Johnny Appleseed


(This column was first published in the October 15, 2001 Buffalo News.)


     When you learned in elementary school about Johnny Appleseed, did you wonder, as I did, "What motivated this strange character to wander the American frontier planting apple trees?" The story we were told simply didn't make sense. I couldn't picture this Mr. Nice Guy setting out west through dangerous Indian county carrying seeds for the settlers -- and just for good will.


     It turns out that any of us who wondered, did so rightly, for John Chapman was as much an entrepreneur as he was a humanitarian. The true story of this weirdly dressed but not at all disinterested businessman is well told in Michael Pollan's delightful book, "The Botany of Desire," published this year by Random House.


     The basic facts we were told are true. Chapman did float down the Ohio River into the newly opened Northwest Territory carrying in the other side of his double-hulled canoe enough apple seeds to plant thousands of trees. He had collected those seeds from the pulp left outside Pennsylvania cider mills.


     But he wasn't helping frontier settlers to grow bright red pippins -- Macintoshes or Cortlands -- because, Pollan tells us, "Apples don't 'come true' from seeds -- that is, an apple tree grown from a seed will be a wildling bearing little resemblance to its parent. Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees, for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible -- 'sour enough,' Thoreau once wrote, 'to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream.'"


     Indeed. What purpose then could the apples serve? Pollan continues, "Hard cider was the fate of most apples grown in America up until Prohibition. Apples were something people drank. The reason people…wanted John Chapman to stay and plant a nursery was the same reason he would soon be welcome in every cabin in Ohio: Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.


     "The identification of the apple with notions of health and wholesomeness turns out to be a modern invention, part of a public relations campaign dreamed up by the apple industry in the early 1900s to reposition a fruit that the Women's Christian Temperance Union had declared war on. Carry Nation's hatchet, it seems, was meant not just for saloon doors but for chopping down the very apple trees John Chapman had planted by the millions. That hatchet -- or at least Prohibition -- is probably responsible for the bowdlerizing of Chapman's story. Johnny Appleseed was revered on the frontier for a great many admirable qualities: he was a philanthropist, a healer, an evangelist (of a doctrine veering perilously close to pantheism), a peacemaker with the Indians." But he wouldn't be remembered if it weren't for the cider (all cider was hard in those days before refrigeration) and brandy his apples produced.


     In fact he also had the Northwest Ordinance going for him. A land grant required a settler to "set out at least fifty apple or pear trees" as a condition of his deed. Chapman could sell or trade his seeds to these settlers to meet this requirement. To do so he developed his own orchards along the river as he moved west, in the end acquiring almost two square miles of valuable river-front property and enough money to leave a handsome estate. He died still burlap-clad but a wealthy man.


     And among all those tens of thousands of trees he distributed, a very few did develop into original sweet varieties, now well adapted to the country and climate of their new homeland.


     I like Pollan's Johnny Appleseed much better than the Disney version.-- Gerry Rising