Well, it’s official.
Autumn is here in the Northern Hemisphere. It is time to enjoy some traditional fare of
harvest time. Now, some people like a
nice butternut squash soup. Others like
a slice of pumpkin pie. However, there
is one food that absolutely screams “Autumn” (or “Fall” if you’re in a
nicknaming mood) for me:
That’s right, it’s apples.
And all the various uses and forms of them (apple pie, applesauce, apple
cider, pork with apples, waldorf salad, the list goes on and on). They’re such a big deal, that going out to
orchards and picking them yourself is something of a tradition around
here. Now, here in the USA, the state
that grows the most apples is Washington.
The second biggest apple grower is right here in New York State. However, the most famous person to ever
become associated with growing apples is originally from Massachusetts but did
much of the work that would make him legendary in Ohio and Indiana.
Of course, I’m talking about John Chapman, also known as
Johnny Appleseed is one of the great legendary characters
people talk about when they talk about the American frontier. He’s mentioned in the same breath as Davey
Crockett, John Henry, Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. However, unlike Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan
who were inventions of active imaginations, we know that John Chapman was a
real person. How famous is Johnny Appleseed? Well, famous enough that this picture appears
on the wall of an apple orchard store in New York State, a fair distance from
his adopted home of Ohio.
|From mural at Riverview Orchards in Rexford, New York.|
Before we go any further, let’s have a look at the way most
people in the US and probably the world learned about Johnny Appleseed: the Disney cartoon
Long before Pocahontas, Disney
played around with the story of a character who actually existed.
If you click the link, you’ll get to the
first part of ol’ Uncle Walt’s take on John Chapman.
In the cartoon, John’s depicted as a
good-hearted though scrawny nurseryman living a stone’s throw from
He’s also a man of faith, as
depicted in his opening song.
he yearns to go west but doesn’t think he has it in him.
At least, not until a rather unusual looking
guardian angel convinces him otherwise.
It’s actually not a bad little cartoon.
For its time, it does a fair bit to promote the virtues of faith,
brotherly love and unselfishness.
Johnny Appleseed is a legend after all.
Legends are historical truths that take on folkloric scope and fictional
The difference is that no one
prefaces a movie by saying “This might not be all true, but I don’t let the
truth get in the way of a good story”.
The Disney cartoon does a good job of showing a nicely polished version
of Johnny Appleseed, all the rough edges removed.
But the thing is that real life is usually
more complicated than that.
Once again, to find information I turn to the local library
and I find a book entitled Johnny
Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story by Howard Means.
Now, it seems that little is known about the real John
Chapman. Seeing as he was a man with no
permanent address for most of his life, that’s not surprising. We do know now that he was born in
Pennsylvania and the son of a former Revolutionary War soldier named Nathaniel
Chapman. We also know that in addition
to his sister Elizabeth, he had a stepmother and ten half-siblings. No one’s quite sure why he decided to head
west to Ohio. Perhaps he was drawn by
the promise of land like so many others.
Maybe he just felt crowded back in a hometown where he had eleven
siblings. Whatever it was, he left for
Ohio with his half-brother Nathaniel by his side (they would part ways
later). If it was the draw of land, then
that’s a curious draw for John Chapman.
For though he bought a lot of land he never really seemed to keep any of
As a settler, Johnny never really settled. He would buy land and start growing orchards,
but he would never set up a homestead and move in. He’d just travel from place to place, growing
apple trees. He dressed in rags, slept
outside and went barefoot pretty much everywhere (there are a number of
theories regarding Chapman’s eccentricities, one of them involving him being
kicked in the head by a horse). He’d
come back and check on his trees frequently, usually to see if the seedlings
were big enough to sell. You see, Johnny
Appleseed didn’t just grow apple trees for the sake of apple trees. He was running a business. You see, people didn’t just go out and claim
land. Even on the frontier, land had to
be leased or bought. One of the frequent
requirements on a lease of land at the time was that the person who leases the
land had to grow an orchard of fruit trees.
Fruit trees took a while to grow.
