Hard Cider and the Election of 1840


1840 Campaign Almanac

1840 Campaign Almanac

Over the last decade, the United States has experienced a cider renaissance, with new craft cider makers coming on the scene in virtually every region of the nation. Today’s craft cider makers are making extraordinary efforts to produce fine single variety and blended ciders, and their efforts are paying off. As an American historian, and someone who delights in both eating and drinking apples, the rebirth of American cider is an exciting time. From the early colonial period, throughout the first half of the the 19th century, Americans consumed great quantities of cider. But if the truth be told, American cider in these early years was not always top quality. European visitors often wrote disparagingly of America’s early cider makers, claiming that they often pressed half rotten and worm-eaten apples, and were haphazard in the way they monitored the fermentation process. Quantity, not quality, appeared to be the over-riding value for many American cider makers, and most of the cider was consumed at home or bartered locally.  But cider was cheap and widely available, and had earned a reputation as the common man’s drink. It is perhaps no surprise then, that in an age of rising populism in politics, hard cider would emerge as the symbol of a candidate courting the common man’s vote.

The election campaign of 1840 was a watershed moment in American politics.  Voter turnout among eligible voters reached an all-time high, with nearly 80% of those eligible casting their vote.  It also represented an opportunity for the relatively new William_Henry_Harrison_Presidential_$1_Coin_obverseWhig party to finally gain control of the White House.  Since his election to the Presidency in 1828, Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party had  dominated American politics by successfully presenting itself as the party of the common man.   But in 1840, the nation was still plunged in the depression brought on by the financial Panic of 1837 and voters were discontent. The dangers of a unpredictable national market rekindled a bit of nostalgia for the “simpler times” of the frontier, self-provisioning farms, and local trade among many voters, and in 1840 the Whig Party was ready to exploit this nostalgia. After settling on old war hero William Henry Harrison for their presidential candidate, the Whigs were handed an opportunity when a Democratic newspaper, suggesting that Harrison was too old to run for president sneered, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of his ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”

Harrison supporters seized on the log cabin and hard cider elements of the insult to suggest that Democratic President Van Buren and his supporters were elitists who disdained the lifestyle of the simple self-provisioning, cider-making and cider-drinking farmer.

Pull the tab and Van Buren is unhappy to find his fancy champagne replaced with common cider.

Pull the tab and Van Buren is unhappy to find his fancy champagne replaced with common cider.

One Harrison campaign souvenir was a paper card with an image which changed when a tab was pulled on the bottom. The first image the viewer encountered was of an aristocratic-looking Van Buren, smiling as he sipped fancy “White House Champagne” from a goblet.  Once the tab was pulled, the goblet was replaced with “an ugly mug of log cabin hard cider,” Van Buren’s eyes rolled up into his head, as he made the familiar “bitter beer face” expression.  The message was clear: this guy thinks he’s too good to drink what you and I drink. Don’t vote for him!

Harrison's log cabin. Sea coal burning in the fireplace, barrels of hard cider stacked outside.

Harrison’s log cabin in 1840 campaign literature. Sea coal burning in the fireplace, barrels of hard cider stacked outside.

Harrison’s supporters declared their man to be the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, a perverse political twist on many levels. Far from being born in a log cabin, Harrison was born on a James River plantation, a descendant of one of Virginia’s elite, slaveholding families. Even most of his days as a military officer in the West were spent at Grouseland, a magnificent estate, surrounded by grafted fruit trees and gardens, which he had built in Vincennes during his time as governor of the Indiana territory.  In a more transparently ironical way, Harrison supporters built old fashioned log cabins on the decks of modern steamboats and powered from town to town to win votes for their hard cider drinking hero.

Berkeley Plantation, Harrison's actual birthplace.

Berkeley Plantation, Harrison’s actual birthplace. No cider barrels evident.

While the “hard cider” meme went over quite well with ordinary voters, it threatened to alienate one of the Whig Party’s most loyal interests: the temperance movement. Temperance reformers had been working to eradicate cider orchards since the late 1820s, and they threatened to abandon the party for promoting alcohol consumption.

The Temperance movement's take on the Hard Cider Campaign

The Temperance movement’s take on the Hard Cider Campaign

Intemperance has become the badge of a political party!” harrumphed the New York Evangelist. “Yes, intelligent men–men who have enjoyed the benefits of Christian teachings–and who live in a land of gospel light–are called upon to exhibit their enthusiasm for political strife, by drinking hard cider, made harder by hard brandy, for the Glory of General Harrison!” The Evangelist predicted that “more than ten thousand men will be made drunkards in one year by this hard cider enthusiasm.” A writer in another New York paper, declaring it “a burning shame that the flag of my country waves over such mockery and abomination, as though her stars and stripes were not insulted by being associated with such iniquity,” issued a warning to the Harrison campaign. Should these grog-dispensing log cabins be opened on “Sunday, either day or night,” the Whigs would lose the votes of so many temperance men that it would negate the effect of this pandering.

Harrison-log-cabin-campaignBut however much the log cabin and hard cider campaign exasperated temperance Whigs, the strategy worked. Americans, troubled by the economic malaise that had fallen upon the country in 1837, embraced a nostalgia for a simpler time when their fates were not tied to mysterious market forces beyond their control. Log cabins and hard cider were a perfect symbol of that lost past. Hard apple cider represented not just a celebration of the disappearing self-provisioning lifestyle, but it was also a protest against do-gooder moral reformers bent on telling ordinary people how to live and what to drink. It did not seem to matter that the Whig Party’s soft money, pro-development economic policy promised to accelerate the market revolution, or that those moral do-gooders were most commonly associated with the Whig party. This was political triangulation at its finest. Voters were won over by the celebration of the seedling apple orchard and its homegrown product. And it worked. Harrison defeated Van Buren handily.

Van Buren being chased by a flying barrel of hard cider.

Van Buren being chased by a flying barrel of hard cider.

The campaign may well have proved to be a curse for hard cider, however.  As the economy improved after 1843, nostalgia for “the olden days” quickly faded, and the 1840 campaign had pretty thoroughly linked cider with those old, primitive ways.  As German immigrants flooded into North America, many established breweries, and beer, not associated with those unrefined frontier days, began to replace cider as the beverage of choice. Today’s craft cideries may finally be undoing the damage done by the Whig Party and their “hard cider campaign.”

