Apple Trees for the Frontier The Story of Johnny Appleseed

By Rita Lynn

          Many of us grew up hearing the story of Johnny Appleseed – how he roamed the countryside barefoot, wearing tattered, cast-off clothing and a dinner pot for a hat, scattering apple seeds from his leather sack as he went.  We heard that this wiry, eccentric man befriended a wolf, slept in a hollow log and was accepted by all he met.  The legend grew as legends do, partly from this man’s own love of spinning tall tales about his adventures.  Recently, a friend asked just how it was possible for these seeds to grow into productive trees, when the apple trees we grow these days have been grafted onto other rootstock.  And what kind of apples was he planting?  Bees and other pollinators see to it that apples grown from seed rarely produce the same kind of apple as the parent, and, indeed, tend to produce apples of low quality.

In truth, the real Johnny Appleseed was a somewhat different but equally fascinating character.  He was born John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774, the son of a Revolutionary War militiaman and hero.  John apprenticed at a local orchard as a youth and, in his late teens or early twenties, set off westward.  He did, in fact, wear simple clothing, and he did also prefer to walk barefoot, even in winter.  Befriending animals, Native Americans and others he encountered seems, too, to be fact.   Throughout his travels, he stayed with families or bedded down outdoors overnight.  He was a very religious man, spreading the pacifist teachings of the Church of New Jerusalem along with his apple seedlings.  Opposed to any practice that involved harming or killing any other living thing, he is said to have been one of the earliest vegetarians in a time when hunting game was the way people put food on their tables.  Incidentally, Chapman also knew and grew a variety of medicinal herbs and offered the herbs and his knowledge of their uses as he traveled.

Contrary to the image of his tramping through the wilderness randomly scattering apple seeds, he was actually quite an entrepreneur.  Apples were an essential commodity for living in those days, and many land contracts required that settlers establish orchards on their new homesteads.  This created a steady market for apple seedlings, and John Chapman stepped in to meet the need.

After taking discarded apple seeds from cider mills, he grew his first apple seedlings on land he acquired in Pennsylvania.  From there, he gradually moved westward, scouting out land in areas he thought likely to be settled by pioneers.  All the while, he carried his supply of free apple seeds and established his apple seedling nurseries.  By keeping himself ahead of the flow of settlers, he was able to have seedlings available when the newcomers had cleared their land and were ready to plant their orchards.  He sold the seedlings to the settlers for a small amount of money, he bartered for other goods, or he gave them to people unable to pay.

As to growing apples from seed, a few facts shed light on the rationale for this practice.  The only kind of apple native to North America is the crabapple.   You can imagine that it would have been nearly impossible for immigrants to bring grafted trees or even seedlings in their belongings when they came to the new country.  It would also have been difficult for pioneers to carry this type of material when they moved westward into the new territories.  Both these groups of settlers had to make do with the bags of seeds they were able to stow.  Although grafting was being done, it was not common practice until the 1800’s.  Prior to that, growers thought that such trees would be weak and decline in vigor.  Furthermore, apples grafted on rootstock imported from Europe did not thrive in the North American climate.  Chapman himself believed that cutting a scion from a tree damaged that part of the tree, a procedure that ran contrary to his unwillingness to harm any living being.  He believed that good apples could and should be grown from good seed planted in good soil.

In these early times, high quality in apples was most likely not a priority.  Settlers might have eaten some apples out of hand, and they used some for desserts and apple butter.  Most apples, however, were needed for feeding livestock, making vinegar, and producing hard cider.  They used the vinegar to preserve their foods, as a condiment, for cleaning and for a variety of other purposes.  Hard cider, although mildly alcoholic, was the drink of choice for the entire family.  It is said that a person might consume as much as a gallon of cider a day and was consequently in great demand.  For these utilitarian purposes, any apple would do.

Thus, by providing an endless supply of apple seedlings, John Chapman was able to make a living for many years.  He continued to move further into new territories, using wilderness land or land offered by others, building crude fences around his nurseries to keep out foraging livestock and wildlife, and returning to his various plots from time to time to tend and harvest the seedlings. Later, he actually bought several pieces of property in Ohio and as far west as Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he again established nurseries.  As an example of the scope of his enterprise, his nursery near Fort Wayne encompassed forty-two acres and accommodated fifteen thousand trees.  By this time, although still healthy and vigorous, he was in his late sixties – a very old age in those days.  He sustained his simple, individualistic lifestyle until the age of seventy-one, when he died of pneumonia at the home of friends in Indiana.  An inventory of his possessions indicated that he left “an old mare, thousands of apple seedlings, and five pieces of property.”  (Worth book, listed below)  Noted in another source (Brooklyn Botanic Garden article), his property amounted to 1200 acres.

Much more information is available for those who have an interest in this amazing man, or in the history of apple growing in the United States – a topic for another article!

Sources and Resources

Johnny Appleseed: Select Good Seeds and Plant Them in Good Ground, by Richard Worth, Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2010  (Note: this is a juvenile book but with good documentation)

“A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America,” (Brooklyn Botanic Garden),www.bbg.org/gardening/article/the_apple_in_north_america

“The Story of Johnny Appleseed – Legend vs. Fact,”www.bestapples.com/kids/teachers/johnny.shtml

“Apple Cider Vinegar History in early America,” www.apple-cider-vinegar-benefits.com/apple-cider-vinegar-history.html

“Who Was Johnny Appleseed?”http://cleveland.about.com/od/peopleandpets/p/johnnyappleseed.htm

Also available from the Waterloo library but not used for this article:

Johnny Appleseed: The Man, The Myth, The American Story, by Howard B. Means, Simon & Schuster, 2011

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