Priceonomics

Johnny Appleseed is a historic figure that children learn spent his life planting apple trees in the American frontier to help feed new settlers. What that account misses, however, is that Johnny’s appleseeds brought settlers the gift of booze rather than food, as well as real estate claims that made him rich. If he were alive today, he would be Steve Jobs mixed with Tim Ferriss, most likely with a seat on the board of Whole Foods or the Sierra Club. 

Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, grew up in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. He seems to have spent time along the frontier before apprenticing with an apple orchardist. 

Johnny Appleseed was literally a legend in his own time, so reports of his life may mix fact and fiction. But a central part of his story is his unusual religious beliefs. Johnny Appleseed believed in the writings of Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, who spent the mid 1700s writing about a divine revelation revealed to him by God that inspired a new church and small following. Johnny Appleseed acted as a missionary and strongly interpreted Swedenborg’s message that the natural world reflects the divine world. 

This belief seems to have led him to a nomadic life on the frontier spent foraging off the land, enjoying the hospitality of frontier families, and preaching. Johnny Appleseed also walked without shoes, practiced vegetarianism for at least part of his life, and believed in kindness to animals. Stories tell of him freeing animals from traps (including a wolf he kept as a pet), buying a lame horse to save it from slaughter, and refusing to harm even a mosquito. 

Historians conjecture from these beliefs that Johnny Appleseed saw divine purpose in planting apple trees wide and far. But he did not do so at random - he had a canny business model. In sparsely populated areas where he expected settlers to arrive, he chose good land, planted a nursery of apple trees, and fenced in the area. Before moving on to plant other nurseries, he conscripted a neighbor to look after his investment. 

He returned as settlers arrived to sell his apple trees. In many cases he bought land for the nurseries and sold the improved land at a profit. Johnny Appleseed operated on a yearly cycle, with an eye for where a new town would pop up next. Observers suggest that apple and pear trees often served an important role in establishing land claims, making his land and trees particularly popular. 

(Somehow this blog keeps returning to land claims in America’s westward expansion, leaving this author with the uncomfortable realization that he still does not definitively know how they worked.)

But his trees were popular for another reason. Due to his religious beliefs and exaltation of nature, Johnny Appleseed did not believe in grafting. The trees of apple seeds produce fruit that is extremely bitter. To produce delicious apples requires selecting for the trees with the tastiest fruit via grafting. For this reason, his apples were likely used primarily to produce hard cider. Journalist Michael Pollan writes

Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.

One blogger, noting that Americans used apples for cider more than nourishment until the 1900s, explains:

Cider was safer, tastier, and easier to make than corn liquor. You pressed the apples to produce juice, let the juice ferment in a barrel for a few weeks, and presto! you had a mildly alcoholic beverage, about half the strength of wine. For something stronger, the cider could be distilled into brandy or frozen into applejack (about 66 proof). In rural areas, cider took the place not only of wine and beer but also of coffee, juice, even water.

But bringing booze to the party is not enough to make you a legend - Johnny Appleseed’s eccentricity made him a folk hero. Despite his financial success, he eschewed possessions or comforts. Believing rewards were to come in heaven based on charitable living, he preached, wore disheveled garments, foraged food off the land, and kept as one of his sole possession a tin cooking pot that he also wore on his head as a hat. 

He often helped those in need on the frontier and, despite his business savvy, his payment plans were more morality based than profit-maximizing. His kindness to Native Americans allowed him welcome anywhere in the frontier, and some Native Americans seem to have viewed him as spiritually attuned. 

Historians note that Johnny Appleseed must have made quite the houseguest as he showed up in odd clothing with a pot on his head, preaching, telling stories of his travels, and showing off his leathery, calloused feet. When he died at the age of 70, he owned over 1,200 choice acres of land. An essay describing his life was published coincidentally the year after his death, inspiring more accounts until an 1871 story in Harper's New Monthly Magazine endowed him with national fame.

The legend grew, with statues to Johnny Appleseed dotting the region where he spent his life. But the sanitized story left out Appleseed’s unusual religion, business savvy, and, most importantly, the fact that his apple trees meant booze not food. This sowed the seeds for generations of American adults to delightedly learn his true story, as we (with a hat tip to Reddit) did after years of believing the sojourning entrepreneur to be the stuffy figure of elementary school lessons.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.



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