John Chapman, known to American children as Johnny Appleseed, really did exist and really did plant many acres of apple trees in what was then the frontier. But that’s not the whole story:
Starting in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates made a deal with potential settlers: anyone willing to form a permanent homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent settlement would be granted 100 acres of land. To prove their homesteads to be permanent, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years, since an average apple tree took roughly ten years to bear fruit.
Ever the savvy businessman, Chapman realized that if he could do the difficult work of planting these orchards, he could turn them around for profit to incoming frontiersmen. Wandering from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Chapman would advance just ahead of settlers, cultivating orchards that he would sell them when they arrived, and then head to more undeveloped land.
Disney didn’t tell me Johnny Appleseed was a real estate speculator. And there’s something else Disney didn’t tell me. The apples weren’t for eating. They were far too bitter.
It wasn’t that Chapman—or the frontier settlers—didn’t have the knowledge necessary for grafting, but like New Englanders, they found that their effort was better spent planting apples for drinking, not for eating. Apple cider provided those on the frontier with a safe, stable source of drink, and in a time and place where water could be full of dangerous bacteria, cider could be imbibed without worry. Cider was a huge part of frontier life, which Howard Means, author of Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story, describes as being lived “through an alcoholic haze.” Transplanted New Englanders on the frontier drank a reported 10.52 ounces of hard cider per day (for comparison, the average American today drinks 20 ounces of water a day). “Hard cider,” Means writes, “was as much a part of the dining table as meat or bread.”
Maybe it’s just as well that Disney left some things for kids to learn after they grew up.