In the fading years of the 18th century, a man with a long dark beard and hair, blue eyes, a quick and restless motion, and clothing that was worn and used, walked across Pennsylvania, paddled the Ohio River and planted apple trees on the frontier of civilization.
Abetted by poetic license, he entered the pages of American folklore as one of our most popular heroes. This nature boy with the pasteboard hat on his head was named John Chapman, but he is better known to all as “Johnny Appleseed.”
Myths, colorful stories, songs, films, literature and festivals have depicted this man as an eccentric character, dressing simply in a coffee sack, wearing a tin pot on his head, walking barefooted in all sorts of weather, for 50 years throwing apple seeds across the landscape.
Johnny Appleseed might be the most enduring and endearing of all the American folktales and the one most individuals know little or nothing about.
John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts. There were 13 siblings in the family that had some pedigree in its ancestors. Not wanting to become a farmer, restless and yearning for elbow room, he and his younger brother were on the move across Pennsylvania by 1796.
Traits that would follow him through his entire life were developing — land speculation, naturalist, religious zealot, nurseryman, and compassion for all things around him.
Ohio wilderness. In 1803, when Chapman poked his nose across the Ohio River, the state had just joined the Union and was still a daunting, coarse, wilderness on the edge of civilization and would be for another decade or two. Mountain lions and black bears ravaged livestock and sometimes settlers. Hordes of meek squirrels destroyed scanty cornfields and passenger pigeons sweep over the thick forests in numbers that blocked out the sun.
Perched on the edge of a developing western society, Ohio was ripe for some serious real estate event. The wilderness cried out for orderly discipline through agriculture which required felling, clearing and cultivation.
Chapman was an amateur land speculator, buying and selling some 1,200 acres of river bottom land across Ohio and into Indiana between 1803 and 1845. He loved land but never wanted to own it for any period of time. He would buy, sell, trade, plant apple trees; then, he would move on to start the process again.
Apples were special
Apple trees were something special. Apple seeds could be planted, protected from destruction by a bramble fence and left behind to germinate and grow into trees. The trees were collateral in purchasing land and to demonstrate land improvement. The fruit from the small and sour apples could be a cash crop, a food source and a protection against disease. The apple could be transformed into apple-jack, hard cider, vinegar, apple sauce and pie. It stored well into winter. Individuals used it to cure tummy aches and aching joints.
Chapman was a businessman on the cutting edge of a much-needed nursery business. Chapman was also a true naturalist. He had a rapport with nature. Birds, animals and even insects were not to be harmed. His gentle nature, in a society ruled by gun, knife and strength, might suggest he was a Francis of Assisi of Ohio. He was a vegetarian, lived outdoors except in severe winter weather, and seemed to risk nature’s dangers. He was a gentle soul adrift on the very edge of a frontier of civilization.
At the same time as Chapman’s adventures into Ohio, a religious movement began called the “Second Great Awakening.” The frontier was full of individuals who believed that a hard God lurked nearby and the final day was near. Of all the frontier religions available, Chapman chose the New Church religion based on the teachings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
Chapman became a religious zealot, visiting homes along his apple route, eating supper, planting apple trees and crying “here is news right fresh from heaven for you.” The holy trinity for Chapman was land, apples and Swedenborg’s teachings. He devoutly believed that the more he endured in his world, the less he would have to suffer in heaven.
In reality, Chapman/Appleseed was a loner but was social as he wanted to endure. He loved an audience — but not a crowd — and had the act of disappearing as quickly as he appeared. He loved children and entertained them with stories and gifts. He walked through life to a different drumbeat, hero to many, but always welcome in a homestead to eat, sleep and preach.
One day in March 1845, an old man of 70 years knocked at a cabin door in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Barefooted and dressed in coarse pantaloons and a tattered shirt, Chapman/Appleseed had walked some 15 miles that day in the rain and snow to repair a bramble fence at an orchard. As was his custom, he refused a place at the table. Taking his food to the hearth, he ate, regaled his host with news from his travels, preached revelations fresh from heaven and went to sleep by the fire.
The next day — March 18, 1845 — he died of pneumonia. It wasn’t death but a transition from the physical to the spiritual world, something Chapman/Appleseed had been longing and preparing for all his adult life.
John Chapman was part of the manifest destiny movement that beckoned individuals to the Ohio country and beyond. He was the traveling minister for the Church of New Jerusalem and lived off the berries, nuts and honey and of the forest the hospitality of settlers.
Chapman stayed ahead of civilization that moved westward to enjoy the little parcels of land he planted with apple trees. He was a real estate capitalist, nurseryman, explorer, naturalist and the list goes on.
Today’s wildlife preservationists owe their basic philosophy to Chapman. He was a steward of the earth, blessed because he traversed it. That’s your history!
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