There are many larger-than-life heroes in American folklore. But for those who have been out of school for a long time, it can be difficult to remember which are made up and which are real historical figures who have come to be credited with fantastical deeds. What about Johnny Appleseed, the outdoorsman who is said to have traveled across the United States on foot planting apple trees? Do you know why he did so?
Johnny Appleseed planted apples to make booze and sell land to pioneers, not to spread fruit across the country.
Who is John Appleseed?
John Chapman was a quirky frontier nurseryman who planted orchards across the American Midwest. He inspired the folk hero Johnny Appleseed, who has been the subject of numerous stories, films, and works of art.
John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was born on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts. His father, Nathaniel Chapman, was a Minuteman at the Battle of Concord and later served in General George Washington’s Continental Army. Elizabeth Chapman died in childbirth in July 1776 while her husband was at war. Nathaniel returned home and quickly remarried. He and his new wife, Lucy Cooley, had ten children.
There is little known about Chapman’s childhood. He may have first traveled west to Ohio with his brother before joining the rest of his family in 1805. Nathaniel, a farmer, most likely encouraged his son to become an orchardist and set him up with an apprenticeship in this field. By 1812, Chapman had established himself as an orchardist and nurseryman. (Source: Biography)
The Boozeman Appleseed
Chapman pursued his profession by traveling extensively, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio. While the legend of Johnny Appleseed suggests that his planting was haphazard, Chapman’s actions had a solid economic basis. He established nurseries before returning several years later to sell the orchard and surrounding land.
Johnny’s apples were not edible but were commonly known as spitters, referring to what one would do after taking the first bite. His small, tart apples were used to produce hard cider and applejack. Cider was more popular than beer, whisky, or any other alcoholic drink because it was less expensive than any other drink.
The nurseries he planted also aided him in staking a claim to them, and as a result, he died wealthy, with nearly 1200 acres to his name. He covered many of Ohio, Illinois, Ontario, and Pennsylvania. These areas were once densely forested with apple trees. (Source: Biography)
The Man, The Apple Man, The Legend, and the Virgin?
Many folk tales revolved around Johnny Appleseed. According to legend, he was fond of insects and animals. Some claimed he had a pet wolf who followed Johnny around and protected him from hostile elements. He never married because he believed that if he remained chaste throughout his life, he would be able to enter heaven after death. He also remained a virgin until the day he died, to his religious beliefs. (Source: Biography)
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