There is an American legend that a person known as Johnny Appleseed wandered around the countryside with a bag of apple seeds slung over his shoulder, scattering them all over the land at random as he walked. Most of us first discovered this tale as young children, as it is recounted in hundreds of children’s books. It is often said that he came from Massachusetts, and scattered seeds all the way to California. Was there such a man? And, did he really spread seeds all over the United States in this fashion?
There was a real man which the legend of Johnny Appleseed was based on. His name was John Chapman. However, his life, as most of us learned of it, is mostly myth. This myth has it that he was a devout Massachusetts man who decided quite early in life that he would make it his mission to explore the country and bring the sweet goodness of the apple to all parts of the U.S.
He is said to have wandered around in hand-me-down clothes and no shoes, living off the land and often traveling with pioneers or even joining with Native Americans. He was so devoted to his mission, he deprived himself of human comforts and hardly ever asked for anything in return for the trees he planted. He took a sack of seeds wherever he traveled, and planted seeds so that all the folks could have apples. Everyone loved him and everyone trusted him. He was, basically, the salt of the earth: An American saint. Unlike the other legendary frontiersmen that are known as symbols of the American expansion into the West, such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, he is known for his generosity and gentleness, instead of for fierceness and violence. His legend comes from a different era than these others.
All this is myth. It is true that John Chapman was born in Massachusetts. In Leominster, to be exact, on September 26, 1774. In reality, he never made it as far as California, Oregon, Kansas, and Arkansas, where he was variously reported to have been seen. Little is known of his early life, but rather than wandering aimlessly around the country sewing apple seeds, he actually developed Apple nurseries, which he cultivated. Beginning sometime in 1797, he developed a nursery along a tributary of the Allegheny river in northwestern Pennsylvania. For several more years after that, he remained in Pennsylvania finding new lands to stake claims for, so that he could plant more trees to sell to settlers as they came.
Eventually, around 1800, or perhaps a bit earlier, he moved to what was then still part of the territory, but what was to become the state of Ohio. Contrary to his myth, he remained in Ohio for the remainder of his life, although he certainly may have traveled on many occasions. He certainly was a wanderer, as nobody could be sure where he was at any one point in time. He moved about along the Ohio river and other waters, carrying seeds or rotten apples (to get seeds from) and established many nurseries in various places, as far as Indiana. Contrary to the myth, however, he did not plant the trees out of some altruistic mission of goodwill. It was his livelihood. He was actually establishing his nurseries along routes that he thought would be the next to be used by new waves of settlers. He was trying to get there first, and establish stocks of trees, so that he could sell them to settlers as they came into the new territories. He would, of course, travel along established routes rather than continuously looking for new lands, so that he could come back to and tend to orchards he had already established.
When settlers arrived in the areas where Johnny Chapman had established nurseries, they did indeed find his apple tree saplings ready for convenient transplant onto their own land claims. Anyone who moved into the central Ohio wilderness was likely to come across small clearings that Chapman had established for his trees, in otherwise thickly wooded areas.
He is said to have had a great knack for knowing which areas would be settled next. As you can guess, he was a strange sort of fellow, and he did spend almost all of his time traveling in the outdoors, so he probably had a remarkable and weather-beaten appearance. So, when people encountered this man who spent his life alone in travel, they remarked on his appearance and clothing, which they found strange. Out of these encounters grew tall-tales of the man, who eventually came to be known as Johnny Appleseed. Even though he never actually made it past Indiana, according to most sources, people on the West coast claimed to have seen him sewing his seeds.
The “pioneer hero” myths that grew up around John Chapman are not a recent invention. Such tales reached national audiences quite early on, as the illustration above shows, which was part of an 1871 article in Harper’s Monthly Magazine entitled Johnny Appleseed – A Pioneer Hero. This particular article drew several rebuttals which denied the authenticity of these stories. County histories from the Ohio area were also a source of tales of John Chapman’s alleged adventures, as well as many other magazines, from the late 1800’s on into the twentieth century. The evolution of the Johnny Appleseed myth has often been referred to as hagiography. Hagriography actually refers to biographies of saints, but in this case is a pejorative reference concerning the historians who wrote about John Chapman with an biased sense of reverence and wonder, which practically gave the man the appearance of saintliness, and which has carried forth until this day.
To learn much more about the history of the apple in America, listen to food historian Sarah Wassberg’s History Bites podcast, episode 2: Apples in America, by visiting her site or listening below.