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America's First Tree Hugger, Jonathan "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 5 6

Core Values

And if they inquire, “Whence came such trees,
Where not a bough once swayed in the breeze?”
The reply still comes as they travel on,
“Those trees were planted by Appleseed John.”
-    doggerel

Many people today perhaps believe that environmental consciousness and taking individual responsibility for the planet’s natural resources are recent developments.  Do-gooders like to pat themselves on the back after spending an afternoon clearing litter from the verge of a one-mile strip of highway or by carefully using the recycling bins when sorting their household trash.

However, there have been many people who sacrificed as self-styled caretakers of the planet in an age when the terms “eco-warrior”, “eco-terrorist”, “organic foods”, and “New Age” had yet to be coined.  Such single-minded people had ideas about not only preserving the planet for future generations but also in improving the distribution of certain plants and animals considered beneficial not only to people but to other flora and fauna as well.

Such a man was the legendary Johnny Appleseed, a quirky, enigmatic, reclusive man almost maniacally driven by the words of his god and a love of Nature.  Proselytizing while propagating apple tree seedlings throughout the American Midwest, Appleseed’s frontier life has neatly joined the realm of mythical folk icons such as Paul Bunyan.

Johnny Appleseed (frontispiece)
Unlike Paul Bunyan, though, Johnny Appleseed was very real.  And he left behind a truly admirable legacy springing from the Midwestern soils of America.

Sowing the Seeds of Revolution
In 1763, King George III had issued a ban on further expansion in the American Colonies.  They were restricted to the lands east of the Allegheny Mountains.  This was done for two reasons. 

The first was to keep a favorable balance of trade for Britain.  The Colonials were forbidden from trading directly with any foreign powers; all their imported goods first passed through Britain (regardless of place of origin) where they were taxed, prices adjusted to suit the whims of the Crown, and then sent on to the American shores.  There, further duties were levied at the time of delivery.  This tax revenue stream was important for Britain as it was engaged in a costly, ongoing war with France.  Restricting the Colonials to the East meant they had little chance of commerce with influential foreign powers further west, down river in the Ohio Indian territory and Mississippi River country (which French traders plied) and beyond.  Keeping them in the East also meant the Colonials could not develop other beneficial industries by exploiting the resources further out, making their own goods rather than buying them from Britain.

The second reason was to avoid further hostilities between the British Colonials and Native Americans whose frontier lands were being encroached upon by the colonists.

The rationale of curtailing expansion to avoid Indian conflicts had nothing to do with the American Revolution.  It was Britain’s monopolistic commercial policies, enforced by limiting their movements, with which the Colonials took umbrage. 

John Hancock, a sanctified name in American history, entered a wealthy uncle’s mercantile business and was enriched greatly by the time Britain started its restrictions.  To avoid British import taxes and to get around the prohibition against direct foreign trade he smuggled goods into the Colonies by the shipload. His interests in “freedom” lay in opening up trade, not in personal liberties for the masses, and he only became truly vocal after the Stamp Act (a tax on printed matter, such as newspapers) was passed in 1765.  [A short-lived Act, it was repealed in 1766 after boycotts in the Colonies reduced the tax stream the Act could have generated to nearly nil.]

Hancock’s smuggling activities, in addition to other business transactions that deprived the Crown of revenue and which added the insult of flouting British law, led him to be charged with treason by Britain.  He had successfully evaded arrest in 1775.  [The inability to bring him to justice is the sole reason Hancock’s signature is so ridiculously large on the Declaration of Independence.  The size of his signature did not imply Hancock believed in the Declaration more than the later endorsers. Nor was it so big because he, as president of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign it before reading it aloud to the assembly.  His autograph, writ large, was a taunt intended for King George III.  Having been sent a copy of the document, George III’s seeing Hancock’s bold signature had the same effect on the King as if Hancock had childishly sing-songed, “Ha, ha, can’t catch me!”] 

John Hancock (signature from Declaration of Independence)
Nathaniel Chapman, the future Johnny Appleseed’s father, was a farmer and unlikely to be greatly affected by Britain’s commercial restrictions (as John Hancock was) except as it applied to things like the cost of his tea.  His home in Leominster was in north-central Massachusetts, roughly 45 miles or so inland from Boston, the locus of activities leading up to the American Revolution

In contrast, the wealthy John Hancock’s home village was Braintree, just about half that distance due south of the great city.  Braintree was also only about 2 miles from the Boston Bay shore, putting him in the thick of any arriving news and issues relating to the developing liberty movement. 

While Nathaniel Chapman was not a wealthy landowner, he would certainly have been swayed by “freedom” rhetoric in Massachusetts distributed in print and passed along as gossip from the likes of John Hancock.  Nathaniel joined the Colonial Americans early in the fight against Britain.

Plantin’ Time
Native Americans, as part of their culture, looked upon themselves as conservators of the natural resources the earth provided.  The land provided and it was the Indians’ job to take care of it, always looking to the future needs of unborn generations.

Perhaps the first white man in America wholeheartedly embracing those Native American values, Jonathan Chapman, was born in Leominster, Massachusetts on September 26, 1774

Johnny Appleseed birthplace monument
(two years before there even was a United States of America).  He had an older sister named Elizabeth (after their mother).

