In grade school, we were told of American folk hero Johnny Appleseed, who walked all across the USA sprinkling apple seeds wherever he went, helping spread apple crops all over our great land for the love of fruit. What a great story. Too bad it isn’t entirely true.
Appleseed was an actual person -- that, at least, is true. Named John Chapman, he was born in Massachusetts in 1774. He was likely trained to be an orchardist and nurseryman and began traveling.
Chapman traveled around, creating nurseries for apples. There’s no record of him going west of Iowa, so the claims of him going all over America are a little overblown. He mostly stayed between Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Here’s the thing about what he planted: It wasn’t the edible, delicious apples that we enjoy today. He scrounged the seeds from the scrap piles of cider mills, and they were likely small, sour crab apples only suitable for making booze -- more hard cider, specifically.
Apple genetics are weird and complicated, and you might not get the same variety of apple to pick as the seed you plant. You need to graft a budding apple branch to another adult tree to control the fruit that tree bears. This was against Chapman’s religion (he was Swedenborgian), as he believed it harmed the trees. So, if Chapman was planting apple nurseries with seeds, these were not apples for eating.
In frontier times, people did not eat lots of apples, anyway. They were more concerned about having safe drinking water. Cider was a way frontiersmen could trust that their liquids were safe and clean, so they drank 10 ounces of cider per day. These trash apples were actually quite valuable in their own right.
But Chapman wasn’t planting these seeds because he was an apple activist or enthusiast. He was claiming land under the Northwest Ordinance, which stated a person could claim 100 acres with 50 apple trees, in order to show a permanent homestead was being formed. He would plant the trees on unsettled land in a nursery, bop about the area, returning a few years later to sell the land for profit, now with a 50-tree apple orchard on it. It was like a giant game of Monopoly for him.
As he traveled, he walked barefoot, dressed in ragged clothes he found with a tin pot hat on his head -- again, this part is true. He preached his religion to Native Americans and lived a humble live, stayed celibate (he believed his soulmate awaited him in heaven) and became a vegetarian in the later part of his life. He was very protective of animals, getting upset if he saw an insect harmed as a result of something he did.
As for Chapman’s legacy, he never married or had children, and when he died in 1845, his orchards did not survive much longer (though his sister inherited 1,200 acres that he still owned). During prohibition, many cider apple trees were chopped down by the FBI. However, some heartier varieties of the eating apples we know today, like Golden Delicious, descended from the remaining trees. So, we owe a little gratitude to him for diversifying apple varieties.
So next time you eat an apple, this religious hippie is partly to thank. And when you crack a cool bottle of Angry Orchard apple cider, pour a little out for the man, the myth, the legend that was Johnny "Appleseed" Chapman.
TL;DR: John Chapman planted nurseries of booze apples to claim land, but was also a pretty good dude.