The Sherfy Peach Orchard


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the first in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Joseph Sherfy, peach grower and minister in the Marsh Creek Church of the Brethren

Joseph Sherfy, peach grower and minister in the Marsh Creek Church of the Brethren

Joseph Sherfy purchased land along the Emmitsburg Road, south of the town of Gettysburg, in 1842. Sherfy was a striver, and decades later his obituary declared that “he made out of sterile acres a most productive farm [and] deservedly stood in the front rank of intelligent and successful agriculturists.” Planting much of his land in peach trees, by the eve of the Civil War Joseph Sherfy’s peaches, which he sold fresh, dried, and canned, were locally famous, and his orchard appeared on an 1858 map of Adams county. The business supported Joseph, his wife Mary, and their six children.

When the Union army reached Gettysburg on the first of July 1863, Joseph Sherfy and his family were ready to help, providing water and bread to thirsty and hungry soldiers. The next day they were forced to evacuate their home, and did not return until the battle was over.

The vulnerable Union salient in Jospeh Sherfy's Peach Orchard. From Bradly Gotffried's Maps of Gettysburg

The vulnerable Union salient in Jospeh Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. From Bradley Gotffried’s Maps of Gettysburg

On days two and three of the battle, the Sherfy farm was in the midst of the conflict. A decision made by Union General Dan Sickles, against the orders of his commanding officer, ensured that Joseph Sherfy’s Peach Orchard would never be forgotten. Ordered to hold his men in a line that extended south of the town of Gettysburg to a hill called Little Round Top, Sickles’ decided instead to move his men forward to another spot of high ground in the middle of Sherfy’s orchard, a position he believed would be more defensible. By doing so, Sickles created a sharp bend in the line, a vulnerable “salient,” in the language of war, which could be attacked by the Confederate army from two sides. By the time Commanding General Meade realized what Sickles had done, easy retreat was not possible, and the soldiers in Sherfy’s Peach Orchard faced withering fire for several hours before those not killed were able to retreat. The fighting in and around the peach orchard salient is remembered as among the fiercest of the three day battle.

One of the few surviving images of the original Sherfy orchard, in William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg, Then and Now: Touring the Battlefield with Old Photos, 1865-1889.

One of the few surviving images of the original Sherfy orchard, in William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg, Then and Now: Touring the Battlefield with Old Photos, 1865-1889.

What the Sherfy’s found when they returned to their home after the battle surely disheartened them. Their barn had been burnt to the ground, the exterior of their home was riddled with bullets, and the interior had been ransacked by Confederate soldiers. The soils in the orchard and elsewhere on the farm had been hastily dug up, with the corpses of soldiers buried wherever they had fallen, while forty-eight dead horses remained strewn about the orchard, swelling and decomposing in the summer heat. The Sherfy’s estimated their losses as $2500, but like most residents of the village, were awarded little or no compensation from the government.

Yet the peach trees in the orchard where so many men and beasts fell, rattled by canister and rifle fire, mostly survived. In the ensuing years, Joseph Sherfy’s peach orchard became a popular stop with returning veterans and curious visitors. Veterans shared their stories with the Sherfy’s and Mary Sherfy collected pictures of these men, displaying them on a wall in her home. Veterans of the battle, as well as tourists, were eager to view and touch a large cherry tree which stood alongside the Sherfy home, which had a 12 pound ball lodged deep within its trunk. “Soldiers and veterans saw trees (and their fragments) . . . as objects that provided access to the past, a vital link to the landscape of war they had created,” Mary Kate Nelson reminds us in Ruin Nation, her fascinating study of the war’s aftermath. Before they departed, both veteran and tourist to the Sherfy farm took away with them a souvenir of another sort–canned or dried peaches from the Sherfy’s surviving orchard.

Joseph Sherfy died in 1881, but his famous peach orchard survived him, and drew more visitors with each passing year. Just when and why the Sherfy orchards was uprooted I do not yet know. But for decades, the land remembered for the bloody fighting at “the peach orchard,” contained no peach trees at all.

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The battle of Gettysburg was waged on the many family farms which surrounded the village, and most of these farms had orchards in 1863.  The Sherfy’s peach orchard is the most remembered of these, but all across the battlefield, soldiers sought shelter from unrelenting fire beneath the trunks of fruit trees. In recent years the National Parks Service has begun an effort to restore many of its preserved battlefields to their condition on the eve of the battles fought there. In line with those efforts, the NPS has

T-shirts, peach taffy, and aprons, adorned with the Sherfy Peach Orchard logo, are now for sale at the Gettysburg Visitors Center.

T-shirts, peach taffy, and aprons, adorned with the Sherfy Peach Orchard logo, are now for sale at the Gettysburg Visitors Center.

partnered with local volunteer organizations to replant and maintain many of the fruit orchards which dotted the landscape of war.  Gettysburg National Battlefield Park has perhaps done more than any other battlefield, and today dozens of young orchards are rising out of Gettysburg’s soils. New orchards also appear on the Trostle and Rose farms, adjacent to the Sherfy’s Emmitsburg Road farm. Many of the Confederate soldiers who assaulted Sherfy’s Peach Orchard did so from the Rose Farm’s apple orchard, which witnessed destruction as bad or worse than that inflicted upon the Sherfy Orchard. One early postwar visitor to the Rose farm declared that “No one farm on all the widely extended battlefield probably drank as much blood as did the Rose farm.”

William Kerrigan is the Cole Distinguished Professor of American History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard.  He is currently working on orchards in American History.  Other posts in this series on Civil War Battlefield Orchards include:

The Apples of Antietam

Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock

The Perils and Promise of Restoring Battlefield Orchards

Johnny Appleseed and Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley

Sherfy from Air

 

The Apples of Antietam


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the third in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

An Army marches on its stomach.” This old adage, commonly attributed to Napoleon, was certainly one every Union and Confederate soldier understood. Soldiers spent a great deal of time thinking about their stomachs: what last went into them, and what might next go into them. Even when rations were plentiful, they were nonetheless dependably monotonous—salt pork, hard tack, and desiccated vegetables were standard fare. When opportunities arose to satisfy their stomachs with something different, soldiers could go to extraordinary lengths to seize them. This truth was perhaps no more dramatically demonstrated than at Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Fall of 1862, on the bloodiest single day of the war. The battle of Antietam has long been remembered for the fierce fighting which occurred in the cornfield, the West Woods, along Bloody Lane, and at Burnside’s Bridge, but actions that day in the Piper Orchard were also worthy of commemoration.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I'd like to think it's actually an apple.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I’d like to think it’s actually an apple.