In 1775, Nathaniel Chapman took up arms and joined the militia rabble later romantically called “The Minutemen”.  [The name is popularly—and falsely—believed to stem from their alleged skill in firing and recharging their muzzle-loading weapons in under a minute’s time.  The name actually comes from a statement in 1774, when the first group was organized, requiring a third of them to be ready for military duty “at a minute’s notice”.  This on-call “readiness” status for â…“ of all new regiments became a standing requirement.] 

He fought at Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, (a skirmish in which the British withdrew, culminating in a victory both moral and actual for the Colonials).  This action, along with the Battle of Lexington (fought earlier that same day with the British withdrawing to Concord), signaled the official start of the American Revolution.  Total lives lost were 273 British and 95 Colonials.  [For the British many of their dead came from their final withdrawal—colonists holed up in barns and similar cover took potshots at the retreating force as they made their way back to Boston.] 

Chapman took up the Colonial cause with gusto and remained active in the Colonial military. In June 1776, Chapman was an officer leading a company of carpenters attached to Gen. George Washington’s forces in New York City.  On June 26, Elizabeth Chapman, at home in Massachusetts, gave birth to a son.  The boy was named Nathaniel after his father. 

Elizabeth Chapman was ill, and she died on July 18, 1776.  Tuberculosis is most often cited as the cause of her death, but it is more than likely she died of puerperal fever (otherwise known as “childbed fever”) after birthing the baby in late June. 

The disease is an infection of the female reproductive system and is generally seen in the wake of childbirth under less-than-hygienic conditions.  The standard causative agent is a streptococcus bacteria, and any abrasions or lacerations to the genitals or uterus can give the bacteria access to the blood stream and lymphatic system.  This leads to septicemia, cellulitis (cellular inflammation), and pelvic or generalized peritonitis.  A fever of 100°F or greater develops within 10 days of infection. 

The date of Elizabeth Chapman’s death, only 22 days after the birth of the boy, tends to point more to this than tuberculosis (though she may have been consumptive, as well) as what ended her life after only 6 years of marriage.

Johnny, his older sister Elizabeth, and his new baby brother were tendered into the care of relatives.  The newborn died about two weeks after Elizabeth Chapman.

Nathaniel Chapman allegedly lost his Leominster farm and another one during the American Revolution.  As he was a man of little material wealth this seems likely as he was away most of the time fighting and not tending to his home’s land.  Elizabeth Chapman’s death probably did not help him keep a presence on any land he may have occupied.  No property transactions have been uncovered, however, to show that he ever owned any farmland—he may have been merely a leaseholder or sharecropper, and if his landlord lost the farm, so, too, did Nathaniel Chapman.

He left military service, honorably discharged, in 1780.  He met, and married, a woman named Lucy Cooley the same year he retired from active duty.  He moved the family to Longmeadow, near Springfield, Massachusetts (in south-central Massachusetts near the Connecticut border).  Lucy would give birth to 10 children during their marriage (one of whom was named “Nathaniel” for the child who had died in 1776).  [This was a very common practice, naming newer children for those that had predeceased them in infancy.  Falsely convicted alleged serial poisoner Mary Ann Cotton had two daughters named Margaret Jane, the second a “replacement” for an earlier dead child.]

Young Johnny Chapman was apprenticed by his father to an apple orchard keeper named Crawford.

Growing a Business
The maize of the South American Indians, once it was domesticated and widely cultivated in pre-Columbian times, was used almost exclusively for fermenting into intoxicating beverages.  Its value as a foodstuff was secondary to that purpose. [And the word “corn” as applied to this grain grass is generally only used in North America.  The British used the word “corn” as a generic term for cereal grains: wheat, rye, barley, et al.  Many British still refer to the grain originating in South America as maize).  

Like the maize of the Incas, the pomme of Europe, introduced into Colonial America by the British, was not meant as a foodstuff.  Apples for frontiersmen meant only one thing: apple cider.

The apple is a member of the rose family; the plants introduced into North America yielded fruits that were nearly inedible.  They were small, hard, and exceedingly tart.  The taste of the fruit mattered little as almost all apples were destined for drinking, not eating.  [Apples would not be promoted as food, healthy food, until the mindless Women’s Christian Temperance Union movement in the early 1900s that led to the disaster of Prohibition in the 1920s.  By the late 1800s, with growing disdain for alcohol on the nation’s palate, apple orchard keepers switched tacks and began touting apples as something good to eat.  Careful husbandry and grafting led to the wide variety of very sweet and large fruits enjoyed today.]

The preferred frontier alcoholic drink was easily made.  Apple presses were set up in conjunction with orchards.  Apples were hodded into a large press; the juices were squeezed out, barreled, and allowed to ferment by natural processes.  The resultant beverage, a winey product, was called apple cider (or hard cider).

Farmers Pressing Apples to Make Cider, 1800s

Nearly every frontier farmer distilled whiskeys and other spirits for personal use; apple cider provided the base for two other well-liked drinks.  The aged hard cider could be distilled to produce apple brandy.  Another distilled variant was called applejack.  Both were relatively potent: applejack, for example, was routinely dispensed at 66 proof, or 33% alcohol (though this is nothing compared to the volatile rums of the day, easily around 160 proof—80% alcohol).

