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Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Storyby Howard Means
Near sunset, one day in mid-March 1845, a seventy-year-old man named John Chapman appeared at the door of a cabin along the banks of the St. Joseph River, a few miles north of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Barefoot, dressed in coarse pantaloons and a coffee sack with holes cut out for his head and arms, Chapman had walked fifteen miles that day through mixed snow and rain to repair a bramble fence that protected one of his orchards. Now, he sought a roof over his head at the home of William Worth and his family—a request readily granted. Chapman had stayed with the Worths before on those few occasions when he felt a need to be out of the weather, a little more than five weeks in all over the previous five-plus years.
Inside, as was his custom, Chapman refused a place at table, taking a bowl of bread and milk by the hearth—or maybe on the chill of the front stoop, staring at the sunset. Accounts vary. The weather might have cleared. Afterward, also a custom, he regaled his hosts with news “right fresh from heaven” in a voice that, one frontier diarist wrote, “rose 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.”
One version of events has him reciting the Beatitudes, from the Gospel According to St. Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. …” That could be, but for last words—and this was to be his final lucid night on earth—the Beatitudes are almost too perfect, like those morning-glory leaves fluttering in the old gray beard. More likely, Chapman expounded for the gathered Worth family on the “spiritual truths” of the Bible, its hidden codex, a subject for him of inexhaustible fascination.
John Chapman slept on the hearth, by the fire, that night. On that everyone agrees. By morning, a fever had “settled on his lungs,” according to one person present, and rendered him incapable of speech. Within days, perhaps hours, he was dead, a victim of “winter plague,” a catch-all diagnosis that dated back to the Middle Ages and included everything from pneumonia and influenza to the cold-weather rampages of the Black Death. Whatever carried him away, Chapman almost certainly did not suffer. The physician who pronounced him dying later said that he had never seen a man so placid in his final passage. Years afterward, Worth family members would describe the corpse as almost glowing with serenity.
That’s overblown, of course, but with John Chapman—or Johnny Appleseed, as he eventually became known throughout the Old Northwest—just about everything is.
He had paddled into the Ohio wilderness in the opening years of the nineteenth century in two lashed-together canoes, a catamaran of his own design, carrying nothing but a few tools and two sacks stuffed with apple seeds. The land then teemed with danger: wolves, wild boars, and especially black rattlesnakes, known to the pioneers as massasaugas. One of the earliest farmers recorded killing two hundred of them in his first year while clearing a small prairie, roughly one every five yards. Bears, too, were bountiful. In an account of his travels along the Ohio River in 1807-1809, Fortescue Cuming tells of meeting a cattle-and-hog dealer named Buffington, who a few years earlier had killed, along with a partner, 135 black bears in only six weeks—skins had been selling for as much as ten dollars each back then. Yet according to virtually every testimony, Chapman took not a whit of precaution against such wilderness dangers, was heedless of his personal safety, would rather have been bitten by a rattler or mauled by a bear than defend himself against one.
It was a land, too, of rough men and harsh ways. British general Thomas Gage, longtime commander in chief of the Crown’s North American forces, once described the frontier men and women he encountered as “a Sett of People … near as wild as the country they go in, or the People they deal with, and by far more vicious & wicked.”
This was John Chapman’s world. He was part and parcel of it—adrift on the frontier with men and women at the outer edge of American civilization. Yet he appears to have glided over it all: abided by the vicious and wicked, welcomed even by the Native Americans whose land the settlers were seizing, impervious to isolation, without bodily wants or needs. It’s almost as if he drew sustenance from the landscape itself, or maybe he simply absorbed the wilderness and became it, much as he absorbed the myth of Johnny Appleseed and became that, too, in his own lifetime. What the record tells us is that when Chapman was present in whatever setting—a cabin, a town, a clearing—he was a powerful and unavoidable personality. Like many fundamental loners, though, he also was a master of the disappearing act: here one minute, gone the next.
In his 1862 history of Knox County, Ohio, A. Banning Norton calls Chapman/Appleseed “the oddest character in all our history.” That’s a toss-up. The competition for “oddest American [anything]” grows stiffer year by year, but of the many odd characters who populate our early history, John Chapman must count among the most singular of them all—nurseryman; religious zealot; realestate dabbler; medicine man; lord of the open trail, with the stars for a roof and the moon for his night-light; pioneer capitalist; altruist; the list could go on. By tradition, he also seems to have been among the most loved Americans, too. The tributes that followed his death are said to have included this one from Sam Houston, the hero of the War for Texas Independence: “Farewell, dear old eccentric heart. … Generations yet to come shall rise up and call you blessed.”