The Piper apple orchard sat on a hill just south of the Sunken Road, where on the morning of the battle Confederate forces were entrenched in what appeared to be an impregnable defensive position. But once flanked by Union forces, the Sunken Road quickly became a death pit now memorialized as Bloody Lane. To the South of the Sunken Road on a hillside resided the Piper cornfield and orchard, and it was to this ground that Robert E. Lee sent a division of 4,000 men in an effort to rescue their trapped comrades. While this high ground allowed the Confederates to fire upon Union forces north and west of the Sunken Road, it also left the soldiers in that orchard terribly exposed to both Union artillery and rifle fire. Caught at the highest, most exposed part of the orchard, Georgia’s 22nd Infantry hunkered down, as minie balls flew over their heads and canister shot rattled the apple trees around them. Private W.B. Judkins, a member of that Georgia regiment recalled “the company was in the thick of the fight there in the apple orchard and cornfield. The ground was covered with apples where we fought, shot off the trees.” Judkins himself was wounded by schrapnel, but he and his fellow Georgians wasted no opportunity and instinctively grabbed as many fallen apples as they could.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Later that afternoon, the focus of the battle shifted south to Burnside’s Bridge, but the scene near Bloody Lane and the Piper Orchard was far from peaceful. Confederates continued to use the high ground of the Piper farm and orchard to fire upon Union forces now firmly in control of the area around Bloody Lane. At this point, seizing the high ground of the Piper Orchard had no strategic importance, so Major Thomas Hyde was a bit shocked to receive orders from Colonel William Irwin to send his 7th Maine regiment—diminished by earlier fights to only about 200 men—to take the Piper Orchard from a Confederate force at least four times as large. The Maine men did so, but soon found themselves pinned down in the hilltop orchard, with no support coming from other regiments behind them. Thomas Hyde remembered “how the twigs and branches of the apple-trees were being cut off by musket balls and were dropping in a shower.” Another member of the regiment recalled how  “bullets, men and apples were dropping on all sides.” Nonetheless, in a fight so fierce that Captain John B. Cook declared it was in the Piper orchard that he “learned how thickly bullets could fly,” the fearless and hungry men of the 7th Maine were reaching up into the branches of the trees to gather apples.

When the fighting finally ended that evening, more than one in three of Georgia’s apple-gathering soldiers were casualties, while Maine’s second-harvesters lost more than half their regiment.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union's Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union’s Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

The Piper Orchard at Antietam, like the Sherfy Orchard at Gettysburg, survived the war but not the century. When the Congress acquired the battlefield at Antietam and established a national park, there were no more apple trees on Piper hill. In 2002, as part of a wider effort to restore National Battlefields to their pre-battle landscapes, Antietam National Battlefield replanted 6.5 acres in apple trees, selecting 19th century varieties; five years later, they planted an additional 13.5 acres, this time including some modern disease-resistant varieties. Protecting the young orchard from the ravages of deer has been a challenge, and today about half of the trees in the orchard are surrounded by sturdy deer-proof fencing. Slowly but surely, the Piper Orchard is returning to something looking a bit like its 1862 appearance.

long.road.antietamA detailed description of the 7th Maine’s fateful charge into the orchard can be found here.  For a thrilling description of the entire battle, including the experience of the Georgia 22nd in the Piper Orchard, pick up Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam.  More about the efforts of Antietam staff and volunteers to restore the Piper Orchard can be found here and and also at the Save Historic Antietam Foundation website.

Excellent, detailed maps of the entire battlefield, including the locations of the Piper and other orchards can be found in Bradley Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

An Unnatural History of Orange Juice


McPhee.oranges.1In 1965 John McPhee drove down to Florida during the harvest season, anticipating the opportunity to taste Florida’s famous orange juice at its freshest. When he stopped at a state welcome center promising free Florida orange juice, he was disappointed to be handed a small cup of juice reconstituted from frozen concentrate. Along the highway he noticed a sign for a restaurant which advertised orange juice, the word “fresh” still barely visible after being covered in white paint. And at a motel restaurant surrounded by orange groves, a waitress explained to him that all they offered was reconstituted juice. In 1965, nobody wanted fresh orange juice.  “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” the waitress explained. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.” McPhee wandered through the brave new world of hydroponically grown trees and frozen concentrated orange juice as an outsider—a man from another, much earlier time.  His description of the Florida citrus industry in an earlier stage of its embrace of industrialized processes is a fascinating read today, and it leaves the reader wondering if he had any idea what the next half century would bring. Could he have predicted that in 2013, most Americans would abandon the frozen concentrate, which seemed the height of modern back in the 1960s, and instead embrace something officially called “not-from-concentrate” because they believed–wrongly–it was somehow more authentic and natural, and, well, almost “fresh?”

Graphic from Business Week.

Graphic from Business Week.

Today the biggest American orange juice brands are subsidiaries of the two soda pop giants, Coke and Pepsi. A recent article in Business Week describes the very complex processes employed by soda giants to deliver consistent, “fresh-tasting” orange juice to grocery stores twelve months a year:  “The raw juice is . . . flash-pasteurized and piped to storage tanks as large as 2 million gallons each for up to eight months. Inside the tanks, the juice is slowly agitated at the bottom so it doesn’t settle. A nitrogen gas blanket at the top keeps out rot-inducing oxygen. Batches of juice from various crops and seasons are segregated based on features such as orange type, sweetness, and acidity. In-season juice is typically mixed with off-season juice.” Flavor essences are extracted from rind and pith, then eventually reintroduced into the juice. Coca Cola chemists employ an algorithm they call “Black Book” to ensure that the juices from these older and newer oranges, as well as the flavor essences, are mixed exactly right to achieve perfect consistency in taste.

squeezedThe juices created by these processes appear in the supermarket under brand names like Simply Orange, which touts itself as “honestly simple” and Tropicana Pure Premium, which declares itself to be “100% Pure and Natural.” To be fair, anyone who takes the time to visit Tropicana’s website can watch this video “Grove to Glass: How Tropicana Makes Juice,” and learn how complex the process actually is. But is it deceptive to declare that these juices are “honestly simple,” “fresh-tasting” and “100% Pure and Natural” on their labels? Alissa Hamilton, author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice argues that the typical consumer of orange juice believes they are getting something closer to fresh, when they plunk down extra coin for juices that tout themselves as “not from concentrate” and “never frozen.”

