Meet the Real Johnny Appleseed (and Celebrate His Birthday!)

We all know about Johnny Appleseed: he wore pots on his head, slept in a hollow tree, and scattered apple seeds wherever he roamed.

But who was Johnny Appleseed, really? In honor of Johnny Appleseed’s birthday this Thursday, September 26 (he turns 239 years old!), Musselman’s pored through history to introduce you to the real Johnny Appleseed: John Chapman.

Born on the brink of independence

Born in 1774, just before the start of the American Revolutionary War, John Chapman grew up in Massachusetts, the son of a soldier serving in the Continental Army under George Washington (the general, not yet the president). His mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth two years after John was born, at which time John’s dad left the war to come home and work as a farmer. He remarried quickly — and, together, he and his new wife raised a large family with 12 kids.

Heading west

Historians know little about John’s early life, but many say his father helped him (at age 13) set up an apprenticeship with a neighbor, who managed apple trees. Records also indicate, not surprisingly, that Chapman loved the outdoors — and preferred the solitude of nature to the hubbub of his hectic home life.

Whatever the case, when John turned 18, he convinced his 11-year-old half-brother, Nathaniel, to head west to the remote territory of Ohio — which was, at that time, the frontier of America. John’s whole family followed shortly. And after they arrived, Nathaniel decided to stay put, but John set off again, this time with a resolute business plan: to plant apples across colonial America.

Not random seed scattering after all

Legend has it that Johnny Appleseed tossed seeds at random, after which apple trees sprouted somewhat miraculously. The true story, though, is that Chapman’s seed planting involved real strategy. His trees produced small, tart apples used widely at the time to make both apple cider and the stronger version of cider, applejack.

On top of that, his orchards played an important legal (and monetary) role: they represented land ownership along the frontier. This meant that wherever Chapman planted an orchard and put up a fence, the land became his. In fact, by the time Chapman died, in 1845 in Indiana, he owned close to 1,200 acres of profitable land.

Part legend, part truth

While the image of John Chapman, thriving businessman, doesn’t mesh with our view of the barefoot, roaming naturalist Johnny Appleseed, some parts of the folklore, it turns out, are true. According to historians, Chapman was a firm believer in animal rights (he was vegetarian), against harming, even, a single insect. A follower of the Church of Swedenborg, which grew in popularity starting around the 1780s (and attracted such supporters as Benjamin Franklin, William Blake, Helen Keller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson), Chapman spread his beliefs to native people living in and around his orchards. He became — even in his own time — somewhat of a legend, known for a selfless nature, tending his orchards barefoot, and wearing simple, well-worn clothes, and, apparently, a tin hat!

Did you know that Musselman’s grows apples in Pennsylvania, in the heart of where Johnny Appleseed planted trees some 200 years ago? Join us to celebrate Johnny Appleseed’s birthday this week — serve up a bowl of your favorite Musselman’s apple sauce!