- Historic Sites
The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
Anomalous, unassimilable, Johnny Appleseed was a frontiersman who would not eat meat, who wished not to kill so much as a rattlesnake, who pitied the very mosquitoes that flew into the smoke of his campfire. He liked to hear the wolves howl around him at night and was unafraid of bears, yet reportedly slept without shelter one snowy night, rather than roust out of hibernation a mother bear and her cubs who had crept into a hollow tree that he had intended using. Although he would sometimes buy a worn-out horse to save it from mistreatment, boarding it with one of his friends for the winter—and though he scoured the woods in the fall for lame horses that the pioneers, packing their way through the country, had abandoned—apparently he believed that riding the beasts was discourteous to them, and he only employed a horse to carry his bags of seeds or, late in his life, to drag an old wagon.
Though in a sense he was the nation’s paramount orchardist of the nineteenth century, Johnny Appleseed denounced as wickedness the practices of grafting and pruning, by which all commercial fruit is produced, because of the torture he thought such a knifing must inflict on the tree. He was shy in a crowd but a regular sermonizer among people he felt at home with—probably a bit of a bore at times, but no simpleton. In Steubenville, Cincinnati, and Urbana, Ohio, he knew the leading New Church Swedenborgians, and between his arrival in central and northern Ohio and the time of his death, Swedenborgian societies sprang up in at least twelve of the counties there, many individuals testifying that it was Chapman, the colporteur of Christian literature, who had first “planted the seed.”
As a religious enthusiast, he was more on the Franciscan model than the harsh zealots, from Puritan to Mormon, whom American social historians are accustomed to writing about. And as an entrepreneur with considerable foresight about the eventual patterns of settlement, he allowed himself to be utterly clipped and gypped in matters of real estate through much of his life. When somebody jumped one of his land claims, his main concern seemed to be whether they would still let him take care of his apple trees. When he sold apple seedlings, he liked to be paid with an IOU, scarcely having any use for money except to give it away to needy families, and left to God and the debtor’s own conscience the question of whether he was finally paid. Instead, he bartered for potatoes, corn meal, salt and flour, and peddled cranberries—a fruit that the pioneers combined into stews or dried with suet for a midwinter treat. Often he shucked corn, split rails, and girdled trees for his keep. He ate nuts and wild plums in the woods on his trips, and cooked his corn mush, roasted his potatoes, and probably carried Indian-style “journey bread,” which was made by boiling green corn till it was half done, drying it again in the sun, then browning it in hot ashes when ready to eat, pounding it fine, and possibly stirring in birch or maple syrup or summer berries or honey (though Johnny always left enough of that in the comb for the bees to live on). If many people never paid him for the seedlings he distributed so diligently, others returned his kindness by their hospitality to him as he passed back and forth. The belt of territory he worked in shifted gradually westward during the course of his life, but he wintered in the easternmost towns—after his strenuous summers at the borders of settlement—and so would migrate between several homesites, several circles of friends.
He gave little gifts of tea when he had money, but probably didn’t drink it himself, preferring a biblical drink of milk or milk and honey. He did use snuff, however, and would sip a dram of hard liquor to warm up in cold weather—if one can generalize fairly about his conduct from isolated instances of testimony about five decades of such intense and fervent activity. He was wiry in build, short by our standards but average for then, with peculiarly piercing blue eyes, good teeth, a scanty dark beard that later turned gray, and uncut dark hair, parted down the middle and tucked behind his ears. When not in a coffee sack, he dressed in a collarless tow-linen smock or straight-sleeved coat that hung down to his heels, over a shirt and burr-studded pants that had been traded to him for his apple seeds.
He was quick-talking and restlessly energetic as a visitor, but wind-beaten, hollow-cheeked, and gaunt-looking from eating so little and walking so far. Yet somehow, despite his eccentric demeanor, he was remarkably effective in the impression he made, “some rare force of gentle goodness dwelling in his looks and breathing in his words,” as W. D. Haley wrote in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for November, 1871, in the first biographical sketch which brought Johnny Appleseed to national attention. Not even small boys made fun of him, knowing his boldness at bearing pain— besides walking barefoot in the snow, he would poke needles into himself without flinching, for the children’s edification. He had a string of good stories of Indians and wolves for them, and presents of ribbon and whatnot that he carried with him to give to their sisters.