Most Americans, including myself, grew up hearing the tall tales of fictional characters like the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, his blue ox Babe, and Pecos Bill, who “tamed the Wild West.”
And of course, there’s Johnny Appleseed, that mythical man with a tin pot on his head who planted apple trees far and wide—or so you might think. Unlike those other legendary figures, Johnny Appleseed was very much a real person whose real name was Jonathan Chapman. But according to my own unscientific research, very few of us know that he actually existed.
How do I know that? Because an amateur genealogist in my family once discovered that we are descended from the Chapman family—although not from John himself, who never married or had children. Whenever his name comes up in conversation, I invariably mention my family connection, which almost always comes as a surprise to those who once thought he was a creation of fiction.
On March 11, we celebrate “National Johnny Appleseed Day” and the man who deserves great credit for the proliferation of that most American of fruit, the apple. (Alternate celebrations are held on his birthday, Sept. 26.)
Long before the days of the Western cowboy, the American Midwest at the beginning of the 19th century was truly the wild frontier. When early settlers weren’t fending off animal attacks, they lived a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence. Apples and other orchard crops were highly prized.
Sensing a business opportunity, Chapman would gather seeds from the cider mills of Pennsylvania and venture into the wilds of present-day Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia planting nurseries. He would sell the trees to frontiersmen, but he also accepted barter or IOUs that often went unpaid, or outright donated them to those who couldn’t afford to pay.
A deeply religious man, who claimed to have spoken with angels, Chapman was said to be motivated as much by altruism as by profit. While not a wealthy man, he was rarely short on cash, due in part to his ascetic, eccentric lifestyle.
The stereotypical accounts of his dress and manner are largely true. Indeed, he usually traveled barefooted, often in a crude garment fashioned from a burlap sack, toting large bags brimming with apple seeds. He wore a pot on his head that doubled as cooking gear, but he later made a hat with a brim to provide more protection from the sun.
The first confirmed stories of the travels of Chapman, born in 1774 in Massachusetts, date back to 1801. According to one of the earlier accounts of Chapman, published in 1871 in Harper’s Magazine, 46 of his 72 years were devoted to his “self-imposed mission” that “had literally borne fruit over a hundred thousand square miles of territory.”
Chapman’s passion for apple trees was perhaps rivaled only by his love of animals. When he had extra cash on hand, he gave much of it for the care of animals or the indigent. He was known to purchase neglected or abused pets from their owners and place them into better homes. He reportedly anguished over killing a rattlesnake that had lunged at him, and he would even douse his campfires to prevent mosquitoes from being lured to a fiery death.
He objected to the pruning and grafting of trees as the sinful infliction of suffering upon a living thing, so Chapman chose to grow his trees exclusively from seeds.
The result, however, was apples that were largely unfit for eating. Instead, according to author Michael Pollan—and perhaps ironically for such a devout man—Johnny Appleseed’s apples were best suited for the production of hard cider. Nevertheless, his seeds are often credited, generations later, with the cultivation of some of our best-loved varieties, such as the Red Delicious and the Golden Delicious.
Chapman was widely known and beloved during his life. While his true personality and exploits were outsized, his legend only grew over time through song and drama and his latter-day Disney-fication.
So the next time you crunch into a juicy apple, or scoop a dollop of ice cream onto a warm piece of apple pie, give a moment of thanks to my kinsman, John Chapman, the benevolent hero of the American frontier.