Orchard History: Fruit Introduction and Colonization, 1600-1800

This article is an excerpt from Part I, Chapter I of Fruitful Legacy: A Historic Context of Orchards in the United States, with Technical Information for Registering Orchards in the National Register of Historic Places.

European fruit introductions, subsistence farm orchards, and fruit gardening for pleasure

The 1600 to 1800 period of fruit introduction and colonization in America centered on the 13 original colonies and the Spanish missions of the Southwest. Fruit introductions were primarily from seed, and throughout this 200-year period the most common orchards were three- to five-acre farm orchards of seedling apples with approximately 50 trees per acre.

Farm orchards were sown, rather than planted out, and as a result they lacked a regular geometry and consisted of wild-looking, unpruned trees with very tall trunks, greater than six feet. Lower limbs were browsed off by livestock or wildlife. Apples were grown primarily for cider, while peaches, commonly grown in farm orchards of the southern colonies, were used for animal feed.

Mature fruit trees grow in a tall, unpruned shape.
View east of mature fruit trees on the Old Manse property in July 2002, Minute Man National Historical Park.


Leafy branches cover the tall, thick trunk of an aging apple tree in a field
Remnant apple tree at Nelden-Hornbeck (Roberts) Farm in 2004, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.


A small number of wealthy settlers to the colonies had fruit gardens. These were small, enclosed ornamental spaces in which fruit trees were intensively grown and highly managed. By the late 1700s, numerous European varieties of fruits were available for sale through commercial nurseries, the most important being the Prince Nursery in Long Island, New York. European varieties were planted in fruit gardens as grafted trees, where they produced fine dessert fruit.

The first fruit varieties developed on American soil originated from apples from seedling farm orchards, and then later from the fruit gardens of wealthy fruit collectors. Later in the 1700s, commercial nurseries began to develop American varieties. By the end of the 1700s, fruit gardens had reached their zenith in fashionability and sophistication. Some farm orchards were beginning to contain one or more grafted trees of apple, peach, or plum so that their fruits could reliably be enjoyed as raw, fresh fruit.

As the 18th century ended, seedling apple, cherry, and plum trees had been dispersed throughout New England and to the upper Midwest, and apple and peach trees had been dispersed throughout the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states. Pear was predominantly grown to a limited extent in farmyards throughout the northeastern states, but orchards of French varieties could be found on a large scale in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island in New York.

Panorama of orchard where short grass grows around young peach, apple, and pomegranate trees.
This replanted orchard at Tumacácori National Historical Park was dedicated in 2007. The mission complex that was established here in the early part of the 1700s once included a walled garden and orchard, containing trees brought from Europe such as peach, pomegranate, quince, and fig. The fruit trees that grow today were started from seeds and cuttings of old cultivar fruit trees—the oldest trees that could be found in historic orchards and yards throughout southern Arizona.


European arrivals were not the first North Americans to grow fruits. In the mid-1500s, when Europeans and Native Americans first came into contact, plums were growing in the villages of Indigenous groups. These plums, of which there are many native species, did not become commercially important in the orchards of European Americans until the 1800s. Seedling oranges, olives, figs, and grapes had been dispersed throughout present-day California and western Texas by Spanish missionaries, and Native Americans also adopted many exotic fruits from Europe and beyond.

By 1800, the United States had been seeded with a great gene pool of European and Asian fruits, and this foundation would give rise to the golden age of fruit growing in the 19th century.

Diagram shows tree and orchard characteristics during the period 1600-1800, with seeding trees and irregular orchards.
Typical orchard and fruit tree characteristics during the period 1600-1800.

NPS / S. Dolan

Last updated: October 20, 2022