- Historic Sites
The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
He felt comfortable with children, and probably wistful, particularly with girls. Holding a six-year-old child on his lap, he would speak of some day having a “pure wife in heaven.” He seems to have imagined that it might be possible to adopt an orphan of about that age and raise her up to be just such a wife, even on earth. There are indications that at least once he tried, but that in adolescence the girl, like other girls, began to flirt with other men. Another time he announced that two female spirits had shown themselves to him and told him they would be his wives in the afterlife, bidding him abstain until then. He took an untheatrical view of the hereafter, however—a place he didn’t think would be all that different in geography or its earthly occupations from the world he lived in. Resurrection was the simple continuation of the spiritual being without its corporeal or “natural” adjuncts, and the indifference to physical discomfort which he cultivated can no doubt be partly ascribed to his impatience to see that process speeded says Robert Price, his principal biographer. But he liked to joke that Hades at its worst wouldn’t be worse than “smoky houses and scolding women” or “Newark,” a raunchy Ohio border settlement.
Despite his small roach of a beard, unkemptly clipped, and his dark horny feet and deliberately apostolic costume, he kept himself clean, and “in his most desolate rags” was “never repulsive,” his acquaintances reported. Arriving at a house where he was known, he happily stretched out on his back on the floor near the door, with his head on his knapsack and his feet tilted up against the log wall. Removing his discolored Bible and Swedenborgian tracts from the pouch he created for them inside his smock by tying his belt tightly, he would ask with exuberance, “Will you have some fresh news right from Heaven?” While the men smoked or fleshed a fox skin and the women cooked or quilted, he read and extemporized, his voice now roaring scriptural denunciations of evil, now soft and soothing. By middle age, he didn’t hesitate to introduce himself to strangers as “Johnny Appleseed,” enjoying his notoriety, but before accepting hospitality he would make sure there was plenty of food in the house for the children.
In good weather he slept outside; otherwise he would lie down on the floor close to the door of the cabin, as he “did not expect to sleep in a bed in the next world.” But one can picture the suppers of applesauce, apple pie, apple Strudel, apple dumplings, apple turnover, apple cider, apple butter, and apple brown betty he was served by farm wives who had settled in the vicinity of his nurseries. One also can imagine the kidding he endured for bringing hard cider and apple jack into the country (which already had “white lightning”—corn liquor). After the article in Harper’s by W. D. Haley twenty-six years after his death, there was a sudden revival of interest in Johnny Appleseed, with people writing their recollections or hearsay memories of him to small-town newspapers throughout the Midwest. He was compared to John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness heralding a new religion, and professors said he had personified the spirit of democracy—one for all—in the New World. In more saccharin accounts, professional romancers reported that apple blossoms tapped at his window when he was born and strewed themselves over his grave when he died. “His mush-pan slapped on his windy head, his torn shirt flapping, his eyes alight, an American ghost,” wrote Frances Frost.
In his earthly life,” Ophia D. Smith noted in a centennial tribute by Swedenborgians in 1945, “Johnny Appleseed was a one-man circulating library, a oneman humane society, a one-man [medical] clinic, a one-man missionary band, and a one-man emigrant-aid society.” But because of the distance that separates us, and as a result of the void in scholarship until Robert Price’s biography in 1954—the fact that for many years historians simply ignored him as a character fit only for children’s stories—we can’t make a good estimate of the quality of his mind. We do know he corresponded with a distinguished co-religionist in Philadelphia, William Schlatter, who was also his supplier of evangelical tracts, though unfortunately none of Chapman’s letters have survived. We know, too, that he planted medicinal herbs wherever he went, plants such as mullein, pennyroyal, catnip, horehound, rattlesnake root, wintergreen, and dandelion (a native of Europe), instructing the settlers in their use. His favorite was the two-foot-high, bad-smelling mayweed, or “dogfennel,” another alien, which spoiled the taste of milk when cows ate it and for a while was called “Johnnyweed,” with the idea that he might have been planting it everywhere as a practical joke. On the contrary, he seems to have really believed that its noxious smell in every Ohio dooryard would ward off outbreaks of malaria.