Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman) was a direct descendant of Edward Chapman, who came from Yorkshire, England, to Boston in the 1640s and became a prosperous farmer and miller in Ipswich. John was of the sixth generation from Edward. He was the second child of Elizabeth Simonds and Nathaniel Chapman, who were married at Leominster, Massachusetts on February 8, 1770. John was born in Leominster on September 26, 1774, and was baptized with his sister Elizabeth in the Congregational Church on June 25, 1775, the day his father and mother were received into that church. John’s father, Nathaniel, was a carpenter, a farmer, and a Revolutionary soldier. So far as any records show, he was a man of little means, though there is a tradition that he lost two good farms in the service of our country.
A letter from Elizabeth to Nathaniel, dated June 3, 1776, suggests that she was suffering from an advanced case of tuberculosis. At that time, Nathaniel was with a company of carpenters attached to General George Washington’s headquarters at New York. In this letter, Elizabeth states that she has money for her needs, though she has not bought a cow, for cows were scarce and dear. This was a time of hardship and war-time inflation when many a colonial mother had a hard time caring for her children.
On June 26, 1776, Elizabeth gave birth to her third child, a son. On July 18th, she died, and within two weeks, according to family tradition, the baby, too, was dead. Little John, not yet two years old, and his sister, Elizabeth, were cared for by relatives. After Elizabeth’s death, Nathaniel continued to serve in the Continental Army until the summer of 1780 when he was honorably discharged. That same summer he married Lucy Cooley of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. To them were born ten children.
We do not know if John and Elizabeth ever went to live with Nathaniel and Lucy, but we do know that John maintained close relationships with the family. Again according to family traditions, John at the age of eighteen persuaded his half-brother Nathaniel, a lad of eleven, to go West with him. This was in 1792.
Since the deeply-worn “Connecticut Path” from Boston to Albany crossed the Connecticut River at Springfield, one may presume that the boys saw emigrants passing to the West every day, and that they constantly heard glowing stories of that wonderful land. For almost half a century New Englanders had turned longing eyes toward the Susquehanna. They had first heard of it from missionaries returned from their efforts to convert Native American Indians to the Christian faith. These stories spread throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts by word of mouth and through the press. Little companies of emigrants were organized, and they set out for the fabulous country two hundred miles away, crossing the Hudson River at about where the present town of Catskill stands. This was just half way to the Susquehanna. Under the most favorable conditions, it took two or three weeks of the hardest kind of travel and labor to reach the headwaters of the Susquehanna.
John Chapman is said to have been in the Wilkes-Barre region some time in the 1790s, practicing his profession as a nurseryman, but just when he embraced the Swedenborgian faith and began his missionary activities we cannot be sure, though it is probable that it was before he ever reached western Pennsylvania. There are some early accounts of John speaking of his own activities as “a Bible missionary” on the Potomac when he was a young man, and Johnny was seen for two or three consecutive years along the banks of the Potomac in eastern Virginia, picking the seeds from the pumice of the cider mills in the late 1790s.
From the Potomac, the Chapman boys could have worked their way westward to Fort Cumberland. From Fort Cumberland, they could have followed Nemacolin’s Path, better known as Braddock’s Road, to the Monongahela, and then perhaps followed the Monongahela to Pittsburgh, a route that many New Englanders took because there were fewer Indians to be encountered along the southern route.
We do know that John and Nathaniel arrived at last at Pittsburgh and from there went up the Allegheny River to its confluence with Olean Creek at Olean, New York. They expected to find an uncle there, but he had moved on. The boys appropriated the cabin and stayed through the winter, suffering much hardship. The next year they took up the nomadic life again in western Pennsylvania until their father, with his large family, came West in 1805. Nathaniel the younger then probably quit moving around with his older half-brother, John. The Ohio farmland was fertile, compared to the rocky soil of New England, and Nathaniel, senior, and the large family had much to work with. But John had another calling and vision for his life.
Records show that John Chapman appeared on Licking Creek, in what is now Licking County, Ohio, in 1800, when he was twenty-six years old. He had probably come up the Muskingum River to plant near the Refugee Tract, which would soon fill up with settlers, when Congress actually got around to granting the lands. In April, 1798, the Continental Congress had ratified resolutions to donate public lands for the benefit of those who had left Canada and Nova Scotia to fight against the British in the Revolutionary War. The lands were actually set apart in 1801 and patents issued in 1802. Grants of land ranging from 160 acres to 2,240 acres were awarded according to the exertions of the patentee in the War. Johnny, with true Yankee enterprise, went ahead and planted his nurseries before the refugees arrived. Licking County, then a part of Fairfield, contained only three white families. By the time families were ready to settle the area, Johnny’s tracts of land were ready for market.
This is the plan that John Chapman followed for the next half-century. Johnny Appleseed went ahead of the great immigrant flood ever sweeping westward. He planted with an eye to future markets, and seldom did he make a poor choice. It is uncanny how many towns have risen on or near his nursery sites.
