Fun Facts & History of the Real Johnny Appleseed

Bench at Rest Stop on Johnny Appleseed Highway

Did you know today is Johnny Appleseed Day? It is the anniversary of his birth. Unlike many of our American legends. Johnny Appleseed was a real person. However his story is different than the legend you heard when you were a kid. Here are some fun facts and historical things I found out about him.

Fun Facts and His History:

  1. His real name was John Chapman. He was born on September 26, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts.
  2. His father, Nathaniel Chapman, fought in the Revolutionary War was at the Battle of Bunker Hill (which of course was actually fought at Breeds Hill). Nathaniel was a skilled carpenter and often placed him behind the lines fixing wagons and constructing forts. His father survived the war, but his mother, Elizabeth Chapman, died during childbirth in July 1776.  A month later the baby died as well.
  3. It is believed that Nathaniel was dismissed for stealing army supplies when he did not receive the acres of land promised to all colonial soldiers. Elizabeth left the children with her parents before her death since Nathaniel was off fighting. When he returns from the war, he has a new young wife named Lucy Cooley. They take Johnny and his sister Lizzie, to a rented house in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Lucy gives birth to ten children.  Johnny goes to school in Longmeadow and learns to read and write.
  4. At age fourteen, Johnny is apprenticed out to a local farmer since his family needs money. It is here that he becomes an apple man. Johnny’s great-great-great-great-grandfather came from England to Boston. When he died in 1678 he left his wife thirty apple trees.
  5. By his twenties, Chapman is converted to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Chapman was a member of Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem (the New Church) which was established in the early 1800s. Johnny becomes one of the missionaries for the Church and decides to travel through America spreading the word of God and apples. Since the Church forbade its members to harm God’s creations, he was a vegetarian and vocal animal right’s activist. He also would not use grafting to create his orchards as he believed it would hurt the trees. He therefore carried a sack of seeds with him everywhere he went.
  6. Johnny Appleseed 1
    Illustration By H. S. Knapp [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  7. Chapman often wore cast-off clothes and his shirt was made from a coffee sack. He wore second-hand sandals or boots. He usually traveled alone. He would sometimes stay with family or with people he met and preached to them and then slept outside.
  8. Chapman got his seeds from the cider mills for free. The mills considered them disposable.
  9. He built fences around his orchards. When he returned to care for trees, he would also mend the fences. 
  10. Chapman left home in the 1790s. By 1797 there are trading post ledgers near Franklin, Pennsylvania, records the names of John and Nathaniel Chapman. Some say he took his eleven-year-old half-brother with him as he traveled.

  11. Johnny Appleseed
  12. Chapman was working on his own by the early 1800s and was an orchardist and nurseryman. His legend tells of him spreading the apple seeds as he traveled. He did this to claim land. The frontier law allowed people to claim land by establishing a permanent homestead which could be planting 50 trees. He traveled through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois planting apple trees to claim land which he would sell to settlers once the land had grown bountiful. 
  13. Chapman often slept outside. He sometimes was paid in clothes, a bed for the night and food. He became friends with the Seneca and Munsee. He recorded “his occupation as a gatherer and planter of apple seeds.” He also refused to start campfires because he was afraid a bug would fly into it and be burned alive. 
  14. He loved to tell stories especially to the children. Often they would be about his adventures and exciting escapes.
  15. By 1804 he decided to leave Pennsylvania. Nathaniel had already moved on to Ohio. He borrows money from his family (father or half-brother) and moves West. In 1809 records show that he bought two lots in Mount Vernon, Ohio. By 1815 he owned 640 acres.
  16. The apples Chapman usually planted were not eating apples. They were tart and small and often called spitters. They were good for making hard cider and applejack. This was more valuable than growing edible apples. Before Prohibition apples often ended up in cider than eaten.
  17. He did not marry and lived by the Church which promoted abstinence for unmarried people. He died with no child to inherit his lands. He left his estate to his half sister Persis Broom. He stayed with her and her family whenever he was in Ashland County. She had four daughters. After all his bills and the lawyers are paid, Persis only receives $165.95 for the inheritance. He died on March 18, 1845 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was buried in a $6 coffin which cost two to three times more than an acre of land. He owned a grey horse, 15,000 apple trees and 200 seedlings in orchards in Indiana and Ohio totaling 800 acres and two town lots in Mount Vernon.
  18. Johnny-appleseed-grave
    His Grave By Kevin M. Brooks [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

  19. He walked over 4000 miles in his lifetime. He introduced trees to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illniois and Ontario, Canada. 
  20. After his death Texas congressman Sam Houston made a speech about Johnny Appleseed's labor of love in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  21. After his death his legend grew and the story changed to make him less entrepreneurial and the use of the apples have been for eating instead of the cider making. Some say he got the nickname in 1806, but it did not really pick up until 1845.
  22. In the 1920s, the FBI tore down much of his orchards to prevent the making of illegal homemade hooch. It was the Prohibition. Hard cider is starting to make a comeback in our nation’s popularity.
  23. One of his trees can be visited in Nova, Ohio. It is over 175 years old and its tart apples are used for applesauce and baking as well as cider making.
  24. He is credited for helping varieties of apples like the delicious and golden delicious since these would not exist if all trees were grafted. 
  25. In Ohio there is a Minor League Baseball Team named in his honor: The Fort Wayne Tin Caps. There is also the Johnny Appleseed Historic Byway in Ohio. There is also the Johnny Appleseed Trail in Massachusetts. We happened to stop at the visitor's center this summer on our way to the Berkshires.
Hazel on bench outside visitor's center of the Johnny Appleseed Trail

To help you celebrate check out these posts about apples, sharing apple crafts and apple recipes!