A popular myth about Johnny Appleseed is that he engaged in his plantings from some cerebral, altruistic desire and a belief that apples were good for the country.  This is not true.  Apples were, of course, good for the country—as the source of the fruit that made the very popular hard cider and applejack.  But more importantly apple trees served a greater purpose on the frontier.   

In the wake of the American Revolution the westward lands past the Allegheny Mountains were free to roam and settle.  Many veterans of the Independence conflict had been granted parcels as part of their severance from service.  

With soil open for nearly anyone to settle it was imperative that a claimant create a sense of permanency on a piece of land.  One of the most effective, and least costly, ways of claiming a stretch of earth was to establish an orchard (pears and apples were both popular for orchards at the time).  This showed intent to remain on the land—orchards took years to reach maturation.  Anyone doubting the sincerity of a particular settler’s intent to homestead had only to look: if there was an orchard present that settler was likely staying put.

Growing trees from seeds was not expedient enough for a settler to establish a land claim. Annual crops, such as corn or wheat, were transitory and insufficient as proof of long-term occupancy (such crops also required a lot of work).  Many times, wandering rustics failing to see any improvements on a parcel might just build a lean-to or cabin and start working that land themselves.  Unlike seeds in the ground, planted tree seedlings were visible evidence of a claim.  And orchards, while needing some labor effort to flourish, were less exhausting than planting seasonal crops.  

Johnny Chapman thought he could profit from this.  He created a business plan wherein he would start apple trees from seeds in established and tended nurseries.  Then, once the seedlings

Johnny Appleseed
were hardy enough he could sell them to passing settlers for planting on their new acreage.  The nurseries would be left in the financial care of a trusted neighbor near enough to the orchard who could sell the seedlings on Chapman’s behalf.  Thus, Johnny Appleseed’s mythos as a man motivated by intangible do-gooding is untrue: he was a young entrepreneur motivated by a desire to make a living from a good idea.  

Young Johnny Chapman’s apprenticeship with an orchard keeper taught him the rudiments of nursery care.  He learned how to process apples to make cider.  He saw the development of the west past the Alleghenies as a golden business opportunity.  In 1792, the 18-year-old Johnny Chapman convinced his half-brother, Nathaniel Chapman, Jr. (age 11), to strike out with him for the west.  He cadged apple seeds from pomace, the pulpy mass left after apples were pressed, from apple-cider makers.  Supplying himself and his little brother with materials for a journey into the frontier the pair set out. 

Digging in the Dirt
In northwestern Pennsylvania, very close to New York State’s extreme western tip, Warren looked as good a place as any for Johnny to put his business model to work.  A bit south of the established town of Warren, he planted his first nursery (from seeds) on the banks of Brokenstraw Creek.  This gave him a water supply; the relative remoteness insured the developing plants would be unmolested.  As an extra precaution from animals he and his brother fenced the area. [These nurseries were not merely planted and then abandoned.  Chapman returned periodically to maintain them once they were set up.]

His next stop was a bit further to the southwest in Venango County, Pennsylvania.  He planted there and moved on to Pittsburgh (more than likely stopping at this hub to promote his business).  His intent was to sell shares in his seedlings for a few cents each.  This meant that for mere pennies a settler could buy seedlings in the ground, and trust they’d be healthy when the time came for transport and transplant.  This fee later evolved into a Chapman standard of a five-penny or “fi’penny” bit, an irregular denomination equaling 6¼¢ US.  [The term “bit” comes from the practice of dividing a Spanish real (known as a “piece of eight”) or the later Spanish milled dollar (minted beginning in the early 1700s) literally into eight bits (usually with a knife or hatchet).  Each bit of the silver coin was worth 12½¢ each—the “fi’penny” bit was half of one of these, or 1/16 of a dollar.] 

During his time in Pittsburgh Johnny Chapman witnessed first-hand the rebellious fervor his father had seen during the American Revolution.  This revolt, though, was not against the British Crown; it was against the newly-installed US Government.  And it concerned something near and dear to Johnny Appleseed’s heart: alcohol.

Flowering Rebellion
Shed of British influence the Americans in western Pennsylvania were a gregariously independent lot.  Nearly all of them made their own whiskeys—whether from corn mash, barley, or rye—and the applejack distilled from apple cider.

The Federal Government decided to impose a tax on the whiskeys made by these independents.  The idea did not sit well with the frontiersmen—whiskey was a barter commodity, it was a medicine, it was used to placate hostile Indians, it was solace in a jug.  For those leading the hard-scrabble life, whiskey making was an art, a source of a quick dollar, and a joy.

When federal revenue collectors showed up in the region in 1794 to exact the government’s pound of flesh farmers attacked them.  About 500 armed men later traipsed to the home of the regional tax collector and burned his house.  In the wake of that incident, President George Washington (in a classic case of overkill) sent a force of 13,000 federal troops into western Pennsylvania.  Any rebellious spirit was quelled quickly by their presence, and there was no fighting.

Seedling Swede
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) spent most of his adult working life as a man of science.  By his early 50s, though, he had begun explorations into philosophy, specifically those musings

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772; engraving)
concerning a deity and its place in Nature.  He came to believe that the universe was also a spiritual structure, perhaps having a “soul” of its own. 

