Johnny Appleseed Was a Real Person
Today I found out Johnny Appleseed was a real person. His real name was John Chapman and his real story is actually nearly as interesting as the legends that have since developed.
John Chapman made a quite successful business out of traveling around and planting apple orchards wherever he thought pioneers were going to settle in-mass a few years after he planted an rchard. He’d find a new area that was largely unpopulated; buy up land for cheap; then establish an orchard. Once he established the orchard (including fencing it in and the like), he’d travel on to a new area and do the same. Over the course of the year, he’d then travel around visiting each of his orchards and maintaining them as needed, as well as gathering seeds to plant new orchards.
His overhead was cheap, because he’d get the seeds for free from his orchards. He also typically ate for free most of the time, living off the land as he traveled, as well as being invited into people’s homes and fed there. People loved to invite travelers into their homes at this time to hear news of what was going on in the world and get a little entertainment that way, in exchange for a meal and a bed to sleep in and maybe some apple-seeds or apples, in the case of Chapman. Particularly as his fame grew, he was a popular house guest to have.
Once the apple trees were a few years old, he’d then sell shares of the trees for about 6 cents each or often for bartered goods, if the people had nothing else to pay with. He also was pretty lax on collecting as he didn’t believe in forcing people to pay if they couldn’t and trusted that if they could pay at some point, they would come to him and pay. He planted numerous apple orchards across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, some of which still exist today, though none of the trees he actually planted are still on them.
Now you might be wondering how some guy who just went around planting apple orchards could become so popular historically? Basically, he was just the right combination of crazy combined with a good amount of generosity and a heart of gold. Given that he traveled around pretty much his whole life, he also became well known by a large number of people and his legend grew from there. In fact, he was a legend even in his own time. By 1806, people already popularly knew him as “Johnny Appleseed” and his fame grew over the next forty years as he continued to travel and plant new orchards.
So in what way did he seem crazy? Well, for one, he actually really did wear a pot for a hat. On top of this eccentric head gear, he generally could be found wearing a burlap sack for his clothing and never wore any shoes, even in the winter. As one woman who knew him stated: “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.”
This got him noticed pretty quickly as he traveled about and he was pretty easily recognizable for people who’d heard stories of him. The people of his time also thought him crazy for being a vegetarian, which was pretty much sacrilegious among the frontiersmen he was around in the various towns where he established his orchards. Not only that, he was extremely kind to all animals, even mosquitoes. He famously stopped making fires in places where mosquitoes might accidentally fly into the fire because he didn’t feel his being warm justified the accidental killing of any living thing. He also refused to ride a horse, despite spending his life traveling. Indeed, he frequently purchased horses that were to be put down and set them free, rather than let them be killed when he had the power to stop it. He also thought it was cruel to kill trees or harm any animal, even unintentionally. On top of that, he also cared deeply for Native Americans and frequently befriended them, something also thought somewhat off by many Americans of his time. All in all, people generally found him very interesting and amusing, so were happy to invite him into their homes.
Chapman chose this life for himself because he viewed himself as a missionary for God. Specifically, he was a member of the pacifist sect, the Church of New Jerusalem (also known as Swedenborgian Church or the New Church), which was a religion derived from a combination of the writings of Edward Swedenborg and the Bible. The particular brand of that religion he preached was very close to nature-worship. As he traveled around, he’d spread his gospel to the people he met, as best he could, and otherwise tried to live a life free from harming any creature and always doing what he viewed was the will of God.
It should be noted that the apples from Chapman’s apple trees were not suitable for eating. He refused to graft from other apple trees that did produce apples suitable for direct consumption because he felt it was against his religion, being an unnatural way to reproduce apple trees. Instead, he planted seeds directly. It turns out, you will almost never get a palatable apple from an apple tree planted from a seed, even if the apple that the seed came from was great tasting. That’s OK though, because in his time, the vast majority of apples weren’t used for eating. They were used for drinking.
