When I was about 9 years old, I remember saving the seeds from the apples I snacked on, and planting them outside in the yard. I never saw any of them actually sprout and develop into a tree, but I was familiar with the legend of Johnny Appleseed, and it seemed like a cool thing to do. I can't really say why I knew about Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman. He hadn't been given the television status that Fess Parker conferred upon Daniel Boone, and he wasn't a hero in the military sense that figures like Sam Houston, Kit Carson or William Tecumseh Sherman. He wasn't a renowned explorer like John Wesley Powell or Lewis and Clark were. No great inventor, like Eli Whitney or Thomas Edison. Never became president, like Lincoln, Jackson, Adams or Madison. Still, as seemingly unremarkable as his life was, and he died some 110 years before my birth, I knew about him.
That, in itself, is a bit remarkable, when you look back upon the real man...John Chapman. At the tender age of 8 or 9, I couldn't tell you with certainty that he was an actual person torn from the pages of American history, or some literary creation like Casey Jones or Paul Bunyon. Whatever the details of his real life, they had been taken over by the mythology surrounding the man. Casey Jones, by the way, was a real railroad engineer, but he was so mythologized in song and popular culture that, like Johnny Appleseed, his reality seemed to become a matter of doubt.
That's what I like about the story of Johnny Appleseed. History is full of myths that have, by dent of retelling, become seen as factual. Chapman's story is an example of just the opposite. His story, embroidered over the years no doubt, has come to be seen by many among us as pure legend, and perhaps not even real. But Johnny Appleseed was a man...yes, a REAL man. No offense intended, Dan'l Boone or Fess Parker.
A loner, a horticulturalist, a pioneer, a Christian missionary, an entrepreneur, a pacifist, an ascetic, a man who respected animal life in all its forms at least 150 years before PETA and was a vegetarian upon principle....he was perhaps the least likely candidate I can think of for becoming a mythological American historical figure.
Here is his story.
It's surprising we know as many basic biographical facts about John Chapman as we do. But we do know quite a few. The legends that have been weaved and interspersed, as with most legends, contain a bit of fact and a bit of embroidery. But this much is fairly certain:
Chapman was born on Sept. 26, 1774 in Leominster, Massachussetts. His father was a member of Mass' Minutemen during the American Revolution, and John was just 8 months old when his father, Nethaniel, most likely fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Concord. Chapman's father fought in the Continental Army for another 5 years, during which time his mother died of tuberculosis shortly after delivering another child. Chapman was largely raised by his grandparents afterwards.
The son of a Revolutionary soldier, John Chapman grew up to become a pacifist. A strident pacifist. That's the first thing that makes his posthumous fame so striking. Americans usually canonize their warriors, not their peaceniks.
Chapman entered into an apprenticeship with a Massachussetts orchardist and nurseryman at a young age, and learned the trade. Around about 1792, he convinced his half bother to accompany him west to the Western reaches of Pennsylvania. It is believed that the two Chapman brothers were living in or near present day Pittsburgh at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
Western PA, let alone the Ohio Territory, was at the western edge of the American frontier at this time. In legal terms, it was literally at the edge of the frontier. At various times there were proscriptions against settling west of any given area, based upon relations with both Britain and Native American Indians. The settlers who pushed the frontier ever west never paid much attention to that...they just crept ever westward.
Chapman understood what was happening, and came up with what was, in retrospect, a pretty good business plan: Anticipate them, figure out where they were most likely to move to next, beat them there, and plant apple orchards there before the settlers become established...and then sell them young trees.
Johnny Appleseed never strolled through the Midwest, willy nilly, just casting apple seeds about at random from a burlap bag strewn over his shoulder. That was sort of the story of the man as I understood it up until I was a young teen. He had a plan, which I just outlined above.
Chapman didn't plant apple trees at random. He planted orchards. And he planted those orchards on the furthermost reaches of America's expansion Westward. At the time, that was in Ohio and Indiana. He was part surveyor, and part entrepreneur. He scoped out, on foot, the areas just west of where settlers had already established homes, and made a good guess as to where they were most likely to move to next, based upon good agricultural land and access to rivers or major streams. He snapped up some real estate while it was still cheap, and planted apple orchards that would serve them when they finally arrived. When he moved on to the next location, he would hire a local boy to tend to the young trees in his absence, in exchange for a portion of the profits once people started purchasing them. At the time, a two year old apple tree would sell for 6 cents.
And purchase them they did. Chapman didn't...and this is another aspect of the mythology, plant Romes, or Red Delicious, or McIntosh apples. He planted smallish, tart apples that were suitable for one thing, and almost one thing only: hard cider. That, perhaps as much as anything, explains the extent to which Chapman won his way into the hearts of pioneers at the time. He provided them with a fruit product that could be used in the kitchen, albeit limitedly...but more than anything he enabled pioneers to turn apples into alcohol as they pushed westward. It was much easier to make hard cider than it was whiskey.
Chapman was more than a horticulturalist, however. He was a religious zealot. He adhered to a sect of Protestantism known as the Church of New Jerusalem, whose leader was a man named Edward Swedenborg. It was a pacifist religious sect, and one that promoted a simple, almost ascetic lifestyle. This aspect of Chapman's life, as much as anything, contributed to his place in the canon of American history and mythology. Many drawings and illustrations of Johnny Appleseed show him with a cooking pot for a hat, and barefoot, with pants that are definitely "high tiding."
He did, in fact dress this way. He wore, many times, a gunny sack in lieu of a shirt, with two arm holes cut into it. He routinely went without shoes. Think about that...he walked from Western Pennsylvania to Indiana without shoes. He routinely camped out in his travels, only calling upon a lone settler for shelter in the worst of weather. When he camped, he would often find shelter in a hollowed out fallen log, and one famous story has it that he did so one stormy night, only to find that a bear had already made itself at home in the fallen log. Rather than disturb the bear, Chapman spent the night in the rain.
There are other stories about how he extinguished campfires after seeing mosquitos perish in the flames, because he religious beliefs were such that he refused to place his own comfort above the lives of simple insects. Settlers who met the man, and in whose homes he once was given shelter, remember him as a kind man, and an extremely religious one. He would read the Bible to them and their family, in exchange for dinner and an opportunity to sleep outside of the rain. They remember him as a man who not only read the Bible to them, but did so in a voice and inflection that made the words come to life.
Over the course of Chapmans life, he acquired quite a bit of real estate. In fact, at the time of his death, in Indiana, he was fairly well to do. But one would never had known it by the way he lived his life, right up until the end. He never married, so when he died it was a niece who inherited his estate. There is some dispute, to this day, where he was buried...which is odd given how enduring his legend is.
But Johnny Appleseed was not a piece of fiction, like Ichabod Crane or Huckleberry Finn. He was very much real. The surprise about the man is that we remember him at all, when you look at his life. He never killed a "bar (bear)" on any given spot, and carved a testimony to that act in sandstone for subsequent generations to see. He would never have killed a bear.
He never killed Indians...and in fact the Native Peoples of Ohio and Indiana extended to him every hospitality, and thought of him as something of a sacred man. He moved freely among them, almost remarkedly so. There was something in his character that they recognized and respected, and he was given unfettered transit throughout his life.
So how did this pacifist, religious, vegetarian, orchard grower earn such an indelible place in our national mythology?
That's a good question. But I'm glad he did.