Perhaps Americans, caught between the conflicting desires for fresh and natural, on one hand, and convenience, consistency, and “permanent global summertime” on the fresh a perishableother are willingly bamboozled. Or perhaps the very meaning of terms like “natural” and “fresh” are in flux. In her fascinating book Fresh: A Perishable History Susan Freidberg contends that the very meaning of the word “fresh” has changed as we have developed new technologies to keep things from spoiling. Freidberg examines the changing meanings of “fresh” for a range of food products, from fruits and vegetables to milk, fish, and beef. “On the surface, few food qualities seem as unquestionably good as freshness. Dig a little deeper,” Freidberg warns, “and few qualities appear more complex and contested. At bottom, the history of freshness reveals much about our uneasy appetites for modern living, especially in the United States.”

The May Apple


A not quite ready may apple at the New Concord Reservoir woods.

A not quite ready may apple at the New Concord Reservoir woods.

At this time of year, in the woods where I walk my dogs every day, the forest floor is covered with may apples. They were even the first green shoot to rise up out of the blackened soil after a fire recently burned a section of these woods.  The may apple is one of the many wild fruits indigenous to North America, harvested and enjoyed by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans on these shores.  My friend Jason Mancini, senior researcher at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut, calls the may-apple “the sweetest fruit.” I have never been able to taste it myself, for as soon as the green fruit ripens to yellow in midsummer, the animals of my forest gobble them up. (If you decide to experiment on your own, know that the plant itself is poisonous, and the unripe fruit can have a laxative effect.) One early European explorer who tasted the fruit, considered a delicacy by Native Americans, declared that it “taste like apricocks.”

Many early engravings of North America depicted a land of extraordinary abundance.

Many early engravings of North America depicted a land of extraordinary abundance.

Early European explorers of North America paid close attention to the fruits of the land, and most did not hesitate to try the strange fruits they encountered, offering up descriptions of both their taste and their abundance. These early chroniclers sought to assess the suitability of these lands for European settlement, and they devoted much space to describing the soils, climate, and “air,” but also the abundance or scarcity of wild game, fish, birds, and wild fruits. By describing a landscape as “fruitful” colonial promoters were declaring that it promised abundance, health, and prosperity to those willing to colonize it. In contrast, any lands lacking in edible, delectable fruits were to be avoided. On a more practical level, an abundance of edible wild fruits, nuts, and berries (as well as fish and game) could be an important source of sustenance in the first years of any colony.

Colony promoters often tried to paint a picture of a New World Eden, where ripe fruits could be simply plucked from bushes and trees without labor. “This Countrey is a fruitfull soile, bearing many goodly and fruitfull Trees” declared George Percy, an early promoter of the Virginia colony. Percy described encountering “a little plat of ground full of fine and beautifull Strawberries, foure times bigger and better than ours in England” and an American wilderness as “all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had beene in any Garden or Orchard in England.”

Thomas Harriot, holding an apple.

Thomas Harriot, holding an apple.

Thomas Harriot, another early English promoter of colonization visited Virginia in 1590 and found “the soils to be fatter” and “more plenty of their fruits, more abundance of their beastes.” Harriot wrongly identified persimmons as a type of Medlar, and described the prickly pear as “a kind of pleasant fruit.” New world grapes he deemed “a merchantable commodity” and declared the native wild strawberries “as good and as great as those we have in our English gardens.” Other fruits he identified as familiar were “mulberries, apple-crabs . . . and hurtleberries.” Almost two centuries later, William Bartram noted that North American strawberries were “a finer, [more] delicate fruit” than any grown in Europe, and another traveler described them as covering the ground “as with a red cloth.” The abundance of fruit suggested a life beyond mere survival, and one in which the promise of comfort, even luxury was possible.  Who could not read a description of abundant fields of strawberries and trees bending downward under the weight of fruit and not taste the sweet juice on their tongue, or feel it dripping over their lip and down their chin?

Roman politician Lucullus, gastronome of the first order.

Roman politician Lucullus, gastronome of the first order.

Reactions to the first tastes of New World fruits were mixed. Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano described the native crab apples of the Americas to be “apples worthy of Lucullus.” As Native Americans generally roasted them in the fire or marinated them in maple syrup to counter the crab apple’s bitterness, perhaps Verrazano’s first impression was the result of taste buds conditioned during a long sea journey by the consumption of dried up limes. In contrast, one Englishman warned others to be careful with the persimmon, for “if it be not ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”

While adventurous explorers and promoters often provided positive reports of native fruits, other European observers were less enthusiastic about New World varieties. Historian Alfred Crosby has pointed out that “Europeans would come to the New World in great numbers only if a dependable supply [of] familiar European food was available.” Cultural prejudices which Europeans brought with them to the Americas made many at first reluctant to adopt Native American foods, and typically did so only out of necessity. English settlers put aside their initial prejudice against Indian maize, for example, only after confronting the reality that it was much easier to plant and tend in unbroken soils than English wheat and barley.

Father Paul Le Jeune

Father Paul Le Jeune

Upon his arrival in Quebec in 1634, Jesuit Father Paul LeJeune declared that “all the fruits they have (except strawberries and raspberries, which they have in abundance) are not worth one single species of the most ordinary fruits of Europe,” and promptly set out several rows of Old World apples and peaches to remedy the perceived deficiency. As waves of Europeans migrated to North America and established permanent colonies, they brought the fruits of their home with them.  Some, like the Old World apple and peach thrived in the new environment, and some Native American tribes began to cultivate them and incorporate them into their diet. At the same time, Europeans grew to value many of North America’s indigenous fruit, including the pumpkin, blueberries and indigenous strawberries.  But the fruits of the wild may apple, which still fill the forest floors of much of eastern North America, has mostly been left for other animals to enjoy.

May Apples were the first plants to sprout from the forest floor after a recent fire.

May Apples were the first plants to sprout from the forest floor after a recent fire.

