As the United States ended its struggle over independence from Great Britain in the early 1800s, the young nation began another struggle. The country started coordinating the movement towards and settlement of the western territories. There were so many issues to consider: Native American displacement, land surveys, government organization, improving overland routes, infrastructure issues, and so much more.
We forget the vital role that alcohol played in the settlement of the American west in the years after the American revolution. Alcohol became one of the most traded items on the frontier of settlement. In fact, in many places along the frontier, alcohol served as the de facto currency.
In order to spur settlement, the United States government offered large tracts of free land in the west if the settlers could show that they were permanent residents on the land. So, towards that end, land claimants were required to grow fruit in order to show permanence and thus keep possession of their claim. Most settlers grew apples—not for eating but, rather, for cider making.
According to those who know these things, apples grown from seeds usually don’t produce fruit sweet enough for eating. Apparently, it takes about a decade for apple seeds to be large enough to start producing fruit, and that’s about how long land claimants needed to prove they were permanent settlers and, thus, receive the land grant for free.
The Smithsonian website notes that, “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.” One historian noted that a history of the settlement of what is now the Midwest must be seen through an almost alcoholic haze as a result of so much alcoholic apple cider.
In fact, many orchards left over from the frontier days dotted parts of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana well into the 1920s that, during Prohibition, anti-liquor advocates took axes in hand and chopped down hundreds of apple trees for fear that the fruit—again, fruit never sweet enough for eating—would be used once again for making “that Demon Cider.”
All of this fruit being associated with alcohol certainly would have horrified any frontier folk who were of a religious bent, and many were. In fact, most historians point to a particular deeply religious man who, more than most, was responsible for the establishment of almost all the apple orchards across the Midwest during the frontier days. This man, everywhere he went, preached piety and austerity and thrift and hard work—and planted apple orchards. He would most likely be mortified to think that his life‘s work would be so closely associated with alcohol. His name was John Chapman.
You know him as Johnny Appleseed