Friday, January 18, 2013

The Truth About Johnny Appleseed

         The Truth About Johnny Appleseed

Many of us remember the animated Disney movie about Johnny Appleseed. He was the legendary guy who went into the west spreading apple seeds.

But did you know he was a real person and he was also spreading seeds of faith? Yep, Johnny Appleseed is not just a fictional character from myth and legend; he was a genuine, actual person. His name was John Chapman, a minister, gardener and pioneer who traveled the territories around the Great Lakes in the states we now know as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. He was born September 26, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts and died March 18, 1845 in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the age of 70. His father, Nathaniel, fought at Concord as a Minuteman in April 19, 1775 and later served in the Continental Army under General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. After Nathaniel’s wife died giving birth to John’s younger brother, he married a woman named Lucy Cooley after he left the service in 1780.
Okay, Johnny Appleseed didn’t actually toss out apple seeds everywhere he went, but he did clear plots of wilderness where he planted and fenced orchards. He introduced apple orchards to a large portion of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and what is now West Virginia. Along with his apple trees, he spread the word of God from the Swedenborgian Church. He became a legend while he was still alive because of his kindness, generosity and his leadership in conservation. He also placed great symbolic significance to apples.
Some accounts state that at the age of eighteen, Johnny persuaded her eleven year old half-brother, Nathanial to go west with him in 1792. Apparently, they led a nomadic life until their father moved west with that huge family of ten children in 1805 and joined them. It is supposed that John’s half-brother most likely stayed with his father to help him farm the land. It was John’s father who taught him gardening and apprenticed him to a Mr. Crawford, who owned apple trees. That was where John learned to become an orchardist. Reportedly, witnesses saw John Chapman practicing his nurseryman craft around Wilkes-Barre and picking seeds near the Potomac cider mills in the late 1790’s.

