4 Things You Didn't Know About Johnny Appleseed

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Johnny Appleseed - from Harper'sHere are four fascinating facts about Johnny Appleseed (aka John Chapman), who brought apples to the American frontier in the 1800's.

1. The Apples Were for Booze

Because apples don't "grow true" from seeds, most apple trees that grow from seeds produce sour, inedible fruit. Only a very rare tree actually sports edible, tasty apples. All the apples you see in grocery stores come from clones of an original tree, grown by grafting pieces of the original tree onto healthy bases of the inedible trees. So why did people want inedible apples on the American frontier? For hard cider, of course! Alcohol had many uses (beyond the obvious), and hard cider was a staple drink in nineteenth century America.

2. He Wore Some Pretty Crazy Clothes

Although experts disagree on the details, several accounts describe Johnny Appleseed as wearing a coffee sack as clothing, with a tin cooking pot for a hat. A tip for modern readers: sounds like an easy Halloween costume on the cheap!

3. He Was a Vegetarian, Respected Animals and Even Insects

Johnny Appleseed was a lifelong vegetarian, and took great care to protect animals, including insects -- very unusual viewpoints in the early 1800s. Henry Howe reported:

One cool autumnal night, while lying by his camp-fire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burnt. Johnny, who wore on his head a tin utensil which answered both as a cap and a mush pot, filled it with water and quenched the fire, and afterwards remarked, "God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort, that should be the means of destroying any of His creatures."

Another time he made his camp-fire at the end of a hollow log in which he intended to pass the night, but finding it occupied by a bear and cubs, he removed his fire to the other end, and slept on the snow in the open air, rather than disturb the bear.

(Though I've got to ask...who exactly would "disturb" a bear with cubs in order to sleep in its log? Perhaps people were tougher in the 1800s.)

4. He Believed He Would Have Two Spirit-Wives in the Afterlife

Johnny may have been a bit of a kook when it came to the ladies. He never married, and some reports describe him paying for foster care of a girl whom he later hoped to marry (though apparently she broke his heart around age 15). According to a Harper's article in 1871, Johnny believed that if he remained unmarried on earth, two "female spirits" would be his wives in the afterlife.

For more astounding information on Johnny Appleseed, check out the first section of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (my source for much of the information above), or check the Wikipedia article on Johnny Appleseed (aka John Chapman).

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December 7, 2007 - 9:04am
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