Most kids growing up in the U.S. have heard of Johnny Appleseed. He's the subject of museums and storybooks. Like Paul Bunyan, he's a larger-than-life American myth, an outdoorsy, folksy wonder. Unlike Bunyan and his big blue ox, the shoeless hero bringing fruit to the frontier is actually based on a real person. A real, weird person who would probably freak out if he knew how his image has been Disneyfied over the years.
"Johnny Appleseed" is the nickname for John (Jonathan) Chapman, a man who really did live a (semi) nomadic existence spreading apple seeds through various American states during the late 1700s and early 1800s. But he was doing it for profit, not because he was the human incarnation of John Lennon's "Imagine."
Chapman wasn't strolling around beatifically tossing apple seeds in the forest. There's no evidence he actually wore a tin pot for a hat. He planted nurseries, not random trees, and he fenced them off. He wasn't a gentle hobo; while Chapman tended to give seeds away and be lenient about collecting debts, he did sell his nurseries. And he wasn't traversing 100,000 square miles to give children the opportunity to bite into a perfectly round red fruit. He was planting apples primarily to be turned into hard cider. He was helping frontiersmen get all messed up (and keeping them safe, since fermented cider was safer to drink than water in many places).
"Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. That's why he was so popular. That's why he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio. He was the American Dionysus. He was the guy bringing the booze," Author Michael Pollan told NPR.
Pollan dug into Chapman's life story in his book The Botany of Desire, examining Chapman's insistence on planting ungrafted apple trees. The current protocol for harvesting apples involves grafting, a horticultural process where a stem with leaf buds is attached to a stalk of a different tree. This is because the seeds from an apple do not make the same sort of apple when they turn into a tree. Whoever plants them needs to graft the buds in order to replicate the flavor, shape, and size of the original apple. It's how the apples we buy at the grocery store are made, and it's the only way to guarantee a sweet, edible fruit.
Sounds like grafting would be right up Johnny Appleseed's alley. But John Chapman fucking hated grafting. He didn't want to make pretty, uniform orchards of delicious fruits for snacking. As a member of the Swedenborgian Church, he considered them unnatural and called the method "wicked."
He planted gnarly, sour apples perfect for turning into potent alcohol and was savvy about scouting locations where he thought settlers would want to buy his orchards and nurseries in the future.
There is still a lot we don't know about Chapman. Rumors of a child bride have persisted, though there's no hard evidence that Chapman had any bride at all. By most accounts he remained a bachelor. Even though he had no offspring, he does have living relatives. I found out when I was a kid that we're distant relatives of Chapman through his brother—something my family will definitely tell you about if you stumble upon our Thanksgiving parties, especially after a few glasses of hard apple cider. The news that he was a) a real person and b) facilitated old-timey partying has brought immense joy to my heart.
Chapman died at age 70 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1845. By that time, his tree planting abilities had already turned him into a living legend. Years later, the stories about him planting trees and dressing like an especially devout Phish fan have endured, but his insistence on planning apples meant for alcohol, and the fact that he died a relatively wealthy man, have been erased from the myth.
Image via Wikimedia Commons