John didn’t just plant random apple seeds, he planted entire orchards, fenced them in to keep out livestock and, when he moved on, left the orchards in the care of his neighbors who sold the trees in shares and returned every year or two to tend the nurseries. Although apples grown from seeds are rather tart, they were popular for making hard cider and applejack. In pioneer days, law required the planting of orchards of apples or pears on new land to qualify for permanent ownership so Johnny’s apple orchards certainly served a nice benefit in that regard.
John Chapman taught the Swedenborgian Gospel wherever he went and told children stories while he gave them and their parents a floor to sleep on overnight and a free supper. A woman who knew him in his later years once said, "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 thrillin’—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."
He also shared the word of God with Native Americans whom he admired as he traveled and they regarded him as a man touched by the Great Spirit. It is said that even hostile tribes left him untouched out of respect.  John Chapman respected the Native Americans and once wrote, "I have traveled more than 4,000 miles about this country, and I have never met with one single insolent Native American.” The Swedenborg religion declares that the more one endures on this Earth, the greater one’s happiness in the Hereafter. It is reported that Johnny endured great privations during his lifetime. He went barefoot even in the worst weather, wore old discarded clothing and often deprived himself of common necessities even though he owned a great deal of property. He did all this with cheerfulness and contentment.
There are stories about Johnny Appleseed’s love of animals including insects. One of them is how John noticed one night by his campfire; the mosquitoes flew into the fire and burned. He got up, picked up the cooking pot he usually wore on his head (yes, he actually did wear a pot on his head), filled it with water and doused the fire to save the mosquitoes. Let me just say right here that I might not have that much love for those pesky mosquitoes—just sayin’. He later remarked, “God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort that should be the means of destroying any of his creatures.”  In another story, he was about to build a campfire at the end of a log in the middle of winter to keep warm for the night. He discovered a mama bear and her cubs hibernating there and, rather than disturb them, he slept at the other end of the log on top of the snow. When he learned that an injured horse was about to be put down, he bought the horse and turned it out to recuperate on a few acres of grassy land that he bought for that purpose. After the horse regained its health, John gave the horse and the land to a person in need asking only a promise that the person would treat the horse humanely as payment. John, by the way, spent his life as a vegetarian.
Now some of you might wonder if Johnny Appleseed ever married or fell in love. I know I certainly wondered about it. Although, when asked by ladies along the way, John often replied that he would have two female spirits awaiting him in Heaven, it was told that he was smitten by the lovely Miss Nancy Tannehill. He intended to propose to her, but to his misfortune, arrived to pop the question a day too late. She had just accepted a proposal from another the day before. Another story tells that he had a young protégé that he clothed, fed and schooled with the intent to marry her when she came of age. He arrived unexpectedly one day to visit her only to find her holding hands with a young man intently listening to his ridiculous, yammering. A witness to John’s story said that,  “I peeped over at Johnny while he was telling this, and, young as I was, 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.”
Although Johnny was a native of Pennsylvania, he spent the greater portion of his life around Cleveland where he has relatives living to this day. There is some controversy about where Johnny is buried.  Some say he is buried near the Worth cabin where he died in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but Steven  Fortriede, director of the Allen County Public Library and author of the 1978 Johnny Appleseed, believes Johnny’s gravesite is in Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne. The Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne, Indiana is adjacent to Archer Park. It is Archer Park where John Chapman’s grave marker sits.
John H. Archer, grandson of David Archer, wrote in a letter dated October 4, 1900 that John Chapman’s burial was witnessed by many of his neighbors to have been in the Archer family cemetery and that he was surrounded in death by his neighbors and friends there.
The Johnny Appleseed Commission to the Common Council of the City of Fort Wayne reported, "As a part of the celebration of Indiana's 100th birthday in 1916 an iron fence was placed in the Archer graveyard by the Horticulture Society of Indiana setting off the grave of Johnny Appleseed. At that time, there were men living who had attended the funeral of Johnny Appleseed. 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."
Johnny Appleseed left 1,200 acres of orchards to his sister.  Some of his vast estate was lost due to the lack of deeds, some land was sold for taxes and the panic of 1837also took a toll on his land.
Many celebrations help us remember the gentle soul of Johnny Appleseed:
A memorial in Fort Wayne's Swinney Park honors him but does not mark his grave.
Also in Fort Wayne, the Johnny Appleseed Festival is held the third full weekend in September in Johnny Appleseed Park and Archer Park. Musicians, demonstrators, and vendors dress in early 19th century attire, with food and beverages from Johnny’s time period.
 In 2008, the Fort Wayne Wizards, a minor league baseball club, changed their name to the Fort Wayne TinCaps in reference to Johnny Appleseed’s tin pot he used for a hat. In that same year, the Tincaps won their only league championship. Their team mascot is also named "Johnny".
From 1962 to 1980, a high school athletic league made up of schools from around the Mansfield, Ohio, area was named the Johnny Appleseed Conference. An outdoor drama is also an annual event in Mansfield, Ohio.
A memorial in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, OH is located on the summit of the grounds in Section 1349. A circular garden surrounds a large stone upon which a bronze statue of Chapman stands with his face looking skywards, holding an apple seedling tree in one hand and book in the other. A bronze cenotaph identifies him as Johnny Appleseed with a brief biography and eulogy.
March 11 or September 26 is sometimes celebrated as Johnny Appleseed Day. The September date is Appleseed's acknowledged birth date, but the March date is sometimes preferred because it is during planting season.
The village of Lisbon, Ohio, hosts an annual Johnny Appleseed festival September 18–19.
A large terra cotta sculpture of Johnny Appleseed, created by Viktor Schreckengost, decorates the front of the Lakewood High School Civic Auditorium in Lakewood, Ohio. Although the local Board of Education deemed Appleseed too "eccentric" a figure to grace the front of the building, renaming the sculpture simply "Early Settler", students, teachers, and parents alike still call the sculpture by its intended name: "Johnny Appleseed".
Urbana University, located in Urbana, OH, maintains the world's only Johnny Appleseed Museum, which is open to the public. The museum contains a number of artifacts, including a tree that is believed to have been planted by Johnny Appleseed. In addition, the museum is also home to a large number of historical memorabilia, the largest in the world. They also provide a number of services for research, including a national registry of Johnny Appleseed's relatives. In 2011 the museum was renovated and updated and is now able to hold more memorabilia in a modern museum setting.
In the Disney movie that included the story of Johnny Appleseed, he is remembered in American popular culture by his traveling song or Swedenborgian hymn ("The Lord is good to me..."), which is today sung before meals in some American households.

