Every year on Arbor Day, people worldwide celebrate by planting trees in and around their neighborhoods. But no matter how many trees we all plant this Arbor Day, our efforts will probably pale in comparison to those of the most legendary tree-planter of all, Johnny Appleseed.
Here are some things you might not know about this fascinating historical figure:
1. He was a real guy
Unlike a lot of other legendary figures of the American Midwest, Johnny Appleseed was a real person. Born in Massachusetts in 1774, John Chapman was a professional orchardist and nurseryman who began his travels to plant apple trees sometime in the early 19th century. Although a well-known figure in his day due to his constant travels, his legend only grew during the years after his death.
2. He actually had profit in mind
Everywhere that Chapman traveled, he did more than just plant trees. And despite popular lore, he didn’t just scatter apple seeds randomly wherever he traveled. Instead, he established entire apple nurseries by claiming land in the frontier where no one else had settled (apple orchards established legal land ownership in many settlement regions). He would plant these orchards, leave, let them grow for a while, wait for people to settle in the region, and then return years later to sell the trees off for a high profit.
3. Johnny Appleseed’s apples weren’t for eating
If you tried to eat one of John Chapman’s apples, it wouldn’t be a tasty experience. The trees he planted yielded small, tart apples that were destined for distilleries, where they were used to produce hard cider and applejack (a kind of brandy), two of the primary alcoholic beverages of the day. (This part got edited out of the legend pretty quickly.)
4. He also planted ideas
Chapman considered himself a missionary of the New Church, a Christian denomination that became established the late 18th century and preached that nature and God are intertwined. He spread these teachings wherever he planted his seeds.
5. He didn’t really wear a tin pot on his head
Most depictions of Johnny Appleseed depict him with a tin cooking pot on his head. In reality, Chapman favored a tin hat (he did eat out his hat, though, which is where the legend probably originated). As for the threadbare clothes and shoeless feet we see in popular culture? Those were real.
6. He loved animals and became a vegetarian
Accounts of Chapman’s travels indicate that he was a lover of all manner of creatures, even insects. One story depicts his sadness when mosquitoes flew into his evening fire: “God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort, that should be the means of destroying any of his creatures,” he reportedly said. At some point later in his life, he took this devotion to its natural conclusion and became a vegetarian.
7. He didn’t just plant apple seeds
Chapman also carried the seeds for medicinal plants, as well as the plants themselves, which he was known to give to Native Americans. He had a great relationship with the local Indians, who welcomed him wherever he traveled.
8. He died rich, but his fortune didn’t last
Chapman owned an astonishing 1,200 acres of tree nurseries along with several other plots of land at the time of his death. Since he never married and had no children, these holdings went to his sister. His estate might have been much larger if not for two things: he didn’t always record where he established some of his orchards and he had to sell some of his land during the financial panic of 1837. Unfortunately, most of what remained was sold off to pay his back taxes after he died.
9. Chapman’s legend grew quickly after his death
He was a well-known figure throughout the regions where he had traveled — so well-known that people would invite him into their homes to hear his stories — but the legend of Johnny Appleseed really began to sprout in 1846, a year after his death in 1845. The first posthumous essay about Johnny Appleseed didn’t reveal Chapman’s real name. An 1871 story in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine took the legend to the national level. In the ensuing decades, festivals were named in his honor around the country and he became a lasting folk hero.
10. Johnny Appleseed lives on
John Chapman’s great-great-great-great grandnephew, also named John Chapman, still maintains a couple of small apple orchards in Athens, Maine. At least one tree in his stock is reportedly descended from his forebear’s own trees. Appreciative of his ancestor’s legacy, the modern-day Chapman has donated new trees from the Appleseed collection several times, most notably one he planted at Unity College in 2012.
We’ll leave you with this 1948 Disney cartoon about Johnny Appleseed. See if you think it matches up with the man behind the legend by watching the video above.
article by John Platt
Photo: Houry S/Flickr