The real Johnny Appleseed

Posted by | September 25, 2015

No more important fruit tree graces the homesteads, farms, and backyards of Appalachia than the apple. When early settlers headed west from the eastern seaboard, they took apple seeds because they didn’t weigh too much or take up too much space.

And no figure from American folklore personifies the spread of the apple into the heartland like Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman. Not a great deal is factually known about him, and by now the tall tale spinners have probably entirely obscured the full reality of the man himself. He was a strict vegetarian. He also primarily wore discarded clothing or would barter some apple saplings for used clothes. He walked alone in the wilderness, without gun or knife, slept outdoors, walked barefoot and ate berries. Stories that he wore a cooking pot as a hat, however, seem to have been stitched on at a later date.

John Chapman aka Johnny AppleseedReproduction of an illustration depicting John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, published in A History of the Pioneer and Modern Times of Ashland County From the Earliest to the Present Date by H. S. Knapp, 1863.

One thing is clear: he was as his legend suggests a man who moved around a great deal. Born in Leominster, MA, on September 26, 1774, John became a Christian minister who beginning in 1802 and for 43 years thereafter planted apple orchards from western Pennsylvania, across central Appalachia into Kentucky, and on throughout Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. While doing so, he spread the word of God as a self-appointed missionary for the mystical Swedenborgian church.

Legend says Chapman’s first seed scatterings were culled from the orchards he frequented as a child. It’s said that he gathered canoe-fulls of apple seeds from western Pennsylvania at cider-making time as he headed westward.

It’s easy to forget that Chapman, painted as a romantic mystic, was a level-headed, if eccentric, orchard businessman. For example, he owned more than 1074 acres of land in fifteen different tracts in Ohio. He sold his seedlings for three cents each, or planted an orchard for six cents a tree, earning about three dollars a day (compared to laborers in Philadelphia who earned about a dollar a day.) One of Johnny Appleseed’s authenticated varieties, the Albemarle Pippin (also known as the Newtown Pippin) is today one of the premier mountain varieties.

There are no records to indicate John Chapman had a wife or children, but according to the Johnny Appleseed Education Center & Museum in Urbana, OH Chapman had a sister and a brother. His brother died in infancy and mother soon after. Chapman’s father remarried and had an additional family, thus giving Chapman ten half brothers and sisters. Visits to them help document his whereabouts at various points in his life.

We know, for example, that in 1816, while visiting family members in Center Township, OH he planted at least one orchard in Bristol Township for a Mr. Fuller.

Chapman’s last Ohio visit, in 1842, included a trip to Moscow Mills in Center Township in Morgan County to see his brothers Nathaniel and Parley and sister Sally Whitney, who lived there. In March 1845, Johnny Appleseed passed away at age 70 in Fort Wayne, IN.


2 Responses

  • chris says:

    I enjoyed the story of Johnny appleseed. I must, however, call attention to an error contained therein. The Newtown Pippin, aka Albemarle Pippin was not a variety originated by mr. appleseed. Originating on Long Island, NY around 1700, it was in commercial cultivation in North Garden, Albemarle Couny,Virginia before Mr, Appleseed was born. I hope this helps to stop the further dissemination of misinformation on the internet.

    Chris Johnson

  • Doug says:

    I have always heard that apple varieties are a freak of genetics, and that even if you get a seed from a tree that produces great apples, the resulting apple may not be anything like it. I think most orchards are made of grafts, which is essentially cloning trees. I have seen apple trees that produce many different types of apples due to grafting.

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