The REAL Johnny Appleseed

By Karen Harris

A painting depicting Johnny Appleseed. (Photo by Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

We all remember learning about Johnny Appleseed when we were in elementary school. According to the legends, this post-Revolutionary War apple enthusiast wandered barefoot around the eastern half of the United States, planting apple trees along the way and delighting the pioneers he met with his quirky ways. He was often described as wearing a tin pot for a hat and wearing threadbare clothing. Over his shoulder, he carried a burlap sack full of apples and a pouch full of apple seeds just waiting to be planted. The story, a true slice of American, is endearing to us, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Johnny Appleseed was a real person and the legend only tells part of the story. 

John Chapman was Johnny Appleseed

Unlike many American folk legends, Johnny Appleseed was based on a real person. His name was John Chapman and he was born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1774. Just two years later, his mother died and his father returned home from fighting in the Revolutionary War to care for the family. He remarried a few months later. As a youngster, Chapman learned about farming practices from his father. 

Chapman Apprenticed at an Apple Orchard

By 1805, Chapman took an apprenticeship at an apple orchard in Ohio owned by a gentleman named Mr. Crawford. From Crawford, Chapman learned much about the planting and cultivating of apples. More importantly, he came to appreciate the versatility of the fruit and its importance to pioneers who were spreading out across the new country. 

Johnny Appleseed was a Religious Extremist

John Chapman had very strong religious views. He was a follower of the Church of Swedenborg which promoted, among other things, abstinence and a reverence for nature. He spread the teachings of his church during his travels and often returned to the home of his sister to restock his supply of religious pamphlets. Chapman never married and it is believed that he lived a chaste lifestyle. He once remarked that, if he did not meet his soul mate on Earth, he was certain he would in Heaven. 

Johnny Appleseed was not a Homeless Nomad

Despite what the stories tell us, Johnny Appleseed was not a wandering, homeless, apple-junkie. The law of the frontier was that land was available for anyone who wanted to claim it for development into a permanent homestead. One way to develop the land, according to law, was to plant a minimum of 50 apple trees on the land. Chapman traveled through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, and West Virginia, planting large plots of apple trees and, therefore, claiming the land. Once the trees were grown and bountiful, Chapman would sell the developed claim to settlers. At the time of his death in 1845, Chapman owned more than 1,200 acres of land. 

Those Apples Aren’t for Eating

Chapman was known for planting tart apples that were not ideal for eating or baking. They were perfect, however, for making hard cider and Applejack. Besides, there was more money to be made in selling cider apples than eating apples. During Chapman’s time, most of the apples grown went into the production of cider. Because water could potentially harbor dangerous bacteria, so many people in rural areas used cider in place of water. Cider could, of course, be made into alcoholic beverages, too. Most of Chapman’s apples were probably used for that purpose. 

Chapman Loved All Living Things

The Church of Swedenborg clearly stated that it was a sin to harm any of God’s creatures and John Chapman took this belief to heart. He was a lifelong vegetarian and was outspoken against hunting and the slaughter of farm animals. According to one story, Chapman set up camp for the night during one of his travels and built a small fire to keep himself warm. He observed a mosquito fly into the flame and die. Chapman immediately doused the fire. He felt guilty that seeking his own comfort cost another living thing its life. Chapman even refused to graft apple trees, a practice that had been used since Roman times, because he felt that it would cause physical harm to the trees. He only propagated new apple trees from seed. 

FBI Agents Chopped Down Many of Chapman’s Trees

Most of John Chapman’s trees stood for decades and produced an abundance of fruit. When the government outlawed alcohol in 1920, FBI agents were tasked with eliminating the sources of alcohol. Agents took axes to Chapman’s orchards and ripped out the majority of his apple trees so that the fruit could not be used to make hard cider. At least one confirmed Johnny Appleseed tree is still alive today. The 176-year old apple tree, one of the last one’s Chapman planted in his lifetime, can be seen in Nova, Ohio. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.