(WHTM) — Sept. 26 is the birthday of John Chapman, better known to the world as Johnny Appleseed. Yes, Johnny Appleseed was a real person, one of many from American history who have entered the realm of folklore — particularly that branch of folklore known as the tall tale.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a tall tale as “a story that is very difficult to believe: a greatly exaggerated story”. (We should also mention they’re usually meant to be humorous — this point sometimes seems to get lost in the literary analyses.) In the telling, tall tales involve larger-than-life characters (sometimes literally larger than life) performing fantastic feats, like Pecos Bill riding a tornado or Paul Bunyan digging the Grand Canyon.

Some tall tale characters, like Bill and Paul, are obviously fictional. Sometimes, though, tall tales center on a real person around whom stories gather, people like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, John Henry, Molly Pitcher…and John Chapman.

John Chapman was — Dare I say it? — ripe for picking as a tall tale character. But while many tall tale heroes had stories attached to them, Johnny Appleseed became a legend more by what was left out.

He was born on Sept. 26, 1774, in Massachusetts, and died on March 18, 1845, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Around 1792 he left Massachusetts for the western frontier, making it his life’s work to establish apple nurseries as he went.

He lived a nomadic life, traveled barefoot, mostly wore castoff clothing, and carried a sack full of apple seeds. He was profoundly religious, preaching the gospel as he traveled, a pacifist who was respected both by Native Americans and settlers, a vegetarian, and kind to animals. (One of the “Is it a tall tale?” parts of his story is that he once put out a campfire rather than watch mosquitos fly into it and burn to death.)

The tall tale part of this is that he planted trees in a mission to bring apples to the frontier, leaving behind him beautiful orchards full of juicy, round, delicious, bright red apples, all without thought of personal gain.


John Chapman was actually a fairly astute businessman, taking advantage of one of the rules for settlement in the Northwest Territory. The Ohio Company of Associates, aka “The Ohio Company,” purchased a large chunk of the future state in 1787. In 1792, the company, to encourage settlement, offered 100 acres of land for anyone willing to carve out a permanent homestead in the wilderness areas of their holdings. Proof of permanence? Fifty apple trees and 20 peach trees, planted within three years.

Chapman realized he could turn a profit by going out ahead of the settlers, planting the orchards, and selling them. Then he would move on to repeat the process. Along the way, he accumulated some land for himself. When he died, his sister inherited an estate of 1,200 acres of valuable nurseries.

The apples he planted were not the yummy varieties we find today in the grocery stores and farmers markets. In fact, many of them were “spitters,” apples so awful tasting you would spit them out after the first bite. The reason for this is Johnny Appleseed actually did plant apple seeds. Most apples are propagated by grafting — a branch from a tree producing a favored variety of apples is joined to a “rootstock” tree to produce a higher yield and maintain consistency in the resulting apples.

But Chapman followed the teaching of the Swedenborgian Church, which frowned on grafting, believing it caused the plants to suffer. So he planted orchards from seed, which meant his apples were produced by cross-pollenation, which meant the apple genes got mixed around every time a bee pollinated an apple blossom. This produced lots of, well, spitters.

It was OK, though; the apples weren’t really meant for eating anyway. Their ultimate fate was to become apple cider. Hard apple cider, due to the disinfecting effects of the alcohol produced by fermentation, was often safer to drink than water. So cider became a beverage of choice for meals or just whenever you needed to wet your whistle. (Ironically, one reason many of Chapman’s trees didn’t survive to the present day was that they were cut down during Prohibition.)

Long term, the seed-grown apples won the genetic lottery, contributing to the large variety of apples we see today. And John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman remains an American legend, a legend firmly based in reality, though a reality slightly edited.