One of the pervasive myths of Johnny Appleseed is that he never lived. The late Robert Price, English professor at Otterbein College, researched John Chapman’s life for twenty-five years. Published in 1954 by the Indiana University Press, Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth remains today the best historical gathering of factual data of the life that came to be a storybook legend. And the facts of the real man provide some startling contrasts from the romantic image of Johnny Appleseed that has grown up in American folklore. Perhaps the most ironic twist is that though John Chapman never domesticated himself for very long in one place and certainly never had a home in the traditional sense of the word, he was no mere dreamy wanderer. The record on Johnny Appleseed reveals him to be a careful, organized and strategic businessman who, over a period of several decades, bought and sold many dozen tracts of land in advance of the frontier expansion, and who developed countless thousands of productive apple trees throughout the upper Midwest.
John Chapman didn’t simply walk around the countryside planting seeds and communing with nature. He was methodical in the selection of his nursery sites and the planting of his seeds. By instinct, he practiced the Van Mons theory of improving fruit by seeding rather than by grafting or budding. He always selected a good loamy piece of ground in an open place, fenced it in with fallen trees and logs, bushes and vines, sowed his seeds, and returned at regular intervals to repair the fence, to tend the ground, and to sell his trees.
If he had to remain long with a nursery, he put up a little Indian hut of poles and covered it with a bark roof, leaving a hole in the center for the smoke to escape. His housekeeping equipment consisted of a camp kettle, a plate, and a spoon. He sometimes made a bed of leaves inside the hut, but often he slept on the bare ground with his feet to a small fire. Sometimes he slept on a bed of leaves beside a log; again, he might make himself a temporary shelter by leaning great slabs of elm bark against a fallen tree; inside, on his bed of leaves, he slept serenely, confident that nothing could harm him. Many frontiersmen came long distances to buy trees from him, and stayed the night. With his meager equipment, Johnny boiled mush and dispensed hospitality as graciously as any housewife.
In the Mohican country, Johnny visited every cabin religiously, feeling that he had been commissioned to preach, to heal diseases, to warn of danger-in short, to help God take care of the settlers. He planted his nurseries around Mansfield, Loudonville, Perryville, and the Indian village of Green Town, living in a little cabin near Perryville. When asked why he feared neither man nor beast, he replied that he lived in harmony with all people, and that he could not be harmed as long as he lived by the law of love. He is said to have sown the seeds of medicinal herbs wherever he went: dog fennel, pennyroyal, catnip, hoarhound, mullein, rattlesnake root, and others. For a long time, fennel was called “Johnny weed.” He often appeared at the door of a new settler’s home with a gift of herbs in his hands.
Johnny made friends with many of the Indian tribes and was known to have learned many Indian languages well enough to converse. Memoirs from settlers who knew Johnny well indicate the impression that many Indians held Johnny in a high regard, and that his unusual zeal for serving others led some to believe he was touched by the Great Spirit. For that reason, they allowed him to listen to their council meetings, and he was therefore sometimes able to avert trouble between a tribe and incoming settlers. He is said to have had compassion for the views and needs of both cultures, and was a fine communicator. He possessed a peculiar eloquence and a resonant voice that was persuasively tender, inspirationally sublime, or when needed witheringly denunciatory. He had a keen sense of humor and was quick to make a witty retort or a cutting rebuke. And he was sincerely patriotic. He had unlimited faith in his country. On one occasion, at least, he made a Fourth of July oration at a celebration in Huron County.
He had unusual ideas about charging for his trees and collecting for them. He would take a reasonable price in money, some cast-off clothing, a bit of food, or nothing at all, according to the circumstances of his customer. To him, it was more important for a settler to plant a tree than to pay for it. He never liked to have a note dated for a specific day, for, he said, it might not be convenient to collect that day, or it might not be convenient for the customer to pay on that date. He never asked a person to pay a debt, for he reasoned that if God wanted him to have the money, God would move the customer to pay. Besides, the customer knew that he or she owed the money, without being reminded of it.
He was not the only person involved in such activities. What made Johnny legendary is that he stayed itinerant his entire life; his ability to exist harmoniously with Indian cultures as well as his own; his colorful personal habits. For instance, though appearing outwardly impoverished, John Chapman was not a poor man. While his assets probably never accumulated to a fortune, he had far more cash than he needed. He never used banks and relied instead on an elaborate system of burying moneys that he might not come back for until a few years later.
He lived on foods provided by nature, and he never killed animals. Humane societies might well claim him as a forerunner, for he would rescue aged horses left to fend for themselves and pay some farmer to care for them. It is said that he once rescued a wolf from a trap, with the result that the wolf adopted him and followed him for a long time. It is said that he could walk over the ice and snow barefooted in the coldest weather and never feel it. The skin was so think on his feet that one of his acquaintances said it would kill a rattlesnake to try to bite Johnny’s feet.
In 1842, Johnny made his last trip back to Ohio. While there, he made his headquarters at the home of Nathaniel, the half-brother with whom he had set out on his remarkable life fifty years before. Upon his return to Fort Wayne in Indiana, he resumed his work as “a gatherer and planter of apple seeds.” On March 18, 1845, he died of pneumonia in the home of his Richmond County friend, William Worth, and was buried not far from Ft. Wayne.
John Chapman lived in complete harmony with nature. In field and meadow and forest, he walked, concerned with the spacious thoughts of God. The singularity of his thinking and his living was inextricably entwined with his religious views. What was it about the “new” Christian doctrines that came from the writings of the Swedish scientist and Lutheran reformer, Emanuel Swedenborg, to guide, nurture and inspire such a life?