made sound commercial sense.
When Chapman was planting his apple orchards along the advancing western frontier, many speculators were taking up tracts of land in the Northwest Territory with a view to selling them on at profit to new settlers.
One company that controlled large amounts of land was the Ohio Company of Associates, which offered an attractive deal to those who wanted to start a new life on the westward-moving frontier.
Under the deal offered by the Ohio Company, any settler who planned to start a new farmstead was given 100 acres of land. There was an important condition — the newcomers had to prove they intended to establish a permanent settlement.
To show their intent, they had to plant 50 apple trees and 30 peach trees within three years of taking possession of their 100 acres.
Johnny Appleseed was laying the ground to increase the value of the land he’d obtained. By establishing orchards, he made the land highly attractive to new settlers as he’d already done some of the hard work for them by planting trees.
As he sold off land he’d planted with trees, he’d use the proceeds to buy more land located ahead of the settlers’ march westwards.
Chapman wasn’t entirely motivated by commercial concerns, for he also had a powerful religious motivation — his membership of the Swedenborgian Church. It had been founded by Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish national, “who wrote voluminously in interpreting the Scriptures as the immediate word of God,” as Britannica puts it.
Chapman was a firm believer in the theology that Swedenborg had written about in his works.
Being a devoted Swedenborgian, as Chapman was, had a profound effect on his daily life and habits. He was vehemently opposed to the killing of animals on any grounds and so was a dedicated vegetarian.
He believed that waste was a cardinal sin. Haley even records that he ate crusts of bread from a slop bucket whose contents were intended for pigs.
Chapman also believed he was visited by angels with whom he often conversed. Two female angels had even told him that they would be his brides in the afterlife as long as he didn’t marry during his mortal existence.
His religious beliefs are certainly strange to a modern ear, but his faith was very far from the mainstream of his own era.
Despite his eccentricities, Chapman seems to have been welcomed wherever he appeared. Even the fact he often preached to his hosts did not seem to put them off.
But despite Chapman’s clearly sincere — if somewhat offbeat — Christianity, there was one aspect of his promotion of apples that was perhaps less than holy. You might even describe it as sinful, if you were of a prohibitionist bent.
The purpose of Chapman’s orchard creation was not to produce sweet, shiny red fruit for eating. The trees that Johnny Appleseed planted were suited for a very different purpose.
They were grown to produce hard cider. So, in a way, despite his devout religious beliefs, looked at from one angle, Chapman was actually in the liquor business.
Hard cider was widely consumed in the America of the early 19th century, but American pioneers were hardly the first people to drink alcoholic apple juice. The Washington State University’s website tells us that, “The first recorded references to cider date back to Roman times; in 55 B.C.
Julius Caesar found the Celtic Britons fermenting cider from native crabapples.”
The British still have a strong culture of cider-making and drinking today, especially in the south-west of England. It may well have been settlers from England that brought cider-making skills with them when they came to America.
As the piece from Washington State University has pointed out, “In Colonial America, cider was the most common beverage, and even children drank it in a diluted form.”
The Washing State piece continued, “In many places, the water was not safe to drink and most homesteads had an apple orchard,” Washington State continues. And it goes on to tell us that cider was useful for other purposes such as preserving fruit and making vinegar.
In some cases it was even used to pay wages or even taxes. So cider was a central part of the frontier experience and Johnny Appleseed’s trees were a highly valued resource.
Writing in Smithsonian magazine in 2014, Natasha Geiling confirmed that Johnny Appleseed’s apples “were completely distinct from the apples available at any modern grocery store or farmers’ market, and they weren’t primarily used for eating — they were used to make America’s beverage-of-choice at the time, hard apple cider.”
The article also quotes author Michael Pollan’s writing about apples and hard cider.
According to Pollan, whose book The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World was published in 2003, “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.”
Although hard cider is much less popular in modern America, that’s not to say Johnny Appleseed’s fruit heritage has been lost altogether. In fact, many of the apples we enjoy eating today owe their origins to the orchards that Chapman planted.
Examples include the popular golden delicious apple and others you’ll find in the grocery store.
Like most enduring myths, the tale of Johnny Appleseed certainly has a factual basis in the shape of the real-life John Chapman. But there’s much more to the man’s story than the Disneyfied version would have us believe.
As well as a prolific planter of orchards, John Chapman was a shrewd businessman, a religious eccentric, and a grower of fruit that was largely used to make hard liquor.