Jonathan Chapman, born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1775, came to be known as “Johnny Appleseed.” Chapman earned his nickname because he planted small orchards and individual apple trees across 100,000 square miles of Midwestern wilderness and prairie.
Chapman, sometimes referred to as an American St. Francis of Assisi, was an ambulant man. As a member of the first New-Church (Swedenborgian), his work resembled that of a missionary. Each year he traveled hundreds of miles on foot, wearing clothing made from sacks, and carrying a cooking pot which he is said to have worn like a cap. His travels took him through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana.
But here’s what makes Johnny Appleseed interesting:
MICHAEL POLLAN: It turns out Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman, was a real historical figure who played a very important role in the frontier in the Northwest territory. And I also found out that the version of Johnny Appleseed I learned in kindergarten was completely wrong, had been Disney-fied, cleaned up and made very benign. He’s a much more interesting character. The way I figured this out was I learned this one botanical fact about apples, which is, if you plant the seeds of an apple, like a red delicious or a golden delicious, the offspring will look nothing like the parent, will be a completely different variety and will be inedible. You cannot eat apples planted from seeds. They must be grafted, cloned.
GWEN IFILL: And they’re not American fruit.
MICHAEL POLLAN: They’re not, no. I learned it comes from Kazakhstan and has made its way here and changed a lot along the way. And so the fact that Johnny Appleseed was planting apples from seed, which he insisted on– he thought grafting was wicked– meant they were not edible apples, and it meant they were for hard cider because you can use any kind of apple for making cider. Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.