The Real Life Of The Legend: Johnny Appleseed

By Grace Taylor

A United States postage stamp depicting American apple tree planter John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed (1774- 1845) in front of a large red apple, released in 1966. (Photo by Blank Archives/Getty Images)

You may remember from grade school a tale about a tall, skinny, barefoot fellow wearing a burlap sack shirt and a pot for a hat who roamed through the plains of the American West, greeting strangers and planting apple trees wherever he went. Johnny Appleseed, as he is known, stands in many minds as an old American myth, but unlike fellow folk heroes Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, Johnny was actually real!

John Chapman was born on September 6, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts and got a job as an apprentice at an apple orchard when he was only 18 years old. He didn't get down to serious arboreal business, however, until the Ohio Company of Associates, who'd bought up quite a bit of the Ohio Territory during the 1790s, got tired of waiting for settlers to brave the frontier and began offering a homestead of 100 acres to anyone who could prove the land was fertile. Specifically, if you planted at least 50 apple trees in a location, that location was yours for the foreseeable future.

Johnny Appleseed, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1871. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Seeing a golden (delicious) opportunity, Johnny struck out on his own and, using his knowledge from his days at the orchard to find suitable soil, quickly began plunking down apple seeds all across what is today Pennsylvania and Illinois. He grew the apple nurseries just enough to legitimize them before selling his claimed parcel of land to whatever settler showed up looking for a place to call their own. A savvy businessman, indeed.

If you're thinking, "Wow, they really loved apples back then," it should be noted that most of the apples planted on these mini orchards were poor quality and less fit for eating than for drinking. Applejacks and apple cider were extremely popular drinks at the time, and it seems Johnny himself enjoyed a drink or five. While more or less considered harmless, he was known to live his life in "an alcoholic haze," and despite the wealth he undoubtedly made from his land deals, he lived an extremely minimalist and nomadic life with very few belongings (that pot he wore on his head was what he used for cooking, and it doubled as a safe place to store his few religious books). In fact, Johnny often relied on the kindness of frontier folk for meals and shelter as he traveled from region to region.

Some people viewed Johnny as nothing more than a bum who would "eat and eat until [you] kicked him out," and even those who found him charming often asked him to sleep in the barn due to his perpetual lice situation, but the children adored the strange man who seemed to always have a fresh silk ribbon bow for the girls and often entertained the kids by showing off how calloused his feet had become from his treks by either sticking them with needles or walking over hot coals.

A variety called the "Johnny Appleseed" is similar to these Albemarle Pippins, good for baking and applesauce. (Leslie Seaton/Wikimedia Commons)

More than anything, Johnny was an animal lover who, despite sleeping many nights unprotected under the stars in the wilderness, vowed he would never kill an animal, not even in self defense. He became a vegetarian and even put out his own campfire if he found it killed too many mosquitoes who were drawn to the light. Famously, it was said that he befriended a wolf after saving it from a trap and nursing its injured leg until it was able to walk again.

Some of his eccentricities could be explained in part by his staunch beliefs as a follower of the New Church, created by Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, who believed God sent him intense visions and promoted the abolition of slavery across the globe. Johnny often tried to preach his convictions to the colonial settlers who sheltered him, but he perhaps had more luck with the various Native American peoples of the West, with whom he felt a kinship and whose understanding of nature and humanity's oneness with it he greatly admired. John Chapman may have died at the age of 70 on March 18, 1845, but the tender and adventurous spirit of Johnny Appleseed lives on in the hearts and minds of American schoolchildren everywhere.

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Grace Taylor