Similar to the English legend of Robin Hood, the character Johnny Appleseed has evolved over time into a progressive icon. In the former, the famed outlaw, made an enemy of the government by reclaiming unjust taxes, became a socialist folklore hero who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor.” Johnny Appleseed, an American legend, is depicted as a selfless peripatetic, traveling the country planting apple trees so that nobody would go hungry. He lived an ascetic lifestyle, preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, and refused to hurt any of God’s creatures (one apocryphal tale claims that he angrily threw away his shoe out of guilt for having accidentally stepped on a worm).
Some of these fabled characteristics are based in truth. Johnny Appleseed did live well below his financial means, for example, giving people the false impression that he was a poor man. But Johnny Appleseed’s true accomplishments – the successful accumulation of wealth through entrepreneurial speculation and calculated claims to the private property he developed with his apple seeds – have been entirely omitted from the legends taught to schoolchildren. Accurately told, the life of Johnny Appleseed is a capitalist success story.
The legend of Robin Hood was a fiction born out of a different fiction, but the legend of Johnny Appleseed is a fiction born out of a real person. John Chapman was born on September 26, 1774, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who would later encourage his son to become an orchardist.
Apples, at this time, were not eaten very commonly. As a fruit, apples are radically heterozygous, meaning that a random apple seed is wildly unpredictable regarding the type of apple it will produce. Modern apples, such as the ever-popular “Red Delicious” that we still find in grocery stores today, are reliably reproduced in a process known as “grafting,” in which the stem of a new apple tree is planted into the “rootstock,” thus growing apples identical to the original tree rather than the random apples of an independent seed.
John Chapman didn’t believe in grafting. He saw it as an arrogant manipulation of nature that offended his sensibilities as a Christian. The practice of grafting did not become common in the United States until after Chapman’s death, so most apple trees produced apples that were bitter, mushy, or otherwise unfit for eating. The more common use of apples was the production of hard cider.
Prior to indoor plumbing, sanitary water was difficult to come by. You might boil the water, but this was a time-consuming process in an age when labor was needed for any number of other activities. For many members of the rural poor, it was much more prudent to simply produce alcoholic cider, which was vastly more healthy to drink than water found in nature (some people are appalled at the young age that parents gave their children alcohol in the early nineteenth century and before, but in the context of the time, it was often the healthier alternative).
The temperance movement would eventually, after Chapman’s death, push the apple industry toward food cultivation. The aforementioned “Red Delicious” came about from a nineteenth century contest to produce the best tasting apple, grafting became more widespread, and the slogan “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was popularized as a marketing strategy to encourage people to eat apples.
But during Chapman’s lifetime, apples were still predominantly used for alcohol, and when he traveled through Ohio and other undeveloped regions of the country planting apple orchards, he was anticipating the future desire of settlers to have cider, rather than food. And his speculation was profitable.
Contrary to legend, John Chapman’s choices as to where to plant his apple orchards were calculated business decisions. By planting the seed on unclaimed land, he was homesteading it, both in a libertarian sense and according to the legal system of the time. Developing apple orchards gave him a government-recognized claim to the land.
His orchards were an investment. Once he got them started, he moved on to new lands and planted an orchard there, as well. Eventually, he would return to a previous orchard – now fully developed – and sell the land to new settlers. They wanted land, and apple orchards were a valuable commodity that they no longer had to try to start on their own. John Chapman correctly anticipated the desires of future customers and profited handsomely from it.
The legend of Johnny Appleseed depicts him as a poor, itinerant nature-lover. That he loved nature is undoubtedly true. That he dressed himself modestly enough to give the appearance that he was poor is true as well. But the real John Chapman accumulated quite a bit of wealth over his lifetime. How much wealth he had is difficult to ascertain because he did not trust banks, choosing instead to bury his money in various places throughout his travels. However, it is not contested among historians who have studied him that he was a calculating businessman who died with a considerable amount of wealth and an estimated 1,200 acres of yet-unsold orchards.
Even in his lifetime, Johnny Appleseed (as he was known long before his death) was a beloved figure by those who knew of him. He was often offered lodging throughout his travels, he was popular with children, and when selling his seeds to individuals to plant their own orchards on land already acquired, he preferred to barter directly for goods rather than exchange indirectly with money. Combine these truths with his apparent love of nature and animals (though the extent of his nature-loving has almost certainly been exaggerated), and it is easy to understand why he became the mythologized icon of progressive morality. Johnny Appleseed is a man truly deserving to be considered an American hero, but first and foremost, he should be remembered as a hero of American capitalism.