As we’ll see, there’s more than a little reason to doubt whether Sam Houston ever uttered those words, whether he even knew of Chapman or Appleseed. More likely is this traditional eulogy from another much-lauded fighting man, William Tecumseh Sherman: “Johnny Appleseed’s name will never be forgotten. … We will keep his memory green, and future generations of boys and girls will love him as we, who knew him, have learned to love him.” Sherman had been born and raised in Lancaster, Ohio, land that Chapman was still passing through regularly when the Scourge of the South was yet in his teens. Whether we accept the legitimacy of either eulogy, though, the hope they jointly express has been realized, at best, only in part.
John Chapman did not slip unnoticed into the afterlife. His life and death were summarized in a four-paragraph obituary in the March 22, 1845, edition of the Fort Wayne Sentinel, a lively account that runs to almost three hundred words. But Chapman lies today effectively forgotten on the cutting-room floor of the national narrative—his name almost as likely to evoke John Lennon’s murderer (Mark David Chapman) as it is to bring to mind the true source of that memory Sherman vowed would be ever green.
Johnny Appleseed, of course, does live on, but less as a whole person than as a barometer of the ever-shifting American ideal: by turns a pacifist (extolled by at least one and perhaps two of the most renowned fighting men of the nineteenth century), the White Noble Savage (so remembered long after the Red Savages themselves had been driven from the land), a children’s book simpleton, a frontier bootlegger in the fanciful interpretation of Michael Pollan, patron saint of everything from cannabis to evangelical environmentalism and creation care—everything, that is, but the flesh-and-blood man he really was.
This book is their story—John Chapman and Johnny Appleseed—and the story of America at the birth of the nation. It’s a tale of the wilderness, of the inner frontier and its taming. It explores how our national past gets mythologized and hired out. Mostly, though, it’s a tale of two men, one real and one invented; of the times they lived through, the ties that link them, and the gulf that separates them; of the uses to which both have been put; and of what that tells us about ourselves, then and now.
No American folk hero has been more widely and diversely celebrated than Johnny Appleseed. Two of the best-selling poets of the first half of the last century, Vachel Lindsay and Stephen Vincent BenÉt (working with his wife, Rosemary), wrote wildly popular narrative poems in his honor. He has been the subject of a ballet and an opera, a Broadway show, concertos and a cantata, as well as Mark O’Connor’s sweetly lovely “Johnny Appleseed Suite.” Over the last sixty years, Johnny also has been featured in a constant parade of children’s books and videos, themselves the spawn of one of the most famous cartoons ever turned out by the Walt Disney Studios, the 1948 classic Melody Time.
But the ballyhoo, the sheer volume of attention paid over the years to Johnny Appleseed, is very much the point. No American hero—not Davy Crockett, not even Daniel Boone—has become more lost in his own mythologies, more trapped in his many legends than this one. The fact is, John Chapman might well be the best-known figure from our national past about whom most people know almost nothing at all.
I tested that theory with a survey conducted exclusively for this book by Zogby International. Nearly 2,500 adult Americans nationwide were asked about four figures from our distant past—Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, and Davy Crockett: Did they ever exist or were they mythic creations? Of Boone and Crockett, there was little doubt: Roughly 92 percent of those surveyed were sure both men were real figures. Paul Bunyan of the blue ox and mighty ax caused more confusion: 80 percent thought he never existed, 10 percent said he did, and another 10 percent were unsure. Johnny Appleseed, though, walked a middle line: 58 percent said he was an actual historical figure, while 42 percent said either he never existed (29 percent) or they weren’t sure if he had (13 percent).
Fewer than one in four of those polled could identify Ohio and Indiana as the primary sites where Johnny Appleseed planted and tended his trees. Only a little more than one in four could place him in the proper half century. Asked what words first came to mind to describe him, respondents opted for the standard children’s book version of the man: kindhearted, generous, an environmentalist. Lost was his religious intensity, in many ways the driving force of his life; any sense of an intellectual life, of which he had a very active one; and to some extent the sheer loneliness and self-reliance that defined his five decades on the American frontier. Of Johnny Appleseed, in short, most of us know largely a caricature; of John Chapman, barely a glimmer.
Not that everything can be known. Chapman’s early years, particularly, disappear into the mists. Whole sections of his childhood fill blank pages, including where he might have learned to read more than the Bible, which he clearly did, and write with a strong hand, which he had.
Still, hard and fast moments do exist. John Chapman was born September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts, to a family with pedigree, if not great means. His father marched with the Minutemen and fought at Bunker Hill. Elizabeth, his mother, died shortly after delivering her third child, in the summer of 1776. (The new baby, a son, died soon after its mother.) Where and with whom John and his older sister, Elizabeth, might have lived until their father returned from service is lost to history, but they are thought to have joined him and his new family in Longmeadow, just south of Springfield, Massachusetts, in about 1781.