There are many more memorials, festivals and references to Johnny Appleseed including a play written in my home state of North Carolina. I am heartened to learn that Johnny Appleseed was a real person and that the real person, John Chapman, spread love and gifts along the way and that he was a hero of sorts without a gun or shoes. I wonder if such a spirit exists in someone today that might live on into the future. I sure hope so.


  1. He was quite the character! Just as interesting in real life as the one that is fictionalized. Thanks for the fun post, Sarah.

  2. Paty, thank you so much for coming by. I was surprised to learn that he was such a humanitarian, an animal rights activist and a big land owner though he never reaped the rewards of his own labor. Johnny was a better person than I'll ever be.

  3. Very interesting. Seems I remember learning something about Johnny Appleseed in elementary school but not near as much as you've posted. I don't think I ever saw the Disney Movie. Gee, may have to check that out.

  4. Linda, thank you for your comment. I saw the movie in my younger days. LOL Good ol' Disney. I always though her was a fictional character. Thanks again for coming by and commenting.

  5. Hi Sarah, I loved the Disney movie as a kid. ANd I didn't know until now Johnny was a vegetarian. I really enjoy learning new tidbits abouat real people.

    Excellent job for your debut! xo

  6. Okay, I think I see the problem he had attracting females. I'm sure my wife would have avoided me too if I wore a pot on my head ... even if I claimed it was a pot to pee in.

    Lots of research in this post, Sarah. I'll try to remember some of it.

    Great post.


  7. How interesting! Thank you for the story.

  8. Tanya, first of all let me apologize about yesterday when I screwed up the posting.
    I learned so much about Johnny Appleseed when I researched. I can't imagine putting out a campfire to keep mosquitoes from burning in it. I would probably build an even bigger fire. LOL
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting, Tanya.

  9. LOL James...just another way to identify a pothead.
    I would not imagine wearing a pot on your head as comfortable, but I guess that was just another way to assure his reward in the afterlife. He must be having quite a good time right now.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting, James.

  10. Zequeatta,(I hope I spelled your name correctly. It's lovely and very unique)I really appreciate your kindness in coming by and commenting.

  11. Hi Sarah,
    What a fascinating post - thanks for writing it. I grew up close to Arlington, Ohio, and there was a restaurant called Johnny Appleseed and it was said that he had planted apple trees in that area.

  12. How fun to learn the true story behind a legend. I can't imagine anyone walking in the snow barefoot or saving the mosquitoes (the darn pests) like he did. He certainly had heart.

  13. What a great post, Sarah! I always loved the story of Johnny Appleseed, and I do remember that Disney film! I had never heard of his religion--that's a new one to me. What a life he lived--and what a long one he had, for that day and time, especially going barefoot all the time like he did! I really enjoyed this.

  14. Hey Diane. Maybe he did plant apple trees near Arlington. He went everywhere. I was amazed that he had all that land but never really settled anywhere or took advantage of his orchards.
    Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting.

  15. I'm with you, Paisley, mosquitoes are pests--and disease carrying pests at that. LOL
    Thank you for viviting my blog and leaving a comment. I appreciate it.

  16. Hey Cheryl! I'm so glad you came by. I am not even close to being as self-sacrificing as Johnny Appleseed. When my feet are cold, I just can't function. Seems like he could have gotten some second hand shoes, for Pete's sake.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to drop by. It's always good to see you.


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