appleseed monument

Johnny AppleseedAccording to American folklore, Johnny Appleseed was a lovable eccentric who distributed apple trees throughout Ohio and Indiana. He went barefoot, dressed in sacks, wore a pot on his head and canoed up and down rivers and streams, handing out apple seeds along with advice about eating an apple a day and appreciating nature.

In truth, John Chapman – Johnny Appleseed’s real name – was a businessman who moved to the new state of Ohio in 1803, along with other settlers. To claim land there, you had to plant an orchard of 50 viable fruit trees. Everywhere Chapman thought people might settle, he planted apple tree nurseries, then sold the seedlings to new arrivals. Chapman was not America’s first eco warrior. He was making money.

What he did with his money is the strange part. John Chapman was one the few American followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist and theologian with unusual interpretations of Christian beliefs. Chapman put all his profits back into supporting the Swedenborgian movement. He went around selling trees and telling baffled settlers about these religious ideas, handing out leaflets that few understood. Most settlers found him entertaining, though, especially as visitors were rare on the frontier.

They also appreciated the apples, though not necessarily for eating. Apple trees grown from seeds mostly produce sour apples only good for making cider and applejack. Johnny Appleseed was not actually promoting a healthy lifestyle. He was selling people the ingredients for making alcohol that would dull the pain of harsh frontier life.

After his death, his story was gradually softened and sweetened. In the early 20th century the Women’s Christian Temperance Union went after apple growers for making alcohol out of the fruit. Growers were forced to promote apples for healthy eating, and Johnny Appleseed became their unlikely poster boy.