Apple Cider was generally preferred over many other types of liquor because it was really easy and safe to make. Simply press a bunch of apples until you’ve got all the juice out. Then let the juice sit in containers for a few weeks until it’s properly fermented. If that wasn’t strong enough for you, you could distill it and make brandy or applejack (the latter which is 66 proof).
So, as you might guess, the pioneers loved John Chapman, not just because he was entertaining in an eccentric sort of way and brought them news of what was going on in the world, but because he provided liquor.
Chapman’s obituary appeared in the Fort Wayne Sentinel on March 22, 1845. He is estimated to have been around 70 years old upon his death:
“On the same day in this neighborhood, at an advanced age, Mr. John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed).The deceased was well known through this region by his eccentricity, and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman, and has been a regular visitor here upwards of 10 years. He was a native of Pennsylvania we understand but his home—if home he had—for some years past was in the neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, where he has relatives living. He is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself almost the common necessities of life—not so much perhaps for avarice as from his peculiar notions on religious subjects. He was a follower of Swedenborg and devoutly believed that the more he endured in this world the less he would have to suffer and the greater would be his happiness hereafter—he submitted to every privation with cheerfulness and content, believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter.
In the most inclement weather he might be seen barefooted and almost naked except when he chanced to pick up articles of old clothing. Notwithstanding the privations and exposure he endured, he lived to an extreme old age, not less than 80 years at the time of his death—though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was 60. “He always carried with him some work on the doctrines of Swedenborg with which he was perfectly familiar, and would readily converse and argue on his tenets, using much shrewdness and penetration.
His death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.”
- Apple trees were brought to America by European settlers. The trees adapted remarkably fast to American soils and climate. Trees that couldn’t survive in the new soils and climate, died quickly. Of the remaining trees, farmers grafted those that showed some desirable quality, such as hardiness to cold or from producing a better tasting apple than most apples, which were mostly inedible. They also imported honey bees to help pollinate the trees to produce better fruit. Eventually, the farmers had produced apple trees that produced apples that were good for eating. These were quickly multiplied through grafting, giving us the tasty apples we enjoy today.
- It wasn’t until around the early 1900s, thanks to groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, that people popularly stopped using apples for drink and decided they should eat them. At this time, the WCTU was campaigning against the evils of alcohol (mainly tired of all the drunken men going around abusing them and their children; many people at this time drank water only when absolutely necessary 😉 When alcohol started becoming unpopular in America at this time, apple farmers switched their tact and began promoting the apple as a food item for keeping healthy: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
- Despite giving away most of what he earned and not really keeping track of the deeds for his land, when Chapman died, he had accumulated over 1200 documented acres of apple orchards on prime real estate (it’s estimated he actually owned a lot more than that, but failed to keep records of the deeds). He left the 1200 acres to his sister. Unfortunately, because apple prices plummeted shortly after his death, making it difficult for her to pay the taxes on the land, and subsequent litigation, partially due to his lax record keeping, she lost most of that land.
- Chapman didn’t wear the pot on his head as a fashion statement. It was just a convenient way to carry his food pot, while simultaneously keeping the weather of his head.
- The Swedenborg Church was founded by Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18the century. Swedenborg claimed he received heavenly visions from God over the span of 25 years. He then told that the lord would establish a New Church through him and his writings, which were a sort of key to the scriptures. This was very similar to Joseph Smith around 70 years later, founding the Mormon religion through a supposed new revelation from God. Also, similar to Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the scriptures” that came along about a hundred years after “The New Church” and was the founding of the Christian Science religion, which still endures today, like many other such new religions of the day based on Christianity, with each one tending to have the common thread of God revealing some new way to interpret his scriptures to some individual. God was really busy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in America apparently… 😉
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Bonus Bonus Factoid:
Johnny Appleseed’s grave is located next to the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and Exposition Center in Fort Wayne, IN.
He seemed like a great man. I would have loved to meet him.
Yes he was, in fact he was my seventh great uncle on my mother’s side.