The War On the Cider Apple


johnny appleseed coverJohn “Appleseed” Chapman was a propagator of seedling apple trees–trees whose fruit was of unpredictable quality and often too bitter for fresh-eating.  While early 19th century farmers could find many home uses for seedling apples, among the most common uses was the production of hard cider.  As improved roads and canals began to link more rural Americans into the market economy, the seedling apple tree came under increasing assault, not just from agricultural reformers who disdained it for its lack of commercial value, but also from temperance reformers who viewed it as an important source for alcohol.  The following excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard explains how the temperance movement’s war of the poor seedling apple tree emerged:

. . . by the end of the 1820s, the threat to John Chapman’s seedling orchards was not simply economic and scientific but, increasingly, moral. Fruit from a seedling tree had many uses for a family of course, but in a world where more and more farmers grew food to sell rather than consume, the seedling orchard came to be seen as having just one purpose, the production of hard cider and cider brandy. Per capita alcohol consumption rates in the United States were among the highest in the world in the 1820s, and a temperance movement emerged to combat the evil of drink. Whiskey and other distilled spirits were the focus of many of the early temperance advocates, as their extremely high alcohol content made them the greatest threat. Homemade apple 220px-Peter-Cartwrightcider began its life free from alcohol, then gradually fermented to a content of 6 to 8 percent. “New cider” was the term most frequently used for that beverage that had yet to ferment. When the circuit-riding minister Peter Cartwright stopped at an inn for a dinner of hot bread, he and his companion washed it down with “new cider.” It was not until they mounted their horses and renewed their journey that they realized the refreshing beverage they had so eagerly quaffed was not so new, as both men had trouble staying upright on their horses. Because the alcohol content of cider was not enough to ward off the growth of bacteria, cider-makers frequently fortified it with corn whiskey or other distilled spirits to get its alcohol content above 10 or 12 percent. Another common method was to leave the barrels outside on a cold night and scrape off the ice that formed in the top half of the barrel overnight; what was left behind, often called applejack had roughly double the alcohol content.

Some early advocates of temperance viewed hard cider as relatively harmless, even as moral thermometera healthful alternative to distilled spirits. Benjamin Rush was among the earliest advocates of moderation in the consumption of alcohol and boasted that a crowd of seventeen thousand who had gathered in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, celebrated with nothing but beer and cider, “those invaluable federal liquors” in Rush’s construction, in contrast to hard liquor, which he associated with antifederalism. Rush also produced a “moral and physical thermometer” assessing various beverages on their health and moral properties. Water, milk, and “small beer” were at the top and the drinks of the truly temperate, while gin, whiskey, and rum were the beverages of the most dissipated. But Rush placed “Cider and Perry” just below the beverages of the truly temperate and suggested their effects were not all bad–that they produced “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment, when taken only at meals, and in moderate quantities.” Farm laborers seemed to agree, as farmers who took on hired hands in the harvesting season were expected to provide their workers with a ready supply of hard cider to refresh them and keep up their strength.

In its earliest years, leading advocates of temperance called for moderation in the consumption of alcohol and the avoidance of distilled spirits. But as the movement gained steam in the 1820s, an “ultraist” faction began pressing for total abstention from alcohol. They rejected the view that cider-drinking should be tolerated or seen as a “healthy” alternative to distilled spirits. A man could get drunk on cider as surely as he could on whiskey. “It takes a long time to make a man a drunkard on cider,” one anti-cider crusader declared, “but when made, he is thoroughly made, is lazy, bloated, stupid, cross and ugly, wastes his estate, his character, and the happiness of his family.” Another ultra who campaigned against hard cider claimed its effect on families was often worse than distilled spirits. He cited the wife of a cider-drunkard who had told him that “cider made [the drunkard] more brutal and ferocious in his family. Rum overcame him quicker, laid him prostrate and helpless on the floor, or in the ditch; cider excited him and gave him the rage and the strength of a maniac.”

cider barrelBy the late 1820s, the ascendant ultraist faction in the temperance movement began to point an accusing finger at the farmer’s seedling apple trees. An article republished in religious and agricultural journals across the country in 1827 raised the question “What Shall I Do with My Apples?” Its author was determined to make the cider apple the newest front in the contest between God and Mammon, declaring that this was a question every Christian farmer should be asking himself. “If he gathers his apples, of course he must make them into cider; and if he makes the cider, of course he must sell it; and if he is to sell it, of course he must sell it to the distiller, or procure it distilled and then sell the brandy; and if the brandy is sold, it must be drank, and in this way every barrel will make and circulate liquid fire enough to ruin a soul, if not destroy a life.” The author of the piece rejected the farmer’s argument that to leave apples to rot was to waste God’s bounty and instead cast the farmer as acting in pursuit of profits in the marketplace at the expense of his neighbors. “If no other market can be found for our cider, but at the still, let it be a matter of conscientious inquiry with every farmer, whether it is right for him to make more cider than he wants for reasonable use in his own family” when he knows his surplus will be distilled into cider brandy and sold to the intemperate. The author of the piece concluded that the only righteous path for the Christian farmer to take in regards to his seedling trees was to “burn them.”

cider appleOthers began to pile on. A correspondent in Cincinnati’s Western Observer said that farmers who raised fruit for the cider and brandy market would only join the temperance crusade “if ever the dictates of conscience get the ascendancy over the mammon of unrighteousness,” framing the problem in the familiar language of a struggle between market-driven capitalism and Christian values. A letter in The Western Recorder condemned “a certain innkeeper for purchasing two barrels of Hard cider for $1.25 each” and selling it to his customers, one of whom “had a bill of $8 charged to him for his portion of the cider, which, at six pence a quart, would amount to thirty-two gallons!” The innkeeper was “a professor of religion” and therefore should have refused to sell alcohol. Instead, he had made a nice profit at the drunkard’s expense. By putting “the bottle to the mouth of his neighbor, [he] has done the deed, and is now calculating . . . on the wages of his iniquity.” The Western Christian Advocate recounted the story of a good temperance man and churchgoer who was regularly in the habit of turning his surplus apples into cider until the day he encountered a neighbor and fellow church member who got drunk on it. Troubled by his complicity in his friend’s downfall, he destroyed his cider press and never made the beverage again.

But other campaigners against cider, perhaps conceding that in a contest between piety and profit the latter would ultimately win, began to make the case that taking apples to the cider mill was neither in the farmer’s moral nor in his pecuniary interest. The costs of the hired hands required to gather all of the apples, the efforts to get the fruit to the cider mill, and the fees for processing them into cider were greater than the returns, these writers claimed, as cider fetched such low prices on the market. A more profitable strategy was for the farmer to let the hogs have those apples not fit for fresh eating. Self-provisioning farmers had long followed this practice, as it kept orchard floors clean and their small stock of half-wild pigs fat, and it required little of their scarce labor. But now horticultural improvers converted to temperance promoted fattening hogs on cider apples to a class of farmers concerned with maximizing the revenue on their farms. Those seedling apples lying on the orchard floor could be “converted” to pork with little effort. Both religious magazines and the agricultural journals devoted to improvement enthusiastically embraced the strategy of fattening hogs destined for markets on the old orchard’s windfalls.

