The real Johnny Appleseed did plant apples on the American frontier, but they were mostly used for hard apple cider. Safe drinking water was scarce, and apple cider was a safer alternative to drink.

How John Chapman Became Johnny Appleseed

Much of John Chapman’s early life has been lost to the annals of history. He was born on September 26, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, but beyond that, not much is known about his childhood. In fact, no one really even knew John Chapman until he popped up again in the 1800s somewhere in western Pennsylvania. 

During this time, this side of the United States was not well inhabited, and in an effort to convince people to settle there, the Ohio Company of Associates decreed that anyone willing to settle permanently in that area would be granted a large amount of land – 100 acres, to be exact. However, to prove that they were serious about settling the land, they had to plant 20 peach tress and 50 apple trees over the course of three years. 

John Chapman was not a homesteader. Instead, he was a businessman. He saw a way to make profit out of this situation, and he ran with it. Instead of settling the land himself, he stayed a little ahead of the rest of the settlers, cultivating these required orchards. Then, when the settlers reached him, he would sell them his orchards and move on to somewhere new. He traveled from Pennsylvania to Illinois selling his orchards, and before long, John Chapman became Johnny Appleseed. 

What many people don’t realize, however, is that Johnny Appleseed is not the all-American hero providing tasty apples and nutritious snacks that the Walt Disney company portrays him as. The apples produced in Johnny Appleseed’s apple orchards were not delicious, crisp apples. 

Instead, Johnny Appleseed’s apples were mostly sour and bitter; they did not taste good at all. This was because he exclusively planted appleseeds rather than ever trying to graft small trees into new areas. Apple trees grown exclusively from apple seeds did not produce good apples for eating. 

However, they made great hard cider. 

During this time period, there were no fancy water filtration systems or Brita filters to put on non-existent kitchen sink faucets. The water during this time period, therefore, was very unsafe to drink. Instead, people practically survived on hard apple cider, just like that produced by Johnny Appleseed’s apple orchards. Hard cider was the frontiersman’s drink of choice. In fact, it is estimated that the average settler drank approximately 10.52 ounces of hard cider each day.

During the prohibition era, much of Johnny Appleseed’s legacy was destroyed when federal agents chopped down his bitter-producing trees. Orchards were replanted, of course, but they were cultivated to produce delicious, healthy fruit, not bitter apples for brewing hard cider. 

In the past several years, however, hard cider has been making a strong comeback. In fact, hard cider is now the single fastest-growing type of alcoholic beverage in the United States today, beating out all the different brands of beer, wine, and hard liquor. Perhaps, as hard cider continues to make its comeback, more people will begin telling the true story of Johnny Appleseed once more.