Growing fruit trees was usually seen as a sign that the settler was
there for the long haul rather than just a land speculator. What John Chapman would do is sail down the
river in a catamaran of his own design, pick through the refuse of a cider mill
for apple seeds and bring them back to Ohio to plant. Then he’d sell the seedlings to settlers who
needed them to start an orchard. Or,
he’d give a tree away if he thought a man couldn’t pay for it (maybe not the
best business model). Then whatever
money he made, he generally spent on more land to plant more trees and the
cycle continued. Since he slept outside
and lived off the land, his business had very little overhead. The thing about the apples on most of
Johnny’s trees is that most of them weren’t much good for eating. Most of the edible varieties we know now are
created through grafting and John Chapman grew most of his trees straight from
seeds. However, it didn’t matter much
because even the small, sour apples that likely grew from those trees were fine
for making hard apple cider. And since
the frontier was essentially settled on a steady flow of booze, that fit most
settlers’ needs nicely.
If apple trees were what made John Chapman famous after his
death, then his faith is what sustained him during his life.
Now, it’s easy to just act like John just had
some vaguely general Christian faith like the Disney short does.
That couldn’t be any farther from the truth,
John Chapman was a follower of
the Church of New Jerusalem or the New Church as it’s often called.
The New Church was based on the writings of a
man named Emmanuel Swedenborg
was a scientist but also a religious mystic.
He supposedly had a second sight that allowed him to see the spirit
Swedenborg’s writings on
spirituality were what you might expect from a scientific mind that had found
He was known
for giving very exact descriptions of the structure of Heaven, Hell and the
The fact that the New
Church found John Chapman was actually rather amazing.
Unlike a lot of other Protestant faiths at
the time, the New Church didn’t draw large crowds.
From town to town, they could usually count
their converts on one hand.
joined also tended to be well-read intellectuals as well.
But however John Chapman found this
particular faith, it influenced his whole life.
It was reflected in his attitudes towards nature and his fellow
It was reflected in his tendencies
towards pacifism and vegetarianism (Chapman tended to live off roots, nuts,
berries and such that he could find.
They say he never killed an animal even for food).
He was known to travel from place to place
tearing pages from Swedenborg’s books for people to read telling people he had
“news straight fresh from Heaven”.
If there were one thing that made Chapman’s life become
legend more than apple trees it was the part he supposedly played during the
War of 1812. Supposedly, in the city of
Mansfield, there was a fear that British and Native American forces (who were
allied at the time) would be moving in from Lake Erie. They began looking for a volunteer to bring a
message to Captain Douglas at Mount Vernon.
John volunteered. He supposedly
went barefooted, bareheaded and unarmed.
Essentially, according to legend, Johnny Appleseed became the Paul
Revere of the frontier (Howard Means’s words, not mine). There are accounts of settlers claiming that
John would run from cabin to cabin shouting warnings about what was likely
going to happen at Mansfield. Some
accounts say he shouted a rather simple warning while others say it was one
that was oddly complex. This is one of
those stories that may be more legend than truth. No one’s quite sure if he could have really
made the trip in the time they said or what his warning actually was when he
made it to Mount Vernon.
John Chapman was a singular human being, but a human being
nonetheless. This included coming
complete with flaws. He had vices. Supposedly he was a habitual snuff
taker. As he grew older, he would often
become less patient with those who were resistant to his missionary work. Also, he was pretty much never financially
solvent. When forced to take a meal at
an inn, he would grouse about having to pay the bill. Also, he was in debt up to his ears when he
died. The land he acquired had to be
sold off to pay for it all. John Chapman
met his maker in either 1845 or 1847 while staying in the cabin of man named
So, we have a picture of a complicated man.
Not necessarily the frontier saint of
A loner, somewhat nutty
religious mystic, and failed businessman in perpetual debt.
However, he was also still all the things
that people remembered about him.
a man of faith, a pacifist, a vegetarian, charitable to a fault and a grower of
many apple trees.
I focus on Johnny
Appleseed here not just because of my love of apples and folklore but as a
reminder of how legends work.
smooth out the rough edges of history and build up feats and virtues to create
stories that are bigger than the men and women they are based on.
There are so many legendary figures whose
real roots are lost to the sands of time, that it’s nice to see a legendary
figure whose existence is beyond dispute.
It’s also nice to see how the legend of one unusual man can be built up
to become a symbol of the power of faith, kindness and peace in a frontier
fraught with violence.
I’ll link you to
American Folklore’s oddly short take on the Johnny Appleseed legend right
And I’ll link to the Farmer’s
Almanac version HERE
But whether you
find the tales or the truth more interesting, Johnny Appleseed certainly is The Stuff of Legend!