Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)

So you don’t believe in Paul Bunyan or Sasquatch, here’s one you can believe in:  Johnny Appleseed was a real man who roamed around planting apple trees.  And many consider him one of our earliest and most ardent conservationists. But, there is a bit more to the story than just that.

Drawing of Johnny Appleseed (drawing by H. S. Knapp, 1862)

            John Chapman, who would become known during his life and for all time as Johnny Appleseed, was born on September 26, 1774, near Boston, Massachusetts (died 1845).  When he was 18, he left home to venture into the wilderness—which, at the time, was Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.  He never took up a homestead, rather sleeping outdoors or in the barns of friendly farmers he met along his journeys.  He eventually began working as an orchardist, learning the trade that we would today call horticulture.

            The myth suggests that Chapman wandered haphazardly, planting applet trees at random, rather like a distracted flower girl dropping petals at a wedding.  In fact, he worked from an ingenious strategy.  In the early 1800s, the federal government was beginning to give grants of land to settlers who would tame the forests of the upper Midwest into cultivated land.  In order to gain title to the land, however, settlers had to prove their intention to remain there by planting 50 apple trees in three years—a sign of investment in the future.

Nothing is more American than the apple (drawing by George Bunyan, 1911)

            Chapman recognized that meeting this requirement would depend on a source of trees.  So, he set out ahead of the wave of settlers and planted apple-tree nurseries at what he thought were likely spots for settlement.  A few years later, when settlers arrived, he sold them the trees they needed from his orchard.  He did this over and over, mostly in Ohio and then Indiana, enjoying a steady stream of income that made him a wealthy man.  When he died, he purportedly owned 1200 acres of apple orchards across the region.

            He didn’t need all that money, however, because he was a devout Christian who purposely lived a life of poverty.  He never had a home, wore no shoes and the simplest of clothes (his favorite garment was an old seeds sack with holes cut for his head and arms), and ate no meat or animal products. When a farmer couldn’t afford to buy his trees, he gave them away with a promise from the farmer to pay him in the future.  He also served as a missionary, teaching his brand of religion to everyone he met.

Johnny Appleseed as depicted in 1871 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

            Chapman, apparently for religious reasons, also believed that trees should be grown from seeds, not grafting.  So, he gathered apple seeds from cider mills in Pennsylvania and hauled them westward to create his orchards.  Unfortunately, apple trees grown this way produce nasty little sour apples, inedible as raw fruit.  But, they made great cider—hard cider—that settlers used as their household drink because the available water was usually unhealthy.  So, Johnny Appleseed supplied not big juicy eating apples, but the raw materials for making alcohol.  Good old Johnny.

            So, where does the conservation come in?  According to the journal American Forests, “Chapman was a successful businessman, but he was also a conservationist and a true outdoorsman.”  National Geographic called him “an icon of the conservation movement” and another source named him an early ecologist.  Primarily, that praise comes from his planting of trees.  Planting trees is a true conservation activity, given that trees do so much for us, from providing apples, even sour ones, to absorbing greenhouse gases. 

            But his biggest claim as a conservationist, I think, comes from his dedication to preserving biodiversity.  He believed in the fundamental value of all living things, no matter if they were obviously useful or not.  He loved insects and, as they say, wouldn’t hurt a fly.  In fact, one night while watching insects become attracted to his fire and dying in the flames, he doused the fire and slept in the cold to avoid harming any more.  Once bitten by a rattlesnake, he reacted violently and killed the snake; for the rest of his life, he despaired of his intemperate action:  “Poor fellow, he only just touched me, when I, in the heat of my ungodly passion, put the heel of my scythe in him and went away.”  When he saw domestic animals, especially horses, being mistreated, he bought the animals and then paid a local agent to nourish them back to health.  He understood the values of many wild plants, a trait that earned him respect among Native American tribes he visited.

            And for your next trivia contest, here’s one for you.  Yes, Johnny Appleseed did wear a tin pot for a hat.  He didn’t see any reason to own two things—a pot and a hat—when one could do both jobs just fine. 

References:

American Forests.  2014.  From businessman to folk legend:  Johnny Appleseed.  Loose Leaf, September 26, 2014.  Available at:  https://www.americanforests.org/blog/from-businessman-to-folk-legend-johnny-appleseed/.  Accessed July 6, 2019.

Birkhimer, Lily.  2012.  Johnny Appleseed:  Folk Hero.  Ohio Memory, September 28, 2012.  Available at:  https://ohiohistoryhost.org/ohiomemory/archives/849.  Accessed July 6, 2019.

Kettler, Sara.  2015.  7 Facts on Johnny Appleseed.  Biography, Mar 10, 2105.  Available at:  https://www.biography.com/news/johnny-appleseed-story-facts.  Accessed July 6, 2019.

National Geographic.  Sep 26, 1774 CE:  Happy Birthday, Johnny Appleseed.  National Geographic Resource Library.  Available at:  https://www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/sep26/happy-birthday-johnny-appleseed/.  Accessed July 6, 2019.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
January February March April May June July August September October November December