In 1744 he had a mystical vision of Jesus; ten years later (and after more visions) he received a “calling” to abandon worldly learning. The rest of his career was spent interpreting the Bible (particularly the New Testament’s Book of Revelation) and relating what he’d seen in his visions.

Swedenborg’s main philosophical point was a pantheistic one: the Judeo-Christian god was in Nature, and that god was the power and life within all creatures, not only humans.  In that sense Swedenborg’s philosophy was very close to that of Buddhist and Hindu doctrine.  He believed the Trinity was more a reflection of love, wisdom, and activity (the essential qualities of Yahweh).  Redemption consisted in humanity’s being recreated in Yahweh’s image through Jesus’ glorification.

Emanuel Swedenborg never started a religion during his life.  Rather, others took his pantheistic ideas of a god and Nature as interchangeable (and reflective of the other) and created societies based on his ideas. 

In 1787 the first Swedenborgian church, calling itself the New Jerusalem Church, was established in London.  Swedenborgians then crossed the Atlantic and introduced the teachings of the Swedish mystic to the United States in the 1790s.

The first US Swedenborgian society was set up in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1792 (the same year Johnny Chapman and his brother headed west).   The group’s sacraments consisted only of baptism and Holy Communion (quaintly called “the Lord’s Supper” by Swedenborgians and others).

It is unclear when and where John Chapman heard the calling of the Swedenborgians, but it is certain their ideas of the sanctity of Nature (as extensions of their god) would have struck a clear chord within him.  Of all the legends and beliefs about him his genuine love of Nature and all its inhabitants (plants and animals alike) was beyond question.  He adopted the Swedenborgian pantheism (probably one he already embraced without being able to put a name on it), and later evangelized in his travels, carrying Swedenborgian religious tracts to give out as he saw the need.

Breeding Grounds
Johnny and his brother struck out from Pittsburgh after the Whiskey Rebellion.  They headed to the north-central interior of Ohio, planting seeds on orchard plots, fencing them, and leaving their oversight to a trustee.  The pair lived in the wilds and Johnny developed an affinity for the Native Americans he found in the Ohio River Valley and beyond. 

Ohio was still the land of the Indians though most tribes were in the process of either being squeezed out or had already voluntarily left for quieter lands further west in Indiana.  Among these were the remnants of Christianized Delaware Indians, the Lenape.  They had been converted by Moravians, another sect of northern continental European origin.  Johnny, the Swedenborgian, would have had much in common with the Moravians and their converts on the frontier, and many befriended him. 

In about 1803, Elizabeth Chapman (Johnny’s older sister) married a man named Nathaniel Rudd.  In 1805, Johnny’s father, with his very large family, decided to head west as his two sons had done 13 years earlier.  Nathaniel Chapman caught up with his junior namesake and Johnny in Ohio.  Nathaniel, Jr., a grown man of about 24 by then, elected to stay with his father on the new family farm.  Johnny struck out on his own, and it was from that time the legend of Johnny Appleseed mushroomed. 

He successfully converted some Indians to the Swedenborgian religion (a good fit for Natives because of its appreciation of Nature as an integral part of the Cosmos).  His relationship with all Native Americans he encountered (particularly as his “mission” was both as an orchardist and as a religious missionary for the Swedenborgians) was free of conflicts.  Of the Native Americans and their perhaps undeserved reputation for unprovoked savagery toward whites, he wrote later, “I have traveled more than 4,000 miles about this country, and I have never met with one single insolent Native American.”

[In at least one confirmed incident of his not believing in the nobility of his Native American frontier friends, Appleseed turned on them.  During the War of 1812, most Natives sided with the British as a means of avenging themselves for outrages committed by encroaching hordes of settlers.  Johnny Appleseed, knowing of the Indians’ growing agitation, hastily covered 30 miles of wilderness from Mansfield, Ohio, to Mount Vernon, Ohio, to warn of gathering Indian war parties, intent on killing the white settlers in Ohio’s interior.  Reinforcments were called in to the path of Indian wrath; the lives of many of the white Ohioans were spared.  In perhaps one of the few instances noted in his life, Appleseed rode on horseback to make speed, a transport he generally shunned.  A later embellishment to Appleseed’s warning ride had him,

Classic Johnny Appleseed illustration
instead, running barefoot all 30 of those miles, and it is this version of the incident that remains the most popular.]

Though a reflective and largely solitary man, Johnny Appleseed (and the name was popularized during his lifetime: by 1806 most people in the Ohio territory knew him or knew of him by that nickname) was also garrulous and good company.  His visits, whether passing through or in the area to tend one of his orchards, were anticipated by settlers hungry for news of the outside world or merely to have him around to tell stories of his recent travels.

In a settler’s home, Appleseed sang for his supper.  He also read and told stories to children, and preached the Swedenborgian gospel to their parents.  A woman who knew him in his later years, when he was still roaming and tending his orchards, recorded:

“We can hear him read now, just as he did that summer day, when we were busy quilting upstairs, and he lay near the door, his voice rising denunciatory and thrilling—strong and loud as the roar of wind and waves, then soft and soothing as the balmy airs that quivered the morning-glory leaves about his gray beard.  His was a strange eloquence at times, and he was undoubtedly a man of genius.”