By 1829, at least a few farmers had taken the advice of “burn them” to heart. One report circulated in several journals told of a New Haven, Connecticut, gentleman who “ordered a fine apple orchard to be cut down, because the fruit may be converted into an article to promote intemperance.” The editor of the New York Enquirer mocked this wasteful action, opining that “in this age of Anti-Societies, we may soon see the worthless of the land in league, to establish an Anti-Apple and Anti-RyeSociety. Every time and age has its mania:–We hope the world will sober down before dooms-day.” The story of the monomaniacal temperance man destroying apple orchards became part of the folklore of New England and the Midwest, and not only missing orchards 230px-Henry_David_Thoreaubut also abandoned ones were attributed to the zeal of the reformers. Years later, Henry David Thoreau bemoaned the loss of seedling apple trees across the New England countryside. He repeated a story he had heard “of an orchard in a distant town on the side of a hill where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider.” Thoreau was nostalgic for that time “when men both ate and drank apples, when the pomace heap was the only nursery, and trees cost nothing but the trouble of setting them out,” a time long past when he penned these words in 1859.

The number of orchards actually chopped down by temperance ultraists was likely not as great in reality as in local folklore. But the endless moral castigations orchard-owning farmers faced from the temperance crusaders seemed to have an effect. Many a pious farmer was surely troubled by the accusations that by selling apples to cider mills he was serving Mammon instead of God. Many writers attributed the abandonment and neglect of old seedling orchards across New England to the temperance crusade, their owners apparently deciding to forgo the attacks on their moral character by simply neglecting orchards and letting nature swallow them up.

Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard at your favorite bookstore.  Also available for Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader.

Pequot Orchards


Pequot Hill from my kayak.

Pequot Hill from my kayak.

In the summer of 2012 I had the opportunity to participate in a five week summer seminar for scholars on American Maritime History, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at the Mystic Seaport Museum.  In the mornings and evenings I often paddled my kayak along the Mystic River. Rising from the west bank of the river, just across from Mystic Seaport is Pequot Hill, the site where an English force led by John Mason surrounded the Pequot fort atop the hill, set it on fire, and shot anyone who tried to escape. Six to seven hundred Pequots died that day—some warriors, but mostly women, children,

Depiction of the slaughter of Pequots on Pequot hill, May 26, 1637.

Depiction of the slaughter of Pequots on Pequot hill, May 26, 1637.

and old men. When the surviving Pequot surrendered more than a year later, most were enslaved to English-allied tribes or sent to Bermuda. In an attempt to erase the Pequot from memory, the English declared that the word “Pequot” should never be uttered again.

But the Pequot’s story is not just a story of massacre and extermination. It is a story of a determined people who survived an invasion of their lands through both resistance and adaptation. The small nucleus of independent Pequot who survived the Pequot War eventually secured rights to about 3000 acres of land in their ancestral homelands north of Mystic. Some of that land today is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, who have since built a remarkable museum retelling the Pequot story.  During my summer at Mystic, I was able to get to know Jason Mancini, Senior Researcher at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, who is working on a fascinating project mapping the journeys of Indian Mariners.

Depiction of a Pequot Village in the Pequot Museum

Depiction of a Pequot Village in the Pequot Museum

Among the things I learned from Jason (and at the fine Pequot agriculture exhibit in the museum) was that the Pequot were very early adopters of old world apple and peach orchards. In my article, “Apples on the Border: Orchards and the Contest for the Great Lakes,” and also in my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, I argued that orchards were a critical part of the European mixed husbandry regime which was in essence a three-legged stool: annual crops (grains), perennial crops (orchard fruit) and domesticated livestock. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Pequots and most other peoples occupying eastern North America practiced a mixed subsistence regime, combining annual crops with hunting and gathering to sustain themselves.

The European mixed-husbandry regime established new rules of property on the

The English brought Red Devon cattle to New England early in the colonization process.

The English brought Red Devon cattle to New England early in the colonization process.

landscape, and privileged the idea of fixity (staying in one place and claiming near-absolute rights to a fixed piece of land) over mobility (seasonal movement to the best sources of food, understanding property as specific land-use rights). In other words, the arrival of the European mixed husbandry regime in the Americas was a classic instance of what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony—when a dominant culture establishes the rules of the game, which all other subordinate peoples must follow. The English mixed-husbandry regime would ultimately establish both a cultural and environmental hegemony over New England; to survive, the Pequot were required to fight for their rights within these new rules.  Jason Mancini recently sent me transcripts of some documents on Pequot orchards which appear to support my view of the important role orchards played in arguments between Native and European peoples about property rights. I need to do additional research to help me contextualize them, but I am offering readers a taste today, and welcome feedback.

cassacinamon

Robin Cassacinamon, early Pequot leader, as depicted in the Pequot Museum.

The documents are dated between the 1720s and 1760s, and chronicle the persistent efforts of Pequot Indians to protect their lands against English encroachment. A document from 1721 was an appeal by “the Pequot Indians Living at Mashuntuxitt (in Groaton)” made by a Pequot leader using the name of the long deceased but revered Pequot leader Robin Cassacinamon.  By the 1720s, the Pequot confronted illegal intrusions onto their land by a rapidly growing English population, most of whom were unwilling to recognize the Pequot’s legal or moral claims to the land.  The appeal chronicled the efforts of Pequot to adopt the European mixed-husbandry regime, and asserted the Mashantucket Pequots’ rights to the land they occupied by both historic claim (“where our Predicessors anciently dwelt”) and by the English doctrine of improvement, which was a central principle of the mixed husbandry regime. For the English, those who did not “improve” the land by adapting it for mixed husbandry forfeited the right to it. The Pequot petitioners noted that they had “improved” the land  by planting both corn and orchards, and “our orchards are of great worth & Value to us. by Reason our Grandfathers & fathers Planted them & the Apples are a great relief to us.” Despite these efforts, it appeared that by 1721 Englishmen from Groton were eager to claim some of this land improved by the Pequot, dividing it in lots and fencing it. The Pequot protested that the English once “Called us brethren: & Esteemed us to be Rational Creatures: but behold now they make us as Goats by moving us from place to place, to Clear rough land: & make it profitable for ‘em.”

In Creatures of Empire, Virginia DeJohn Anderson examines the role European livestock played in the conquest of North America.

In Creatures of Empire, Virginia DeJohn Anderson examines the role European livestock played in the conquest of North America.

