The Real Johnny Appleseed Brought Apples—and Booze—to the American Frontier

Starting in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates made a deal with potential settlers: anyone willing to form a permanent homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent settlement would be granted 100 acres of land. To prove their homesteads to be permanent, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years, since an average apple tree took roughly ten years to bear fruit. 

Ever the savvy businessman, Chapman realized that if he could do the difficult work of planting these orchards, he could turn them around for profit to incoming frontiersmen. Wandering from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Chapman would advance just ahead of settlers, cultivating orchards that he would sell them when they arrived, and then head to more undeveloped land. Like the caricature that has survived to modern day, Chapman really did tote a bag full of apple seeds. As a member of the Swedenborgian Church, whose belief system explicitly forbade grafting (which they believed caused plants to suffer), Chapman planted all of his orchards from seed, meaning his apples were, for the most part, unfit for eating.

It wasn’t that Chapman—or the frontier settlers—didn’t have the knowledge necessary for grafting, but like New Englanders, they found that their effort was better spent planting apples for drinking, not for eating. Apple cider provided those on the frontier with a safe, stable source of drink, and in a time and place where water could be full of dangerous bacteria, cider could be imbibed without worry. Cider was a huge part of frontier life, which Howard Means, author of Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story, describes as being lived “through an alcoholic haze.” 

…During Prohibition, apple trees that produced sour, bitter apples used for cider were often chopped down by FBI agents, effectively erasing cider, along with Chapman’s true history, from American life

The Real Johnny Appleseed Brought Apples—and Booze—to the American Frontier | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

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