River travel for Johnny Appleseed was done by lashing two birch-bark canoes together.  His supplies of seeds and other necessities were stowed in leather and burlap sacks aboard the makeshift rig. 

Johnny Appleseed (canoe rigging)
He was a strange appearing character to those he stumbled across in the wilderness.  He spent much of his time traipsing through woods and heavy brush, clearing plots for orchards, and mucking in the dirt.  He had dark, grey eyes (some described as nearly black), and a scanty beard.  Clothing for him was strictly utilitarian.  His clothes were simple handmade things that he could replace at a moment’s notice thanks to their homey beginnings.  His shirts were often nothing more than burlap sacking (once containing coffee-beans or potatoes) rough-sewn into an approximation of a shirt or tunic.

A practical man, he wore his tin mush pot on his head.  This saved his having to carry it when not in use and it also served as a hat—in the hinterlands a hat was nearly useless.  More than likely he would lose it or it would become torn or worn-out quickly.  The pan, however, was durable. 

He also had forsaken shoes for practical reasons.  With his new-found religion and its respect for the sanctity of all Nature’s creatures, shoes (made from the hides of animals) were anathema (and taking his beliefs one step further he would become a strict vegetarian later in life). 

A woman who had met him in his wildest days reported he was “scraggly and barefoot, he’s wearing a sackcloth cinched at the waist like a dress and a tin pot on his head. The man looks completely insane.”

Large Tracts of Land
“Insane” looking he may have been but his business plan was paying off.  As his trees matured the pennies invested in the seedlings, while not making him fabulously wealthy, made him comfortable and allowed him to do much as he pleased.  Often he would barter for trade goods instead of selling his apple trees outright.  Or, he would sell them on credit, saying he would come and collect at a later time (but often forgetting about the debt).  Because of his reputation he was invited into homes to spend the night, take meals, and he was given many material things as he needed them.  He was famous within his lifetime.

The species of apple tree he planted was a primitive stock.  He planted only from seeds, and refused to employ newer grafting methods or cross-breeding programs to improve the size and flavor of the fruits they yielded.  The science of botany for improving yields did not interest him. 

First, his trees were meant as placeholders for land claims (and some territories made it a law that in order to even consider a tract for a land claim it had to have an orchard of some kind planted on it, what was called a “material improvement”).  Also, the apples weren’t meant for eating, they were meant to be processed into apple cider.  Finally, tinkering with Nature with artificial grafting, to Johnny Appleseed, went against his Swedenborgian religion.  

Johnny Appleseed cultivation territory map (rough)
By not fussing overly much with his farming techniques (plant seeds, leave, check back, and tend as needed) his simple living allowed him a relative freedom many people of his day could not afford.  He was tied to the land but not owned by it.  Nor did he choose to always live as a recluse.  Appleseed enjoyed the company of others and was not a shy man.  He made regular trips back East to visit his married sister Elizabeth.  He also took advantage of those trips to restock his supplies of Swedenborgian literature.

Appleseed’s orchard plantings benefited him in another way.  Just as settlers needing to hold onto a piece of land could plant an orchard as proof of ownership, Johnny’s orchards (planted for profit and scattered over several states) brought about 1200 acres of land under his control during his life.  This was good acreage. 

Maybe it was high time he shared it with someone?

Nipped in the Bud
Appleseed’s life is very difficult to organize in an orderly, time-line fashion.  Dates of certain treks or major events are either glossed over or not recorded.  Too many tall tales tend to get tangled up in truth and it is difficult to tease out simple fact from fantasy.  Nor is it often easy to verify certain events; much was conflated during his lifetime or told of him after his death.

However, the one thing that can reasonably be deduced is that Johnny Appleseed, while perhaps interested in the fairer sex, had no luck with the ladies.  At least one bad experience soured him on amour—while he was most likely not a misogynist he seemed to have a genuine mistrust of women.

Finding a mate out in Indian country (whether along the banks of the Ohio River, deep in the interior, or along the shores of Lake Erie) was difficult.  In the first place, men outnumbered women by a wide margin.  Many men ventured into the wilds alone, in pairs, or in large companies.  Women rarely, if ever, did this.  So, by virtue of happenstance there would always be more men than women in the outlands.

Also, women unfortunately had a higher mortality rate on the frontier thanks to the rigors of childbearing; many died giving birth or shortly thereafter from puerperal fever.  A dearth of female flesh was the norm.  Thus, women were a highly-valued commodity, perhaps more valuable than any other imaginable.

Johnny Appleseed may have availed himself of the occasional “farmer’s daughter”, or any “woodland wildflower”, or even had casual connections with Native American women.  None seems likely, though, given his devout beliefs in his religion.  Johnny Appleseed, like most men of his mien, would have preferred the marital bed.

Perrysville, Ohio, was in his orchard-keeping territory, and he was known to tarry there.  Meeting a waif, Appleseed came up with an idea of how to get a wife.  His plan, though, carried a distasteful, Svengali-like, almost pedophilic creepiness.

