Appleseed often is pictured as more myth than man, wearing an inverted cooking pot on his head and strewing apples seeds behind him while accompanied by merry woodland creatures. But his planting actually had much more planning behind it then that carefree scene portrays.
Born John Chapman on September 26, 1774 in Leominster, MA, he would be apprenticed at age 13 to an orchardist. So, although he eventually took to rambling between western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—states which at the time made up the frontier—he planted orchards everywhere he went, reportedly from seeds scavenged from cider mills. He fenced those plots as well, to protect them from the critters whose lives he also believed in protecting.
There was much method behind Chapman’s “madness,” since he eventually could sell his trees or orchards to the settlers just beginning to populate the frontier. And that money helped support his work as a missionary for the Church of the New Jerusalem, a sect based on the teachings of philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg.
Because apples don’t come true from seed, most of those Chapman sowed didn’t produce the "juicy fruits" we buy in the grocery store these days. Called “spitters” for the reaction they often elicited from those sampling them, they frequently were hard, gnarly, and bitter. But grafting was against Chapman’s religion, since he believed it caused pain to the trees.
Still, botanists think he may have been partially responsible for some of the better American cultivars eventually developed. The ‘Grimes’ Golden’ of West Virginia, from which the ‘Yellow Delicious’ apple derives, is, in fact, attributed to Chapman. And one of his trees purportedly still stands in Ashland County, Ohio, and currently is being propagated as the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ cultivar.
Fortunately, during his era, most apples weren’t intended for snacking but for the brewing of hard cider--which doesn't require perfect fruits! In those days before refrigeration colonists needed a beverage they could consume without exposing themselves to bacteria-caused diseases such as cholera or typhoid. So hard cider was their drink of choice.
Appleseed's Spartan Spirit
Chapman himself apparently maintained robust health despite—or perhaps due to—his becoming a vegetarian and living outdoors most of his life, in shelters he constructed himself or in other people’s outbuildings. He would occasionally dress in a coffee sack with holes cut out for the head and arms, since inexpensive clothing was not as readily available in those days as it is now.
He reportedly died after walking 15 miles through rain and snow on a raw March day in Indiana before taking refuge with friends in their cabin. Like most gardeners he probably could smell spring in the air, despite the blustery conditions, and died happy. He reportedly owned 1200 acres of land at the time, so his simple lifestyle definitely was a choice and not a necessity.
According to his obituary, he “devoutly believed that the more he endured in this world the less he would have to suffer and the greater would be his happiness hereafter,” so “he submitted to every privation with cheerfulness and content.” And, if the dates of his birth and death are correct, he lived to be 70—a ripe old age in those times.
The expression “as American as apple pie” can be misleading, since that pie actually originated in Britain and apples themselves in Asia. But we can guess the saying might well have sprung up among people remembering Appleseed. After all, characters that independent, idiosyncratic, and idealistic are as American as they come!
Images: Both Johnny Appleseed images are from the public domain, the banner one originally published in A History of the Pioneer and Modern Times of Ashland County by H. S. Knapp. The apples and apple tree photos are my own.