- Historic Sites
The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
“There is in the western country a very extraordinary missionary of the New Jerusalem. A man has appeared who seems to be almost independent of corporal wants and sufferings. He goes barefooted, can sleep anywhere, in house or out of house, and live upon the coarsest and most scanty fare. He has actually thawed the ice with his bare feet.
“He procures what books he can of the New Church; travels into the remote settlements, and lends them wherever he can find readers, and sometimes divides a book into two or three parts for more extensive distribution and usefulness.
“This man for years past has been in the employment of bringing into cultivation, in numberless places in the wilderness, small patches (two or three acres) of ground, and then sowing apple seeds and rearing nurseries.…”
—From a report of the Society for Printing, Publishing and Circulating the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, Manchester, England, January, 1817.
“… he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream.”
—Vachel Lindsay, In Praise of Johnny Appleseed.
—From A Book of Americans by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét.
He was real flesh and blood, not a folk construction like Paul Bunyan—and he plied the trade of an appleman for almost fifty years with inspired generosity, not ascending solely to a single day’s public drama, like the steel-driving hero of Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, John Henry. Yet Johnny Appleseed, too, has survived simply as a folk figure of whom little is known, as a memory fuzzy in outline, mainly inscribed in children’s literature and turn-of-the-century romances and poetry or Louis Bromfield novels.
Born John Chapman (1774-1845) in Leominster, Massachusetts, he proved to be a man with a mission along the frontier, which in those days included western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. If he had kept a diary, he might be compared to John James Audubon and George Catlin, who come down to us through their own words and pictures, although—more of a frontiersman than they were—he worked humbly and busily to facilitate that frontier’s passing. In a way, his name is as durable as Andrew Jackson’s, who died in the same year, but he has been remarkably neglected by the historians, probably because he conforms to none of the national stereotypes and illustrates nobody’s theories.
We think of the swaggering, unscrupulous prototype frontiersman who bushwhacked Indians and scouted for the Long Knives, the mountainman who went into the bush with two horses and a squaw, and in order to live, ate his pack horse in January, his saddle horse in February, and his sad squaw in March. In the gaudy parade of liars, killers, pranksters, boasters and boosters that fill up B. A. Botkin’s. A Treasury of American Folklore , Johnny Appleseed, along with Abe Lincoln and George Washington, occupies a tiny section entitled “Patron Saints.” (John Henry and Paul Bunyan are “Miracle Men.”) But, legendary walker that he was, he is fabled as much for abusing his feet as for sporting tin pots on his head or cardboard headgear. In icy weather, at best he wore castoffs given to him—sometimes one shoe and one broken boot, tied on with varicolored string wound around his ankle, sometimes only one shoe, with which he broke trail through the snow for his bare foot. He preferred, if possible, nothing at all. There is the story of Johnny quietly confronting a pharisaical camp-meeting preacher who had demanded of the congregation, “Where now is the man like the primitive Christian who is traveling to Heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiment?” Johnny of course walked forward in the upside-down coffee sack with holes for his head and arms that was his usual garb, and lifted his bruised bare feet, one by one, putting them right on the pulpit stump.
Nowadays we like heroes in boots, however. Saxophone players, clerical workers, hair stylists, “anti-heroes,” ladies dressed for the office, partially disrobed ladies, vacationers fussily dashing into an airport taxi, all are likely to wear cowboy boots, jack boots, ski boots, sandhog boots, desert boots, with kinky belt buckles that broadcast a physical vigor and spiritual sadism the wearer doesn’t really even aspire to feel. Our great West, our old westering impulse, has become a costume jewel.