The date is not clear, and the cultivation phase had to have occurred over a lengthy period.  A rootless girl (possibly named Nancy Tannehill) had caught his eye as clay to be molded by Appleseed, and it appears he made an arrangement with her frontier family in 1833 to raise the 10-year-old (he had once commented that he would only marry a girl 8 or 10 years old, so that he could be sure she was a virgin).  Long after the event, Appleseed related the strange and twisted story of romance gone wrong to the mother of a female acquaintance. 

He said he had found a “poor, friendless little girl, who had no one to care for her”.  He took this girl in as a ward and sent her to school (she did not live with him; she was boarded at his expense in the care of others).  He paid for her clothing and watched over her, much as he would watch over one of his orchards.  He said his intent had been to “bring her up to suit” himself; in the absence of available women in the wilderness Johnny Appleseed was growing his own wife!  He said when she was old enough he intended to marry her.

When this girl was fifteen years old, Johnny apparently felt she was ripe for plucking.  Intending to offer a proposal of marriage he dropped in unexpectedly at the place where she was staying.  He caught her sitting next to a young man.  The unknown rival held this girl’s hand and prattled on while she stared raptly into his eyes: Nancy had already accepted this other man’s marriage offer.

The woman to whom Johnny Appleseed told this story later said he’d prefaced it by saying:

“. . . that all women were not what they professed to be; that some of them were deceivers; and a man might not marry the amiable woman that he thought he was getting, after all.”

His listener then related that Johnny was nearly apoplectic at the recollection as he finished his story of lost love:

“I peeped over at Johnny while he was telling this and . . . I saw his eyes grow dark as violets, and the pupils enlarge, and his voice rise up in denunciation, while his nostrils dilated and his thin lips worked with emotion. How angry he grew! He thought the girl was basely ungrateful. After that time she was no protégé of his.”

Appleseed’s green thumb had failed him: the wife he tried to grow never came to fruition. 

He never married. 

The Woodland Critters
His Swedenborgian validation of his love of Nature made him keenly aware of the place each living thing occupied in the world.  Johnny believed all life was sacred as it was part of the grander scheme of things.  Anecdotes abound, some absurdly precious, about Appleseed’s respect for wildlife. 

In the 1830s a folklorist named Henry Howe traveled through every county of Ohio collecting stories.  These stories were later published.  Most came from contemporaries while Appleseed was still alive, and though they reek of maudlin sentiment or may be exaggerated, they do contain kernels of truth, at least when considering his Swedenborgian leanings.

Even the least members of the fauna were respected by him.  And while Henry Howe’s collected story may be apocryphal or an outright lie it is a great example of Johnny Appleseed’s respect for Nature, all of it, not just the pleasant things:

“One cool autumnal night, while lying by his camp-fire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burned.  Johnny, who wore on his head a tin utensil which answered both as a cap and a mush pot, filled it with water and quenched the fire, and afterwards remarked, ‘God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort that should be the means of destroying any of his creatures.’”

In consideration of another species, a bigger one this time, Howe related:

“Another time he made a camp-fire in a snowstorm at the end of a hollow log in which he intended to pass the night, but finding it occupied by a bear and cubs, he removed his fire to the other end, and slept on the snow in the open air, rather than disturb the bear.”

[The latter story of the bear and her cubs sharing Appleseed’s log is clearly a tall tale. Female bears are notoriously and brutally protective of their young—had Appleseed gotten anywhere

Johnny Appleseed
near such a den the mother would have mauled him to death.]

Appleseed refused to use horses as beasts of burden; he walked or canoed everywhere he went.  In one instance of Howe’s recollecting, Appleseed learned of a lame horse whose owner planned on euthanizing it.  Johnny bought some grassland for pasture and turned it over for this horse to recover in.  When it was healthy again he gave it to someone who needed a horse after exacting a promise the animal would be treated humanely.

Inhumane traps were frowned upon by him and he normally tripped them or destroyed them when he came across them in the woods.  He discovered a wolf caught in such a trap and freed it.  As wolves are the forebears of all domestic dogs he found that after nursing the animal back to health it was tame enough for him to keep as a pet.

His vegetarianism, borne of his love of animals and an extension of his religious and personal beliefs, was a cause for suspicion among many frontier people.  Such an esoteric diet was almost unheard of in Johnny’s day.

Harvest Time
Johnny Appleseed moved further west into Allen County, Indiana, near Fort Wayne around 1835.  He bought some land there and planted an orchard.  This was his final home though he still traveled extensively making the rounds to earlier nurseries he’d sown.

Johnny Appleseed died on March 18, 1845, at the age of 70 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He died in the cabin of a local family named Worth after a feverish bout of pneumonia.  [His death is alternately recorded as following in the wake of an evening meal at the Worth cabin in which he stretched out on the cabin floor, went to sleep, and failed to awaken.]

His death created confusion almost immediately.  Some people were unclear about how old he was (his obituary listed him as “not less than 80” years old).  A later source recorded his date of death as the summer of 1847, two years and a few months after the fact. 

The local Fort Wayne rag printed a homey obituary for him on March 22, 1845 (though some of the facts presented, such as his age at death and state of origin, are clearly incorrect).  The core truths about Johnny Appleseed are featured in this obituary, though:

“On the same day [referencing March 18] in this neighborhood, at an advanced age, Mr. John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed).

