Johnny Appleseed – Myth and Truth About an American Legend

Drawing of Jonathan Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed.

Johnny Appleseed is known to all American schoolchildren as a mythological pioneer who headed west planting apple trees. How much of the legend is based in fact?

The Legend

Most American tykes can tell you all about Johnny Appleseed. Back in the early days of the United States, Johnny set off from somewhere back east with a sack of apple seeds slung over his shoulder and an iron cook-pot for a hat. He could talk to animals and was friends with everyone, settlers and Indians alike. He scattered apple seeds everywhere he went, leaving a tasty trail in his wake.

So…How Much of the Legend is True?

Quite a bit, actually. Johnny Appleseed’s real name was John Chapman and he was born in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774. His father had fought against the British as one of the legendary “minutemen.” Most of the basic elements of the Appleseed myth have at least a grain of truth to them.

He Went West, Planting Apple Trees

Johnny thought of a clever business. He headed west, trying to stay just a little bit ahead of the settlers, who were just then moving to the Midwest, establishing homesteads in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. He would try to guess where the next settlements would be, and he would plant an apple tree nursery there. By the time settlers arrived, he would have hundreds of small apple trees ready to sell them. Apples were not for eating like they are now: back then they were used almost exclusively to make apple cider or applejack, the alcoholic drinks of choice on the frontier.

As apple trees require little care, he was able to plant them and move on. He often left someone in charge of the nurseries, sharing the profits. According to most accounts, Johnny was not a great businessman: he would allow people to buy on credit but he was never very aggressive about collecting.

He Could Speak to Animals

Well, okay, no, he couldn’t actually speak to them. But he was a known animal lover. He was a vegetarian and treated all animals humanely. There are many tales of him purchasing old, worn out horses and a pasture, and allowing the poor beast to finish his days in peace. He also once freed a wolf from a trap, nursing it back to health.

He was Friends With Everyone, Including the Indians

Yup. In addition to apples, Johnny carried with him seeds of medicinal plants and he shared his plants and knowledge with Indians, who respected him and gave him free passage through their lands. At a time when relations between settlers and Indians were very tense, he was welcome anywhere. The men and women who lived on the frontier loved him as well and welcomed him into their homes while he was traveling, trading a meal and night’s rest for tales of his adventures and perhaps a handful of apple seeds.

What You Don’t Know About Johnny Appleseed

One important aspect of Chapman’s life has been lost in the mythology surrounding him. Johnny was a fervent adherent of the Swedenborg religion. One aspect of this belief is that if you suffer in this life, you will be comfortable in the next, and vice versa. Therefore, Chapman did not usually wear shoes or live very comfortably, perhaps dreaming of how plush his afterlife would be. He often carried religious texts with him and was a sort of missionary.

Johnny died in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1845 at the age of 70, Despite his eccentric nature and poor business skills, he owned hundreds of acres of prime real estate and left his family (his sister and her children: he never married) a small fortune.