Johnny Appleseed is an American legend. Some of the popular ideas which surround him, created as they were by stories, cartoons and films, are not accurate. However he was genuinely admirable, and he introduced the cultivation of apples to many states even, it is thought, as far south as Texas.

Johnny Appleseed (Howe's Historical Collection)
Johnny Appleseed (Howe’s Historical Collection)

His real name was John Chapman and he was born in 1774 in Massachusetts. He was apprenticed as an orchardist and from there developed his business plan. He didn’t go around planting apple seeds, or even orchards as is commonly thought; he actually created nurseries. He would put a fence round the nursery to protect it from livestock, then leave it in the care of someone local who sold the trees on a share basis, coming back to visit it every year or two.

Some of the places he went to were inhabited by hostile Native American tribes. However they respected him, believing he had been touched by the Great Spirit, and never molested or harmed him. Some of them he even converted to Christianity. He himself was a missionary for The New Church, which is inspired by the doctrines of Swedenborg. One of the tenets of his religion was that all the privations in this life are rewarded by comforts in the hereafter.

His religion explicitly forbade grafting, which was said to make the plant suffer, so he always reared his apple trees from seed. This meant that he was unable to produce apples which were palatable to eat raw and yet, conversely, by means of trial and error and natural selection, his work served to develop hardy cultivars, well adapted to local conditions in the New World.

The apples trees which Johnny Appleseed spread over America were primarily cider apple trees. Their fruit was unpleasant to taste and was known colloquially as ‘spitters’ because of what happened after tasting. However cider was in tremendous demand, particularly in areas where the water might harbour dangerous bacteria. It was a huge part of frontier life, being drunk in place not only of wine and beer, but also tea, coffee, juice and water. In fact it has been said that frontier life was lived through a haze of alcohol.

Johnny Appleseed is a legend not only for what he did but also for who he was. There are many stories of his kindness and generosity, not only to humans but also to animals. For example, he is said to have heard of a horse that was about to be put down. He bought it and also bought some grassland where he set it to graze, then when it had recovered, he gave it to someone needy, making them promise to treat it well.

Apple and blossom
Apple and blossom

He lived very simply and even rough, but by choice and not through necessity. He wore eccentric, ragged clothes, a tin pot on his head, and went barefoot. When he went about as a missionary, he told stories to children and spread gospel to the adults in return for a meal and a floor to sleep on for the night.

The lifestyle seems to have suited Johnny Appleseed. He lived to the ripe old age of eighty when he died quite suddenly. He is one of the best loved characters of American history and his name is commemorated widely in festivals, parks, schools, etc, including a nursery in Graham, Texas.

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