The deceased was well known through this region by his eccentricity, and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman, and has been a regular visitor here upwards of 10 years. He was a native of Pennsylvania we understand but his home—if home he had—for some years past was in the neighborhood of Cleveland, where he has relatives living. He is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself almost the common necessities of life—not so much perhaps for avarice as from his peculiar notions on religious subjects. He was a follower of Swedenborg and devoutly believed that the more he endured in this world the less he would have to suffer and the greater would be his happiness hereafter—he submitted to every privation with cheerfulness and content, believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter.

In the most inclement weather he might be seen barefooted and almost naked except when he chanced to pick up articles of old clothing. Notwithstanding the privations and exposure he endured, he lived to an extreme old age, not less than 80 years at the time of his death—though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was 60.  He always carried with him some work on the doctrines of Swedenborg with which he was perfectly familiar, and would readily converse and argue on his tenets, using much shrewdness and penetration.

His death was quite sudden.  He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.”

In the few years before his death the Panic of 1837 had cut into Johnny’s tree business.  In 1837 President Andrew Jackson issued the Specie Circular, a directive that the purchase of all public lands be done in gold or silver.  The object of this order was to limit the amount of paper currency in circulation (a suspect form of currency at the time) and to curtail land speculations.  In other words, only serious purchasers with solid gold and silver in hand could buy.  The result, though, was deflation, creating the Panic of 1837.  It lasted well past 1838, the year the Government repealed this executive order of Jackson’s.

Johnny’s cash flow was affected by this deflationary period, and the asking price for his trees dropped from his preferred “fi’penny” bit down to two or three cents.  He was still required to pay taxes on his land, though, and he fell into arrears.  

Johnny Appleseed had planted over 1200 acres of apple nursery lands, from which settlers planted several hundred square miles of apple orchards with his seedlings.  The lands he had obtained through “claiming” with his orchards also included land he had purchased (such as four plots in Allen County, Indiana).  He had bought a quarter-section (160 acres) of a township in Ashland County, Ohio.  He failed to properly register the purchase by deed in the local courthouse, and the land did not pass to his sole legatee. 

Upon his death, all of his land was left to his sister, Elizabeth.  She did not benefit materially from it, though.  He had left 15,000 trees on his Allen County orchard.  He had countless thousands of others elsewhere.  But they were worth less than half what they’d been just a few years before.  His tax debt also had to be paid; much of his land was sold to cover that arrearage.  And thanks to poor record keeping some of his property was lost in litigation (most notably the 160-acre tract he had legitimately purchased in Ashland County, Ohio).  And finally, Elizabeth found she could not afford the taxes on what was left, and she sold most of it to keep from further indebtedness.    

Like Kentucky pioneer Daniel Boone, Jonathan “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman has two graves. He was buried along the St. Joseph River; the location of his grave site is still debated (though logic and common sense tends to support one over the other location claimed).

The site of the Worth cabin where Appleseed died was developed in modern times into an apartment complex and a golf course.  Probably taking advantage solely of the publicity it could generate, this developer claimed the grounds of the new complex held Appleseed’s remains and was his burial site.  A memorial rock was placed on a spot (randomly chosen: there would be no way to confirm an actual location, all things considered) that marks his “grave” (at least, according to those promoting this place as his gravesite). [This location is bunk.  It is about quite a distance from the river bank where Appleseed was buried.]

A competing gravesite (one equally vested, with its commercial and tourist appeal being based on having the grave of Johnny Appleseed) lies in Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne.  This

Johnny Appleseed gravesite monument
park sopercedes an older one, Archer Park (once part of the family farm of the Archers, friends of Appleseed’s).  Archer Park had Johnny Appleseed’s original grave marker in it, and it abutted the St. Joseph River. 

Thus, the rational conclusion is that he was buried not on the grounds of the old Worth cabin (the apartment complex) but in the Archer family cemetery (part of their farm, and now near the park bearing Johnny’s name).

Further evidence pointing to the veracity of this conclusion comes from a member of the Worth family a little over a decade after Johnny’s death.  Richard Worth, Jr. (in an 1858 interview), made the statement that Johnny was buried “respectably” in the Archer cemetery (indicating he was nowhere interred at the cabin site where he died).

A direct descendant of the Archer family (John H. Archer, grandson of David Archer) with knowledge of the family’s history wrote a letter outlining the details of interments at the Archer family cemetery.  This was dated October 4, 1900 (much closer to the event than any modern property developer could claim).  With respect to Appleseed’s demise, John Archer recalled:

“The historical account of his death and burial by the Worths and their neighbors, the Pettits, Goinges, Porters, Notestems, Parkers, Beckets, Whitesides, Pechons, Hatfields, Parrants, Ballards, Randsells, and the Archers in David Archer’s private burial grounds is substantially correct.  The grave, more especially the common head-boards used in those days, have long since decayed and become entirely obliterated, and at this time I do not think that any person could with any degree of certainty come within fifty feet of pointing out the location of his grave.  Suffice it to say that he has been gathered in with his neighbors and friends, as I have enumerated, for the majority of them lie in David Archer’s graveyard with him.”

