A Harvest Tale
America’s art, literature and popular culture are ripe with the story of Johnny Appleseed, the colorful eccentric who planted orchards to feed America’s pioneers. He is often linked with legendary folk characters Paul Bunyan, Rip Van Winkle, the Headless Horseman and John Henry.
The best-known literary work is Vachel Lindsay’s free-verse poem “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed.” And perhaps the most intriguing musical piece is a 1978 symphonic work called Johnny Appleseed Suite written by the great Hoagy Carmichael.
Folksinger Pete Seeger felt such a connection that he wrote a regular column for Sing Out! magazine in the mid-1960s under the name “Johnny Appleseed Jr.” MGM’s 1957 Civil War epic “Raintree County” has Johnny planting an exotic apple tree—the Golden Raintree—which serves as a Holy Grail of happiness for the film’s characters.
Yet as mythic as his legend has become, Johnny Appleseed was a real man, John Chapman, whose initial base of operations was Pittsburgh. He was born in 1774 in Leominster, Mass., the second child of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Simonds Chapman, who died when John was two. Nathaniel Chapman was a Revolutionary War soldier whose local Minuteman company responded to the April 19, 1775 Lexington alarm and also participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was a legacy that would echo in his wandering son, who, like Paul Revere, would become a roving sentinel during the War of 1812.
A lover of animals and nature, the young Chapman became an apprentice tending an apple orchard. That, and his religious upbringing, formed the foundation of what would become the mission of this wilderness prophet: to deliver a Christian message of love and nourishing apple trees to frontier folk. In the process, he would become a major figure in the westward expansion of the United States.
At about the age of 18, Chapman and his half-brother, Nathaniel, headed west from Massachusetts on foot. Nathaniel soon returned, but John stayed in Pittsburgh. It’s believed he bought a small piece of land and built a cabin on Grant’s Hill, the location of present-day Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh. There, a general associated with Fort Pitt or its successor, Fort Fayette, hired Chapman to tend the apple orchard on his farm. It was there that Chapman conceived his plan to establish nurseries in the Ohio River Valley, using seeds from that Pittsburgh orchard and those he collected from other local cider mills.
The Bibles and religious tracts Chapman carried on his journeys derived from a fortuitous business trip to Greensburg, where Judge John Young, a Swedenborgian, presented Chapman with books to spread his Christian message to frontier families.
In the early 1800s, Chapman gave his Pittsburgh property to a widow and her children. And armed with plenty of Pittsburgh apple seeds, he left for Ohio, first to a farm near the Licking River, and then to Steubenville. He continued on, planting seeds in West Virginia (then Virginia) on the Thomas Grimes farm near Fowlerstown. The result was the famous Grimes Golden apple, a forerunner of the Golden Delicious, West Virginia’s state fruit.
With a businessman’s eye, he chose nursery sites where pioneer settlements and ultimately towns would develop—essentially preparing the way for new settlers lured by legislation encouraging expansion west.
His earliest major excursion, observed by numerous log-cabin families who already were calling him Johnny Appleseed, began in 1806, via two canoes strapped together, with stops along the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. During these early nursery-planting years throughout Ohio’s Jefferson, Ashland, and Richland counties, Chapman replenished his seed supply with trips back to Allegheny County’s cider mills. Among his routes were the old Indian trail from Pittsburgh through Fort Sandusky, or through the Ohio wilderness in a west/northwest direction from Pittsburgh to the Black Fork of the Mohican River.
When his family moved west in 1805, Chapman helped them build a cabin along Duck Creek near Marietta, Ohio. He knew the area well, and it became his base for 20 years. On the urging of two prominent Marietta citizens, he planted a nursery there and also helped treat patients during a fever epidemic.
By the 1830s, when civilization had followed his established orchards all over Ohio, Chapman concentrated his efforts farther west, purchasing land in Allen and Jay counties near Fort Wayne, Ind.