Additional records Jason sent along suggest that the conflict between acquisitive Groton English and the Mashantucket Pequot continued for decades, with the Groton men cutting wood and allowing their hogs and cattle to forage freely on lands claimed by the Pequot. In fact, it appears that the Groton English were soon using their livestock as “creatures of empire,” allowing their hogs and cattle to invade and destroy Pequot orchards.  The English response to Pequot complaints about the destruction wrought by their wandering livestock was to argue that the Pequot needed to build better fences. English law at this time did not require farmers to fence in livestock.  Instead, those growing crops were expected to fence them in; owners of marauding livestock were not liable for the damage they did to other people’s crops and orchards.

I am eager to do more research on Pequot orchards and their role in the Pequots’ efforts to defend their rights to their lands.  I hope to write additional blog posts on the subject over the course of the summer.

Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon


Pumpkin coverI am not a big fan of pumpkin pie. The bland flavor and gummy texture is quite unappealing to me, and I just don’t get this whole pumpkin-flavored latte, ice cream, and yogurt craze.  But I am a huge fan of Cindy Ott’s new book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon.  Before opening its pages, I had no burning desire to learn about the history of this native, oversized squash.  But once I began reading I could not put it down.  Over the last decade or so, I have been thinking, reading, and writing about the American history of a non-native fruit–the apple–carried to the Americas by European invaders.  While I’ve been pondering the impact of the apple on North America, its role in the expansion of the Euro-American societies who brought it here, and its adoption by indigenous peoples, Cindy Ott has been writing about the story of the native pumpkin, its use by these invaders, and how it ultimately emerged as a symbol prized more for its cultural than its economic value.

While Americans today distinguish the bright round orange pumpkin from other varieties of squash, the two are in fact genetically identical and can cross-pollinate.  For 3sistersNative peoples of eastern North America, squash was one of the “three sisters,” along with corn and beans, which were the core of Native American agriculture.  The three food crops were complementary both ecologically and nutritionally.  Squash were easy to grow in abundance, and “could be preserved over the winter, when other food items were scarce.”  Europeans came to the Americas with a certain finickiness born of a sense of cultural superiority, and did not immediately embrace the pumpkin.  But they brought the seeds back across the Atlantic and within a few decades of Columbus’ first voyage, New World pumpkins had spread across Europe, where they were regarded with a mix of fascination and disdain.  “As a sign of human nature,” Ott informs her readers, “the pumpkin embodied unbounded lust or lack of civility; as a symbol of a place, it represented the untamed natural bounties of North America; and as an emblem of  a way of life, it stood for a rustic peasant existence.”  But mostly they saw the pumpkin as food for the poor, and for those barely civilized Europeans who had migrated to the New World.  New England’s religious dissenters soon came to appreciate its value, especially in lean times.  The pumpkin became for poor farmers short on labor something like the untended seedling apple tree–a useful food plant which would bring forth a bounty even when neglected.  But for the wealthy and the refined, the pumpkin was a symbol of the lowly and uncivilized.

ehningerFor several hundred years, farmers grew pumpkins to supplement their families’ diet, but they had virtually no commercial value. As advances in transportation technology in the early 19th century drew most American farmers into a market economy, the pumpkin became a symbol of the pre-market, rustic, self-provisioning past. At first this reputation was a liability, but eventually as nostalgia for simpler times grew, the pumpkin’s value as a symbol of those simpler times also increased. Ott concludes that it is not a coincidence that the same Yankee poets and writers who began to celebrate the pumpkin–John Greenleaf Whittier, Sarah Josepha Hale, Lydia Maria Child, and others–also were active in the antislavery movement which championed the moral superiority of the New England family farm tradition over the exploitative plantation system of the South. The pumpkin had become a symbol of those Yankee values.

After the Civil War, American agriculture became thoroughly commercial, and farmers Harper's_Weekly-_The_Last_Days_of_Harvestspecialized, producing for national markets. There was no room for the pumpkin in this new agriculture, which had limited market appeal and in an age of mechanization could still only be harvested by hand. The late 19th century pumpkin was “one of the least profitable and palatable of vegetables,” but ironically, its value as a symbol of the agrarian lifestyle continued to grow. Images of pumpkins featured prominently in agricultural periodicals and became central attractions at agricultural affairs, eventually leading to contests to grow mammoth-sized pumpkins. By the dawn of the twentieth century, “American prized the pumpkin for its looks and its meanings, not its meat.”

The Circleville, Ohio Pumpkin Show is one of the largest annual pumpkin festivals.

The Circleville, Ohio Pumpkin Show is one of the largest annual pumpkin festivals.

Across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the pumpkin’s appeal–in the form of jack-o-lanterns and the pumpkin pie–continued to grow.  And today urban and suburban Americans venture into the countryside to select pumpkins as decorations, in an effort to connect themselves with a vanishing agrarian past.

There is so much more in this book than this brief and overly simplified description can provide. Ott will make you consider Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage in a new light, and get you thinking about the strange origins of nursery rhyme character Peter Pumpkin Eater, who solved the problem of a wayward wife by putting her in a pumpkin simple imagepumpkin shell.  Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon is a rich and multilayered cultural, environmental, agricultural, and economic history, offering astounding insights on nearly every page. Highly recommended for pumpkin-eaters and non-pumpkin-eaters alike.

For more information, check out the book’s website, www.pumpkincurioushistory.com

Liberty Hyde Bailey


lhb3It was Liberty Hyde Bailey’s birthday last week, and I forgot to send a card, or even wish him Happy Birthday on Facebook.  He would have been 155 years old on March 15.  In case you have not heard of Liberty Hyde Bailey, here’s a brief biography, completed after extensive research on wikipedia:

Born on a fruit farm in South Haven, Michigan, Bailey went on to become one of the nation’s most important horticulturists.  He authored sixty-five books on horticulture, countless essays and articles, and was a leader of the Country Life movement, which sought to preserve rural American values and the family farm in an age of urbanization and industrialization.  In Bailey’s efforts to modernize the family farm reside all the age old tensions which have existed between traditional farmers and the agriculture reformers who believed it was their mission to save them. He was central to the development of the Agricultural Extension system which to this day provides support and resources for farmers in many states.  Bailey’s influence on American agrarianism, on horticultural science, and on American agricultural policy was vast.

Today, Bailey’s boyhood home in South Haven, Michigan has been preserved as a museum.  I have not been there, but hope to make a visit this summer.  The museum also hosts a Liberty Hyde Bailey Blog, which highlights Bailey’s writings on agriculture and nature.  They also have a presence on Facebook.  Cornell University also has an excellent online exhibition, Liberty Hyde Bailey: A Man for All Seasons.

