Origins of Apples in America

Origins of Apples in America

The first apple trees in North America grew from seeds brought by French Jesuits late in the sixteenth century.  It is not known whether the settlers at Jamestown had apple trees or not, but the Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts in 1620 brought with them young apple trees from England and seedling orchards were planted throughout New England.

Less than fifteen years later in the Maryland Colony, Lord Baltimore advised settlers to bring with them “kernalls of pears and apples, especially of Pipins, Pearmains and Deesons, for making thereafter of Cider and Perry.”  Apple orchards soon flourished across the land.  According to survey records of 1644, just ten years after Lord Baltimore’s decree, over 90% of Maryland farms had apple orchards. By the mid-1600s, there were also numerous and productive seedling orchards growing in North Carolina and Virginia.

Early settlers traded fruit, trees, and seeds with native dwellers.  In the eighteenth century, fruit-- including apples, pears (also introduced by the Jesuits), and plums--was a staple food among the Iroquois of the Mohawk Valley, and as far west as the Niagara.  In 1779 when General John Sullivan’s Continental troops moved across western New York in their march against the Seneca, hundreds of mature apple trees were cut down and burned.  In the early decades of the nineteenth century John Chapman, commonly known as Johnny Appleseed, grew young apple trees in commercial nurseries in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.

As settlers moved southward from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, apples traveled with them.  The Cape Fear settlement on the North Carolina coast had an extensive apple orchard as early as 1666.  In 1754 the founders of Wachovia, in what is present-day Forsyth County, North Carolina, brought young apple trees and planted orchards in all their settlements, first at Bethabara, then at Bethania and Salem.

From the perspective of an early settler, a person needed apples to feed his large family, but could not afford to buy grafted trees, even if they were available. He needed apples for frying, stewing, and baking; for making cider, vinegar and brandy; for drying in the sun or in a heated dryhouse and for making preserves and apple butter. But, most of all, he needed apples that could be picked and eaten frush from June to November, and he needed late-ripening apples that could be stored in cellars during the winter months. With all of these uses even mediocre apple found a place at the table and the worst of the fruit was fed to livestock.