An eccentric patriot
Describing chapman as an itinerant preacher devoted to planting apple seeds fails to explain why he achieved legendary status. Certainly, he was an unforgettable character in dress and behavior. Always barefoot, he wore a cooking pot or some other makeshift construction as a hat. He never needed more than some discarded old pants and a coffee sack for clothes.
His single extravagance was a huge leather bag, which carried his apple seeds. Restless, wiry, and scraggly-haired, he was a religious ascetic whose needs were few. Often he gave shoes and other gifts he’d received to poor settlers. The man was a 19th-century St. Francis, refusing to harm even insects, and seemingly immune—despite his bare feet—to injury from the countless rattlesnakes present in the underbrush areas he traversed. He purchased abused animals and gave them to more humane settlers; he provided food and shelter for lame horses in the colder seasons until they recovered and then loaned or gave them to deserving settlers. He subsisted on a meager vegetarian diet; he hated wasting food and believed it was a sin to kill any of God’s creatures for human sustenance.
And wherever he went, the saintly Chapman was respected, whether by white settlers or Native Americans, who especially appreciated his endurance for pain and his physical courage. This universal goodwill allowed him to roam pioneer areas with impunity, even during hostilities.
Paul Revere may be remembered as America’s most patriotic messenger; but that single night’s work pales in comparison to Chapman’s continuous efforts as a frontier harbinger of attacks by the British and their Native-American allies during the War of 1812. According to one of the first major articles on Chapman, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in November 1871, “Johnny traveled day and night, warning the people of the approaching danger. He visited every cabin and delivered this message: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he hath anointed me to blow the trumpet in the wilderness, and sound an alarm in the forest.’ The aged man who narrated this incident said that he could feel even now the thrill that was caused by this prophetic announcement of the wild-looking herald of danger.”
Chapman was also a herald of the Gospel. He always carried Bibles and Swedenborgian tracts, leaving extracted book pages at one cabin and returning later to retrieve the section for another settler. He would read to his hosts before a fire in their cabins, sitting on the floor, asking if they would care to hear “some news right fresh from heaven.”
As reported in the Harper’s article, “A lady who knew him in his later years writes: …‘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 the 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.’”
In 1842–43, Chapman made his last trip back to the Marietta family farm, checking on his established nurseries and pioneer friends. After settling back in Fort Wayne in the spring of 1845, Chapman heard that wild cattle had broken into one his nurseries in a northern Indiana county, so he walked there in bad weather to care for his trees. He returned to Fort Wayne ill and exhausted. He stopped at the home of an old friend, William Worth. There, on March 18, 1845, he died at the age of 71.
Chapman’s obituary in the Fort Wayne Sentinel immediately established his legendary status: “Dies in this city on Tuesday last… 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 20 years. He was a native of Pennsylvania… 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 always carried with him some work on the doctrines of Swedenbourgh [sic]… His death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.”
Like the comforting heavenly spirit that ends the Disney cartoon about him, Chapman’s legacy remains with us—at his memorial sites in Leominster and Fort Wayne’s Johnny Appleseed Park; at the numerous fall harvest festivals that bear his name in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Delaware, and Indiana (the largest being in Fort Wayne); in dozens of children’s and adult books celebrating his life and legend (“Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth” by Robert Price; “Johnny Appleseed: The Legend and the Truth” by Jane Yolen and Jim Burke; et al.); and through the research and promotional efforts of the Johnny Appleseed Society and Museum at Ohio’s Urbana University and the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center in Ashland/Mansfield, Ohio.
Mostly, though, we celebrate John Chapman’s memory through every homegrown apple we bite into, at every American orchard where our families pick apples in the autumn, and by our appreciation for the courageous pioneers who settled our nation west of Pennsylvania with the help of Johnny Appleseed. We owe much to this patriotic man—whose Fort Wayne gravestone reads “He Lived for Others”—and to the modest Pittsburgh apple seeds he spread throughout our early western frontier.