Johnny on the Spot

What discussion of apple agriculture in nineteenth century America would be complete without at least a couple of paragraphs devoted to Johnny Appleseed? Oh yes, he was a real person, proper name Jonathan Chapman, born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusettes, and one of the most eccentric characters ever to set a bare foot on the American frontier. Part freelance nurseryman, part missionary, part real estate speculator, he was ALL kook, known to wear a tin pot on his head, put out camp fires to keep from burning mosquitoes and punish his feet for treading on worms (for instance, by throwing his shoes away). For all that he was also a canny businessman who traveled Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and parts beyond planting makeshift nurseries for Westward-heading settlers.

The popular image of Johnny Appleseed traveling the countryside like an early American flower child scattering seeds is utter hogwash. There was great method in his apparent madness. His strategy was to collect apple seeds by the bushel (throwaways from Eastern cider mills) and travel the frontier looking for stretches of real estate where frontier families might settle. Once he’d identified likely spot for a settlement he’d plant his apple seeds, build fences around them to protect the shoots from deer, then move on to the next place. If all went well grown saplings would be waiting for settlers to purchase when they arrived. The land he claimed he kept (it was all free as far as the US government was concerned) and by the time he died he’d amassed a real estate fortune worth millions, even in 1845 dollars.

No one would ever have guessed that by looking at him of course. He traveled on foot because he believed riding horses was a sin (he felt the same way about grafting apple trees). He wore rags, since he was constantly giving his clothes away to needy frontier families he visited as he wandered. For them, Johnny Appleseed was a kind of celebrity, a fellow everyone had heard about, and who just might drop in one cold night for a meal and a sermon (his own). In that sense he also provided entertainment for lonely settlers, and probably more than a little solace too. Watching Appleseed head out to the nearest bush after dinner to bed down for the night — as he was also known to do, even when warm beds were on offer — more than one dirt poor farmer must have consoled himself by thinking: I may have my share of problems, but at least I’m not THAT guy.

5 thoughts on “Johnny on the Spot”

  1. It suddenly occurred to me (after all these years) – was the Jonathan apple named after him?

    1. No, I believe they were named after the husband of the woman who produced them first. Sorry I don’t remember her last name.

  2. Thanks! I knew a little of his eccentricities but had no idea the whole story. Great fun.

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