Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Misrepresentation of Johnny Appleseed

What do you know about Johnny Appleseed? Is it something like this?

A quote from one of the characters in my novel, wherein I scratch the surface of this misconstrued legend through fiction: "All I ever heard of you was that you would travel the American wilderness and plant apple orchards to feed the hungry colonists that came behind you because you were some kind of benevolent nature-spirit come down to Earth in the shape of a human being, or something like that.”

A devout follower of the fundamental Christian teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, John Chapman was an eccentric, to say the least. Rejecting the idea of the Trinity and believing the threefold god was found in Jesus alone, Swedenborg also believed that faith alone was not enough to save one's soul, and that one must also perform charitable acts to attain true salvation. Chapman followed this Swedenborgian doctrine to the letter, refusing to eat meat or harm even the tiniest of God's creatures. He befriended usually hostile Indians and was said to be quite fond of children. Preferring to go around barefoot at all times, he would entertain adoring audiences by walking over hot coals or sticking needles through the thick, leathery calluses on his feet.

Surely John Chapman did not intend or expect to be mythologized. But by the end of his life, he had become much more than man: Johnny Appleseed, one of the first homespun American folk heroes. A living legend.

So far, so good, right? Everything on par with what you remember? But about that thing with the apples...

In modern depictions, Johnny Appleseed usually shares the spotlight with seeds. Sackfuls of apple seeds. Apple seeds pouring from his hands into piles at his bare feet, often wearing nothing but a burlap sack and a tin cooking pot on his head (this attire is based on fact).

John Chapman did bring relief in the form of the apple to colonists, but not in the way you were taught in elementary school. He was known for carrying around apple seeds. Let me reemphasize: apple seeds. And the apples that grow on the branches of apple trees grown from directly from seeds are almost always inedible. In order to ensure an apple tree's fruit will taste good, it is necessary to graft the tree.

Grafting is a means of domesticating fruit trees where a shoot of the desired tree is fused into the trunk of the undesirable tree; basically a form of cloning plants. But John Chapman, habitual wanderer, did not stay in one place long enough to graft trees and cultivate orchards to their full, edible fruition. He dropped seeds, ensured the orchard would survive, and moved on down the line to the next plot of land. He often sold off the new orchards to colonists.

But if these orchards were filled with trees that produce only inedible apples, why would ol' Johnny even bother with them? And why would colonists be willing to pay for a bunch of worthless trees?

But that's the whole thing. The apple trees filled with uneatable fruit were far from worthless. In fact they were quite valuable. But for a different reason than eating, though these apples were consumed.

At that time in colonial America, what was there to do? Not much, you would think, and you would be right. And when there's not much to do, what do people do (besides reproduce like rabbits)?

They drink.

And where would they get their alcohol in this far-gone age of Manifest Destiny? From the corner liquor store? From the local brewery? Wish it into existence? No. Of course not.

The early American colonists' alcohol came from about the only place to get it: seedling apples. When pressed and allowed to ferment, seedling apples produce a hard cider about half the potency of wine. If frozen, voila!, you've got 70-proof applejack.

So, yeah, Johnny Appleseed brought relief to the colonists. In the form of drink.

Am I advocating the altering of the inspirational, "feel-good" legend of Johnny Appleseed? Am I proposing the complete stripping of myth from our childrens' minds? No. But perhaps the time has come for us adults to wrest the Appleseed banner from our youngest generation and hoist it as our own.


  1. Well, this is a very interesting post. I didn't know any of these things about Johnny Appleseed. Amazing what you never know!

  2. Hey, Belle. Thanks for the kind words. I don't think most Americans know this stuff about Johnny Appleseed, because it's so different from what most of us were taught growing up. The first I heard about it was a few years ago. Finding out the truth about ol' Johnny left me flabbergasted. In fact it left so much of an impression that it influenced my writing and wound up in "Fountain." Now, on my way to check out your blog!