The popular image of Johnny Appleseed has him spreading apple seeds everywhere he went, a humble man who wandered the West of the Unites States distributing free apple seeds to settlers.
In fact, John Chapman (1774-1845) was an eccentric, a Swedenborgian missionary, and an astute businessman.
In his times apples were not mainly eaten raw. Imported sugar was expensive and rare, and apples could be turned into apple butter and used as a sweetener. More important, their fermented juice was the major source of alcohol, either as easily produced cider, or as applejack, or distilled into brandy.
Born in Massachusetts, he left the state in 1797 for the Ohio frontier just as farmers were moving into the Midwest. He would search out and buy inexpensive wilderness land along riverbanks and produce apple saplings just before a wave of new settlers moved into an area.
Since the product he sold was saplings, and his market was new settlers, he had to be constantly on the move and establish his nurseries two to three years ahead of the expanding settlement frontier. As settlements expanded, the land he had bought cheaply in the wilderness became valuable.
Each autumn, he returned to his orchards in Western Pennsylvania to gather apple seeds, a by-product from cider mills. In the spring, he would scout for sites, buy land, plant nurseries and fence them in. In the summer, he would visit nurseries he had established earlier and find a local agent who could tend and sell the saplings for a commission. He would then be ready to move on and start the whole process over again. In this way he built up and operated a string of nurseries, visiting each nursery annually or every two years. He did business in a large area, stretching from western Pennsylvania, through central Ohio, into Indiana and Illinois.
The demand for apple saplings was driven by the demand for alcoholic drinks.
The people who bought Chapman’s saplings were not looking to harvest apples to make pies or sauces. Indeed the apples that grew on Chapman’s trees were, as one writer explains, “for little but hard cider . . . apples were something people drank.” (Source here).
By the time he died, he was the wealthy owner of 1200 acres of valuable nurseries.
How did he become “Johnny Appleseed”, a kind of St. Francis of the American frontier?
We stopped drinking apples and started eating them in the early 1900s. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union publicized the evils of alcohol, the movement towards Prohibition was gaining momentum, and the apple industry saw the need to re-position the apple. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was an old adage, dating from the late 1800s, that was updated into an advertising slogan, promoted by apple growers fearful that prohibition would cut sales. We can thank prohibition for shifting the image of the apple to the healthy, wholesome, American-as-apple-pie fruit that it is today (Source here)
The “Johnny Appleseed” of lore — the happy-go-lucky wanderer who brought tasty apples to hungry settlers — was largely a creation of the apple industry in the early 1900s. At a time when cider, and the apples pressed to make it, were associated with the social ills of drinking, apple growers needed a way to give the fruit a healthy, wholesome image. A half-century after John Chapman’s death, “Johnny Appleseed” was their man. (Source here).