Break out the cider press, the peanut butter, or whatever you enjoy with your favorite apple. Johnny Appleseed Day is a national day of recognition with origins older than the republic itself.
Its inspiration – Johnny Appleseed – began sowing the seeds for American food culture and the expansion of the United States in the early nineteenth century, earning himself a nickname by 1806. After he died in 1845, the man became a legend whose legacy would endure in horticultural practices and in the very fabric of the American myth itself.
Was Johnny Appleseed the iconic rambling rover of legend, or was he something much more? Keep reading to learn more about this American hero and how to celebrate the day dedicated to his legacy.
When Is Johnny Appleseed Day?
Johnny Appleseed Day is September 26. The origins of the national day are unknown, but one thing is certain: Johnny Appleseed day isn’t on any old day.
John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman was born on September 26, 1774.
Who was Johnny Chapman and how did he earn such an enduring nickname to become a part of the fabric of American history? You’re about to find out.
Making America: Who Was Johnny Appleseed?
Johnny Appleseed is the name by which we now know John Chapman. John is a modern hero of American folklore: a conservation and horticultural legend part of a generation that began pushing westward towards the Mississippi River from the Atlantic Ocean.
John Chapman was born on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts – two years before the United States declared independence from Great Britain. The British colony of Massachusetts was in turmoil as a result of the American Revolutionary War.
Johnny was personally affected. His father was a minuteman who served at the Battle of Bunker Hill and defended New York against the British. While his father was away fighting for independence, Johnny’s mother passed away while giving birth to her third child, Johnny’s younger brother.
John’s father remarried after returning home from the war in 1780, and John moved westward with his brother where he wandered until his father and his newly extended family followed suit to buy a farm.
Johnny Appleseed got his name from a misinterpreted reputation as a rambling rover scattering apple seeds wherever he went. Truth served as the foundation of his reputation, but the legend doesn’t provide him the credit he’s due. Chapman didn’t haphazardly plant apple trees.
Though eccentric, he was no fool. Rather, John was a pragmatic orchardist and conservationist who carefully established nurseries in fertile areas to establish homesteads and eventually sell them on to new settlers migrating to the region.
The law in the early nineteenth century allowed any white man to claim unoccupied land by establishing it as a homestead. Planting a few dozen apple trees was an efficient way to establish a homestead without building. In fact, it was a legal standard. The Ohio Company of Associates granted land to those who planted 50 apple trees on a property in the Northwest Territories.
Hence comes the story of the wandering Johnny Appleseed. He wandered from Pennsylvania where he apprenticed under an orchardman to Illinois. He established land before swaths of settlers arrived and offered it for sale.
Chapman would die a serious landowner: he owned 1,200 acres across the Midwest when he passed away on March 11, 1845, at 70 years old.
Johnny Appleseed’s story is a child-friendly today, but his planting spree was also contemporary with his time. Chapman wasn’t traveling Pennsylvania planting golden delicious apples. His trees produced a fruit that was mostly unpalatable unless transformed into cider or applejack.
Alcohol was a common use for crops from the colonial period right through to and after the revolution. Rum was a common drink made from the by-products of sugar production, particularly in Chapman’s home state of Massachusetts where Medford rum served as the gold standard.
Cider was a popular choice for the apples grown in the soil – called spitters – because apples were too sour or tart to be enjoyed happily. In fact, the government provided cider rations to soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary War.
Apples were hardly eaten in their fruit form in the United States until the Prohibition years of the early twentieth century. On the frontier, cider offered a safe, stable beverage when water was dangerous and other crops to make beer was unavailable.
New Englanders arriving in the Midwest were believed to drink 10.52 ounces of cider per day, and it was on every table.
Johnny Appleseed And The Church Of Swedenborg
Much of the curiosity of John Chapman lay in his adherence to the Church of Swedenborg, a denomination of Christianity set up in 1787.
Chapman was an eccentric man even in his day. He traveled the American Midwest barefoot. He was a vegetarian and preacher. Chapman also had no heirs: the church promoted chastity, and Chapman appears to have taken his vows seriously.
The church forbade the use of grafting, which is a way of propagating trees. As part of his adherence to his faith, Chapman used seeds to plant his orchard, which is virtually unheard of among later and modern planters.
However, it’s possible that Johnny’s seed choice had a lasting impact. It's possible that his planting method created more varieties of apple and created a hardier because his trees never changed, which allowed them to adapt and flourish.
How To Celebrate Johnny Appleseed Day
Johnny Appleseed Day may be associated with apples, but there are so many ways to celebrate and honor the memory of a true American legend. Young or old, anyone can participate in sharing the legacy of this kind, if not eccentric, man.
Bake With Apples
Although Johnny’s apples weren’t suitable for baking, we now have plenty of apple varieties that make delicious treats. Consider whipping up some:
Any of these treats offer a tasty way to remember American history
Watch The Living Legend's Film About Johnny Appleseed
Disney made an American Legends film to share the story of Johnny Appleseed and his legacy on the American landscape. The film is perfect for kids and interesting for adults, and it corrects some of the misnomers commonly associated with the real man who would go on to become a caricature.
Learn More About Johnny And Other Pioneers
The United States didn’t extend far past the east coast for much of its early history. Dedicate time to learning about the brave and industrious Americans who made the trek from the relative security of the coasts to the unknown interiors where they built homesteads that would become villages, towns, and cities.
Some other colorful characters of the great migration included:
What other characters shaped the expansion of America? Did they pass through your town?
Learn More About Apples
As it turns out, apples aren’t as American as apple pie. The apple tree is a native of Central Asia where you still find the Malus siversii, its wild natural ancestor even today.
How did the apple tree make it from the mountains and steppes of Kazakhstan to the colonies?
European settlers brought apple seeds with them to Jamestown in 17097 when the first apple trees in North America were planted. These bitter apples were used to make cider.
What else can you learn about this well-traveled fruit? What role did Thomas Jefferson play in apple history?
One For The Adults: Enjoy Hard Apple Cider
Alcohol is intimately tied up with American history. Paul Revere stopped in Medford, Massachusetts for a glass of the good stuff before taking his famous midnight ride.
Cider was a staple of American life during the post-revolutionary years, and it quenched the thirst of virtually all pioneers heading west. In 2018, craft cider is on the up and up. Although it still ranks behind beer and other alcohols, the sale of craft cider expanded by 39% between 2015 and 2016, suggesting that cider is working its way back into American hearts.
Celebrate the legacy of Johnny Appleseed and the history of the pioneers by visiting a cidery or heading to a cider festival. Although the biggest brands of cider, like Angry Orchard, are owned by large beer companies, new, craft cideries are opening all the time.
The number of cideries across America jumped from 400 to 800 between 2013 and 2017. There’s bound to be one near you.
Visit One Of Johnny's Trees
The FBI took an ax to many of America’s historic orchards during Prohibition to prevent the temptation of homemade hooch, but one tree remains.
A 176-year-old tree in Nova, Ohio is the last tree standing planted by the legend himself. Locals use its fruit for cider and applesauce.