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Who Was Johnny Appleseed? - Story & Facts

Instructor: Carol Cook

Carol has taught high school Government and middle school U.S. History and Global Studies and has a master's degree in teaching secondary social studies.

The legendary Johnny Appleseed was a real frontiersman who furthered westward expansion and brought us bushels of apple varieties. Read more to find out how this colorful character left a legacy that we enjoy today.

A is for Apple

Apples are a staple of American life. It's common to hear that something is 'as American as apple pie.' During apple season, people can go apple picking throughout the country and over 200 million bushels of apples are produced every year. How did apples gain their place as such a quintessential part of American culture? One could say it's all thanks to Johnny Appleseed.

American as apple pie
pie

There are many cartoons and songs praising Johnny Appleseed for extolling the apple. Unlike cartoons of the legendary figures Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed was a real person. His name was John Chapman and he was born around the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts. A young man with wanderlust, he never stayed in one place for long and spent his adult years sowing apple seeds across the American frontier.

Orchardist John Chapman

Chapman grew up in a family of 12 children and left home early to apprentice as an orchardist; an expert at raising fruit trees. He convinced a younger brother to move west with him and traveled from Massachusetts to Western Pennsylvania where he established an orchard on 1,000 acres. He decided to travel further west along the Ohio River Valley with 18 bushels of seeds. There he began his trek into the wilderness.

Modern orchard with apples ready to be picked
orchard

Early settlers in Ohio were required by land ordinances to plant 50 to 100 trees to lay claim to property. It is said that Chapman was welcomed to help them meet this requirement. With his skills, he was able to clear and prepare the soil so that the trees would be fruitful once mature. He plowed the land, planted individual seeds, fertilized the soil, and built fences to protect the fledgling trees from wild animals. Settlers paid him for his work and he had sufficient resources to settle his own land, but Chapman had other plans.

Welcome Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed in his burlap shirt and bare feet
Johnny Appleseed

John Chapman easily transformed into a larger than life character. Folklore tells us he wore a burlap sack with holes for his arms as a shirt and a cooking pot on his head as a hat. Diaries of those he met describe him as a barefooted, wiry, and restless man with piercing dark eyes that looked into their souls. He was caring, conscientious, and highly social with those he met.

Imagine waking up to a snake that is about to strike you. One tale tells of when this happened to Johnny Appleseed. His reaction was to kill the snake, but it is said that he regretted this action the rest of his life. As a vegetarian, he did not like to hurt any creature. His religious faith was also an important aspect of his life and he shared it with the settlers and Native Americans who welcomed him. He had an affinity for nature, especially the apple trees he planted from seed.

The Good and Bad of Apple Seeds

Johnny Appleseed only raised apples from seed. His insistence on raising fruit from seed had both its good and bad sides. The Pilgrims are credited with first bringing apples to America with grafts from established trees in England. Grafting is when a section of a stem with leaf buds is cut from a tree and planted in soil to take root. The graft from a Red Delicious apple tree produces Red Delicious apples. Johnny did not practice grafting as he believed it physically hurt the tree.

Drawing of a graft of an apple branch from a gardening book drawn in the 1700s
graft

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