A decade and a half later—another of the unfilled gaps in his biography—John Chapman and his half brother Nathaniel fetched up on the edge of western Pennsylvania, almost at the close of the century, just as the new American nation north and west of the Ohio River was being born. The match of man, moment, and opportunity could not have been better.
For at least a half century, the territory’s Native American tribes had regarded the Ohio River as the dividing line between their lands and the white man’s lands to the east, but transportation routes were steadily opening up across the Pennsylvania Alleghenies—one-time Indian trails widened by Anglo-American soldiers in the 1760s to help defeat the French and Indians and now improved again to carry the settlers that would drive Native Americans out of the territory for good. Population pressures followed the roads west. Manifest Destiny beckoned, and with “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s 1795 victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, effective Indian resistance mostly disappeared.
By century’s turn, when John Chapman first began poking his nose across the river, Ohio was a massive real-estate event in the offing. Millions of acres in what was known as the Western Reserve and elsewhere had been set aside for Revolutionary War veterans, but much of that had been scooped up by private companies awaiting the day when the “Indian problem” would be resolved and the pent-up demand for holdings in Ohio unleashed. It was a good time for speculators, and John Chapman, it turned out, had plenty of that in him.
It was a good time for nurserymen, too. One strain of the many folk traditions that fill in Chapman’s early years has him working as a boy in Longmeadow for a local apple grower. In truth, no one knows for certain where Chapman learned the orchard skills that would eventually ripen into the name and myth of Johnny Appleseed, but however he came about his learning, the Ohio frontier at the start of the new century was an ideal place to exercise it. Apples were a vital diet supplement—whether dried for winter or pressed and fermented into applejack and hard cider, the essential beverages of early American life, just as cider vinegar was the essential medicine. Almost as important, fruit trees were also a frequent legal stipulation of land ownership.
Beginning in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates (formed, despite its name, in Massachusetts) offered one hundred acres free to anyone willing to settle in the “Donation Tract,” a hundred thousand acres of wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent white settlement, at Marietta, that Congress had given the company to create a buffer zone with still-warring Indian tribes. The only requirement: Settlers had three years to plant fifty apple trees and twenty peach trees. Other land companies struck similar bargains: Orchards ran against the grain of squatters and rank speculators alike; they were improvements on nature, proof a settler meant to stay. Like their trees, orchard men were a valuable commodity.
Chapman was one of many among them, but almost alone among his peers, he had an uncanny sense of where the frontier would migrate next. He would load up with seeds each winter at the cider presses of southwestern Pennsylvania. Then, as the spring thaw came on, he would follow waterways and Indian trails into unclaimed land, make a clearing of a few acres, plant his seeds, and surround the new nursery with a brush fence to keep the deer out. When the settlers arrived a few years later, his seedlings would be waiting for them. On more than one occasion, he bought or leased land in expectation of the settlement to come.
It might have been a nice business model if he had been inclined to run it that way. But Chapman gave too much of his nursery stock away to those who couldn’t pay and treated his own property, and interest and tax payments, far too cavalierly. What profits there were from his speculation and apple tree sales often went to secure pasturing for horses he saw being abused as he traveled the frontier’s byways. Chapman might have run the first equine rescue operation in the new nation. He couldn’t stand to watch an animal suffer, or a plant. That’s why he propagated his apple trees by seed rather than by the more tried-and-true method of grafting.
Chapman had the eye of a speculator, the heart of a philanthropist, the courage of a frontiersman, and the wandering instincts of a Bedouin nomad. His nature was almost self-canceling.
But it was the final leg of the great cluster of forces massed on the Ohio River at the start of the nineteenth century that would truly animate John Chapman: the Second Great Awakening. Then as now, this was a land filled with proselytizers, hell-bent on conversions and largely convinced that the Final Days were near.
Chapman could have had his choice of any of them: the Methodists, whose camp-meeting movement had swept into Ohio from Kentucky; Campbellites; Halcyonists; Stonites; later the Millerites and even the Mormons. Instead, he settled on the most intellectually rigorous and in some ways strangest of them all—the Church of the New Jerusalem, or simply New Church, based on the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
Like Chapman, Swedenborg has largely disappeared from history, but for a century after his death in 1772, he was taken as one of the seminal thinkers of modern history, a man who had done more than any other European of his age to rend the veil between this world and the next. Balzac wrote of Swedenborg: “He alone enables man to touch God.” William Blake waged a virtual war against those who sought to codify the Swedish philosopher’s teachings into a church, but Swedenborg’s cosmology, his insistence on the accessibility of the spiritual world, leaks all through Blake’s poetry and art. On this side of the ocean, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous 1837 oration “The American Scholar,” praised Swedenborg as “a man of genius who has done much for the philosophy of life. … He saw and showed the connection between nature and the affections of the soul. He pierced the emblematic or spiritual character of the visible, audible, tangible world.”