The Death of John Chapman


By the time John Chapman died in March 1845,  he had already earned a reputation as an eccentric in the central Ohio and Northeastern Indiana communities where he spent most of his adult life. But even those who knew him best knew little about his origins, and some of the basic facts of his life—and even the precise day and location of his death and burial—remained in dispute for a full century.  It was only in the years after his death that locally preserved oral traditions began to coalesce into the Johnny Appleseed legend.  His debut before a national audience came only in November, 1871, when an essay in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine spread his story to the nation. In subsequent years more stories emerged, some from people who knew him, others invented from whole cloth.  The piece below is an excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, recounting the first newspaper report of his death:

Oldest depiction of John Chapman, drawn from a description probably provided by Rosella Rice.

Oldest depiction of John Chapman, drawn from a description probably provided by Rosella Rice.

In March 1845, John Chapman passed away. The Fort Wayne Sentinel noted that “his death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.” But other accounts tell of him falling ill and finding shelter at the home of William Worth, who cared for him in his last days. According to a witness, he was wearing at the time of his death “a coarse coffee-sack, with a hole cut through the centre through which he passed his head. He had on the waists of four pairs of pants. These were cut off at the forks, ripped up at the sides and fronts thrown away, saving the waistband attached to the hinder part. These hinder parts were buttoned around him, lapping like shingles so as to cover the whole lower part of his body, and over all these were drawn a pair of what was once pantaloons.” This erratic collection of scraps was not enough to protect him from the cold winds that whip across the plains of northeast Indiana. His death was attributed to “the winter plague.”

Chapman’s death warranted more ink in the local Fort Wayne newspaper than that of an immigrant laborer who died the same day. “Dies— In this city on Tuesday last, Mr. Thomas McJanet, a stone-cutter, age 34 years, a native of Ayrshire, Scotland” was the full obituary for Mr. McJanet. Chapman’s notoriety made him worthy of several paragraphs. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that John Chapman “was well known through this region by his eccentricity and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman and has been a regular visitor here upwards of twenty years.” The obituary also indicated that he was a follower of Swedenborg and “he is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself the most common necessities of life.” The paper credited his religious beliefs for this contradiction.

As to other details of his life, the Sentinel could only repeat local speculation and rumor.

Probable grave of John Chapman, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Probable grave of John Chapman, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

He might have been born in Pennsylvania; he might have had family near Cleveland; and most interestingly, “he was not less than eighty years old at the time of his death— though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was sixty.” Chapman was in fact seventy-one. One is left to wonder what aspects of John Chapman’s person made him seem older than he actually was and which made him seem younger. Perhaps his gaunt frame, unkempt hair and beard, ragged clothes, and sun-dried skin were responsible for the editor’s adding a decade to his age, while his physical fitness made him seem younger. Or perhaps it was his disinterest in money and material things and his quaint ideas, about God making rail fences for families in need, that led the editor to conclude he was at least an octogenarian. No one of later generations could possibly be so out of step with the times.

Yet while Chapman’s local notoriety was worthy of several paragraphs in the Fort Wayne newspaper, news of his death did not spread quickly. . . . It was many years before the collection of locally told stories about John Chapman began to coalesce into a coherent story of his life; basic facts about such things as his birthplace and date, and even the date and exact place of his death, remained elusive or contested for a century after his passing.

It took more than a decade to settle John’s estate. The estate records provide a clearer understanding of John Chapman’s financial situation at the time of his death. In northeastern Indiana he held title to four parcels of land, totaling about 175 acres. Three

Many of Chapman's seedling trees went unsold, grew too large for transplanting to an orchard, a simply grew wild and unpruned.

Many of Chapman’s seedling trees went unsold, grew too large for transplanting to an orchard, a simply grew wild and unpruned.

of these were fully paid for, but he still owed $ 120 in payments and taxes on one forty-two-acre parcel, and the land was valued at about that much. He still held legal title to one of his school lands leases near Mansfield and perhaps one or two other small Ohio properties. And he had property in apple trees. One nursery of two thousand apple trees was assessed at a value of forty dollars, or two cents per tree, and another of fifteen thousand trees, assessed at three cents a tree, deemed to be worth $ 450. In Mercer County, Ohio, an estate administrator was able to sell about 440 of Chapman’s seedling trees for six cents apiece. Yet the true value of seedling trees was fleeting. . . . As it took years to settle Chapman’s estate, the value of any remaining seedlings evaporated. John Chapman also owned at the time of his death “one gray mare,” valued at $ 17.50. Furthermore, Chapman was owed money by several people, presumably unpaid bills for trees from his nursery.

Against these assets were quite a few claims. Chapman’s brother-in-law William Broom claimed $ 127.68 for improvements he had made on one of John’s canal land parcels. This included clearing and fencing four acres of land, “building a Log House 18 by 21 feet,” and “scoring and hewing timber” for a barn. Joseph Hill claimed $ 104 against the estate for periodically providing John with board between 1837 and 1844: fifty-three weeks total, at a rate that was sometimes $ 2, sometimes $ 1.50 per week. Richard Worth claimed $ 7.50 for boarding John for five weeks, spread across five years, and also for the funeral expenses he incurred for laying him out. . . .

When the final settlement was sealed in January 1856, almost eleven years after John’s death, claims against the estate exceeded its total value, and most, but not all claims were paid. John Chapman did not die a wealthy man, but he was not impoverished either. From a dollars and cents perspective, John Chapman “got by,” and that seemed to be exactly what he intended to do.

Downing's Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, published the year of Chapman's death, catalogued and described commercial varieties of fruit.

Downing’s Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, published the year of Chapman’s death, catalogued and described commercial varieties of fruit.

He picked a very fitting time to pass into the next world. The depression that had followed in the wakes of the panics of 1837 and 1839 had begun to lift by 1843, and two years later Midwestern farmers seemed more enthusiastic than ever about advancing from self-provisioning lifestyles to commercial agriculture. In January 1845, a statewide journal devoted to the advancement of agriculture in Ohio, the Ohio Cultivator, published its first issue, indicating that a critical mass of improvement-minded farmers had established themselves in the state. Also in that year Andrew Jackson Downing published the first edition of his catalog of American orchard fruit, Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. And there were other signs of the changing times.

Just one week after John Chapman’s passing, the Ohio state legislature finally passed a law establishing severe penalties for damaging fruit trees. . . . The political leadership of Ohio had endorsed the idea that apples were not simply God’s providential bounty but a commodity with a measurable market value. By the end of 1846, nineteen Ohio counties had formed agricultural societies to protect the interests of Ohio’s commercial farmers, and in the following years new ones sprung up annually. . . .