American tall tales cover the exploits and misadventures of colorful characters, from Brer Rabbit to Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and more. Amid the folkloric frenzy is one of the most singular individuals of all, Johnny Appleseed. According to legend, Johnny Appleseed roamed the frontier in rag-tag clothes planting apple orchards.
He wore a cooking pot on his head and walked barefoot. Moving west from Pennsylvania, he carried a leather bag filled with apple seeds, yet brought no knife or gun for protection. Every time he found a suitable spot, he planted a seed. He made plenty of friends along the way, earning praise from notables like William Tecumseh Sherman and (according to legend) Sam Houston.
But is there any truth to this tale of a nurseryman turned trailblazer? Keep reading to find out more about the unlikely, yet mostly true story of John Chapman, apple planter.
Born on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts, John Chapman grew up in a very different nation than we live in today. The American Revolution was still about six months from starting, and the western edge of Pennsylvania was a remote frontier that only the hardiest settlers dared traverse.
Since Chapman’s birth fell 146 years before Prohibition, he grew up in a world where apples did more than keep the doctor away. They fermented into cider, the preferred drink of rural America. So popular was hard cider among the inhabitants of the frontier that the average settler drank 10.52 ounces per day. (Considering your average American drinks 20 ounces of water a day, that was a lot of cider!) In other words, Chapman grew up in a world where cider was as much a part of the dining table as bread or meat.
This fact also means that the apple seeds Chapman carried in his leather satchel—yes, he did carry one—were for trees that produced bitter fruit. The kind perfect for making cider. Not the sweet, shiny red varieties we crunch on today. Chapman’s choice of “spitters” (because that’s what you did after taking a bite) was as much about practicality as it was about a delicious beverage.
A Brief History of Apples
To better understand why Chapman planted “spitters,” it’s essential to know a bit about the history of apple cultivation and how the frontier impacted its evolution. Apples originated in the area known as modern-day Kazakhstan. They owed their rise in popularity, however, to the Romans. In ancient times, the Romans perfected the art of grafting apples to attain the same edible fruit from every tree.
What is grafting, and why did it prove so valuable? Grafting involves taking a section of a stem, with buds, from a particular type of tree, and then inserting it into the stock of another tree. It’s integral to the apple cultivation process because these trees are “extreme heterozygotes.” In other words, when apple seeds get planted, they display random, unpredictable genetic characteristics.
To get the next generation of Fuji apples, for example, breeders must graft Fuji stems onto already-planted trees. The advantages of this method include knowing which type of fruit you’ll get as well as relying on a root base that’s already well-established.
Apples initially came to colonial America as graftings, and they faced unique challenges in the New World. For one, the soil proved less hospitable, and so these newly transplanted apple trees struggled to grow. For another, early American settlers lacked the workforce to care for orchards of grafted trees properly. That’s where Chapman came into the picture.
Developing Hardy American Apple Varieties
By circumventing apple grafting and merely planting seeds, Chapman made it possible for American settlers to establish orchards that didn’t require much upkeep. Sure, the fruit wasn’t consumable raw, but it made for a delicious drink when fermented. In the process, Chapman also sowed the seeds for a new kind of American apple.
In The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s View of the World, Michael Pollan credits Chapman with helping to create the “hardy American apple.” Why? By refraining from grafting, Chapman permitted apple trees to adapt and thrive in their new environment. As Pollan notes, “From Chapman’s vast planting of nameless cider apple seeds came some of the great American cultivars of the 19th century.”
Unfortunately, much of Chapman’s work fell to the Prohibition ax in 1920. That’s when FBI agents mercilessly destroyed apple orchards across the nation to prevent locals from brewing homemade hooch. The beverage is only now beginning to recover in popularity stateside. What’s more, American orchards are still in the process of re-establishing the crop of spitters needed to craft the finest ciders.
There is, however, one remaining 176-year-old tree located in Nova, Ohio. It was planted by Chapman and continues to bear tart green apples perfect for cider making and applesauce.
The Man Behind the Myth
So, how much of the Johnny Appleseed myth is correct apart from the seed planting and the leather satchel? Chapman did wear threadbare clothes and walk barefoot. His choice of headwear, a tin pot, has never been verified, though.
He refused to ride a horse and was a vegetarian because he believed in the Church of Swedenborg (a.k.a. the New Church). According to just about every account out there, Chapman took no precaution against the dangers of the frontier, forsaking the weapons most men and women carried.
Historians also point out that Chapman avoided grafting because he deemed it painful for trees and, therefore, against his religious beliefs. The Church of Swedenborg was based on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. These beliefs included the worship of nature because of a belief that everything on earth corresponded to a spirit in the afterlife.
The Cultivation of a Legend
Chapman also proved a shrewd businessman. He planted trees where he reasoned settlers would next move, thereby laying claim to the land and the crop that would result. Yet, even amid this entrepreneurial activity, there was still a clear religious motivation. Chapman believed the seeds he planted represented the word of God.
When he died in 1845 at the age of 70 years old, Chapman was a wealthy man who boasted an orchard franchise spanning the nation. As early as 1806, he was nicknamed “Johnny Appleseed,” and the name has stuck to this day.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com