Again, further solidifying the reality that Chapman is buried in the Archer Park grounds comes from 1916.  During Indiana’s centennial celebrations, an iron fence was placed in the Archer graveyard, clearly setting off Johnny Appleseed’s burial plot.  A report on the ceremony indicated it was attended by some men (obviously of an advanced age, likely young boys in 1845) who had attended Appleseed’s funeral.  Records of the ceremony’s proceedings say, “Direct and accurate evidence was available then.  There was little or no reason for them to make a mistake about the location of this grave.  They located the grave in the Archer burying ground.”

Plowed Under
The character (and caricature) of Johnny Appleseed has passed not only into folk lore but into pop culture as well where he remains a beloved figure in children’s books, cartoons, and in

Better Known as Johnny Appleseed (book cover)
other media.  His name, “Johnny Appleseed”, evokes images of a selfless, self-denying, eccentric, rugged individualist on a mission.

He was a deeply spiritual man.  He loved Nature, mistrusted women, and got along with Indians.  He was not a great

Johnny Appleseed historic marker dedication ceremony (Mansfield, OH, c. 1950)
philanthropist or a selfless martyr to a cause—he was a businessman engaged in the business of growing apple trees for profit.

A final anecdote about how closely Johnny kept to his ideals and his faith came from a Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article written in 1871 (but referring back to the years shortly before he died).

This occasion for retold Appleseed antics was an open-air revival in Mansfield, Ohio.  The wandering preacher, of the fire-and-brimstone variety very popular then, stood on a tree stump, castigating his listeners over petty vanities (typical of fundamentalist Christians).  The pioneers who heard this sermon were accused of indulging in such “sinful” things as calico for clothing and imported tea! [Tea was not grown in the US, and the blusterer gave no clear solution for how the settlers could have gotten any unless it was imported.]

Apparently believing the “new” breed of settlers had lost their way and were growing soft, this preacher howled, “Where now is there a man who, like the primitive Christians, is traveling to heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiment?”

Johnny Appleseed, who had stood by patiently listening to this blowhard, finally had his Swedenborgian sensibilities offended with that last statement.  “Coarse” accurately described Johnny’s “raiment” his whole life; he wore cast-offs or clothing taken in trade for his apple tree seedlings.  He strode up to the preacher’s stump, and propped one of his dirty, calloused, bare feet on it for display. 

“Here’s your primitive Christian!” he thundered. 

Johnny Appleseed (endpiece)
With that show-stopping performance by Johnny Appleseed, the gasbag abruptly ended the sermon and vacated. 

***

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Comments

Jun 5, 2013 1:33pm
Marlando
All I can say is that I've loved this story since childhood and...still do! Thanks for bring insight and renewed inspiration. 5 big stars and sure, a rating
Jun 5, 2013 1:43pm
vicdillinger
Overall, Appleseed was a pretty good yegg (except for that child bride business). Thanks for reading.
Jul 1, 2013 5:45pm
curiosity44
Vic, I never knew that "Johnny Appleseed" was really named Jonathan Chapman. This man was a pioneer and environmental legend and I wonder why more environmentalists do not give him more praise. Terrific article!
Jul 1, 2013 5:57pm
vicdillinger
His conservation-mindedness, I think, was really more a part of his religious views as well as his business interests. But he is likely the very first of the ecologically concerned types in the U.S. (other than the Native Americans who, of course, saw the earth as a sacred thing). Glad you liked the piece, and thanks for reading.
Jul 2, 2013 4:20am
savickram
Superb article Vic. I never heard of Johnny Appleseed but glad that you wrote extensively about him.

I believe Wikipedia articles were most informative but you are fast catching up with Wikipedia on my lists with your thorough research and loooong articles.

Kudos to that. A thumbs up and a rating....!!!!
Jul 2, 2013 8:04am
vicdillinger
Wiki over all does a pretty good job, though I've found a few miserable failures in their oeuvre (not many, but a few). Anyway, thanks for the compliment, and thanks for reading!
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Bibliography

  1. "Johnny Appleseed." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  2. "apple; Johnny Appleseed; Battles of Lexington and Concord; John Hancock; minuteman; New Church; pantheism; puerperal fever; Specie Circular; Stamp Act; Emmanuel Swedenborg." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  3. "Johnny Appleseed." en.wikipedia.org. 17/12/2012 <Web >
  4. Daven Hiskey "Johnny Appleseed Was a Real Person." todayifoundout.com. 29/10/2010. 17/12/2012 <Web >
  5. Sandy Mitchell "Who Was Johnny Appleseed?." cleveland.about.com. 17/12/2012 <Web >
  6. Frank B. McAllister "Johnny Appleseed." ruralvermont.com. 17/12/2012 <Web >
  7. "Johnny Appleseed: Folk Hero." ohiohistoryhost.org. 28/09/2012. 17/12/2012 <Web >
  8. "Celebrate Johnny Appleseed Day – September 26: The Story of Johnny Appleseed." acelebrationofwomen.org. 26/09/2010. 17/12/2012 <Web >
  9. "What's the story with Johnny Appleseed?." straightdope.com. 20/01/2004. 30/05/2013 <Web >

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