Through the angels that populated Swedenborg’s dreams, God delivered the secret truths of the Bible and revealed the very architecture of heaven and hell. Through chapters torn from Swedenborg’s books and through his own after-dinner orations, John Chapman—the New Church’s most famous North American disciple—carried those truths to the cabins and shacks of the frontier. God alone knows what the settlers who lived there must have made of the message, or the messenger, but the Annals of the New Church for 1847 gives a hint when it describes Chapman’s reading “aloud the strange Gospel to the astonished family around the hearthstone … with a glow of enthusiasm such as to affect even those who looked upon him as half-witted or a heretic.” This news was right fresh from heaven—not Scripture from thousands of years back but truths handed down from on high within the lifetime of many of Chapman’s listeners. How thrilling it must have been to be brought so up to date in such a remote setting.
In truth, John Chapman might have been exactly what A. Banning Norton called him: as odd as odd can be. He communed with birds and animals, even with insects, in a way that suggests both Francis of Assisi and a Hindu ascetic. Gentle as a lamb, he became a legendary figure in a land ruled by gun, knife, and fist. Learned enough to read Swedenborg, he was also queer enough to evoke the Holy Fool of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Chapman was a vegetarian in a raw country where it was far easier to kill game for food than to grow a crop. He lived indoors occasionally, but as little as he had to. In dress and diet, he calls most directly to mind another Voice in the Wilderness: John the Baptist, with his camel hair cloak and meals of locusts and wild honey. Yet unlike that John, there was nothing fierce about this one.
In a time and a place where mass communication was nonexistent and local newspapers still rare, just about everyone seems to have known John Chapman, or known of him, either by his own name or by the nickname that became more common as he migrated from mortal man to immortal myth. Stories of him floated from cabin to cabin, from village to village, just as he did. Some of the best stories he spread himself. In a sense, Chapman was his own wandering minstrel.
John Chapman never married, had no children, left no heirs, but he was as social as a loner could be. He loved the company of children. To the girls, he doled out bits of ribbon; to amuse the boys, he stuck pins in his feet and walked on red-hot coals. He seems to have been impervious to most pain. And he was welcomed almost everywhere—although, here again, the mythic Appleseed has to be teased out of the flesh-and-blood Chapman.
One rumor had it that he had been promised a settler’s young daughter in marriage when she reached an appropriate age. Another held that, in the manner of a Muslim martyr, he had two virgins waiting for him in the afterlife if he took no bride in this one. Whatever the truth, the only thing he really seems to have been wedded to was motion. Even in his seventh decade, Chapman was still living out the restlessness of a young and idealistic nation. It’s both fitting and predictable that he should have died by a rented hearth, on someone else’s floor.
Some people thought Chapman had been kicked in the head by a horse, perhaps back in Pennsylvania, in his mid- or late twenties. In his somewhat shaky “contemporaneous” recollections of Johnny Appleseed, W. M. Glines, who was born in Marietta, Ohio, in 1806, states outright that “At about the age of 21 years, [Johnny] received a kick from a horse that fractured his skull, which was trepanned at the time. From that time forth he manifested that singular character attributed to him.” A horse kick might indeed explain his many extreme oddities. Some people never get over a blow like that, and the fact that he was (or might have been) trepanned—had a piece of the skull cut out to relieve pressure on the brain—suggests the possible severity of the situation. But the injury to Chapman’s brain, if there was one, doesn’t appear to have affected his higher mental faculties. In its obituary for Chapman, the Fort Wayne Sentinel noted that “he always carried with him some works of the doctrine of Swedenborg, with which he was perfectly familiar, and would readily converse and argue on his tenets, evincing much shrewdness and penetration.”
In fact, Chapman seems to have conversed freely and incessantly (when he wasn’t holed up alone, deep in the woods) about many things, but the one subject he clearly did not address with any frequency and/or accuracy was himself. Robert Price made note of it in his meticulously researched 1954 biography Johnny Appleseed:Man & Myth: Chapman’s Fort Wayne Sentinel obituary is long on color. It has the sidelights of the story down. It notes that Chapman had been a regular visitor to the Fort Wayne area for “upwards of 20 years” and was “well known through this region by his eccentricity and the strange garb he usually wore.” But when it comes to details, the man behind the story remains mostly a mystery, a cipher in his time just as he continues to be into our own.
Chapman, the obituary speculates, “lived to an extreme old age, being probably not less than 80 years old at the time of his death—though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was 60.” In fact, he was six months shy of turning seventy-one.
“His home—if home he had—was in the neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio,” or so the obituary writer contends, but while John Chapman’s name can reasonably be associated with at least sixteen cities and towns in Ohio, Cleveland is not among them.
“He was a native of Pennsylvania.” Wrong again, although for nearly a century after his death Pennsylvania seemed as good a guess as any.
© 2011 Howard Means
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