- Historic Sites
The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
We know that he stayed out of fights in the rowdiest communities, even when provoked, according to his adage of living by the law of love although fearing no man. But we don’t know how consistently he refused to eat animal flesh, or how constantly cheerful he was, or whether his habits of self-punishment—which might smack of the perverse to our modern temperament—discomposed his neighbors, who were an infinitely hardier lot and more inclined to defer to the example of the self-mortifying earlier Christian martyrs. Though he must have brewed gentler poultices for other poeple’s wounds, his method of healing his own was to sear the offending location with a hot piece of iron—as the Indians did—and then treat the burn. Such fortitude won the Indians’ respect, and he planted some trees in the Indian villages as well as in white towns. For his stoicism, his knowledge of herbal medicine, and his selflessness, which they recognized as a manifestation of godliness, they seem to have revered him. More important, he respected and sympathized with them at a time when many white woodsmen shot them on sight like vermin, to clear the woods, or else humiliated them by catching their horses and tying sticks in their mouths and clapboards to their tails and letting the horses run home with the clapboards on fire. Swedenborg himself had said, “All things in the world exist from a Divine Origin— clothed with such forms in nature as enable them to exist there and perform their use and thus correspond to higher things.” So the Swedenborgian spirit-world of souls and angels coexistent with a natural world, in which the true order of Creation had been diverted by man’s misapplication of his free will from the love of God to his own ego, quite corresponded, as far as it went, with the Indians’ view. To his credit, Chapman, who seems to have been friendly with the Quakers of Ohio, too, was able to recognize this.
He was born—John Chapman—in poor circumstances in Leominster, in a cabin overlooking the Nashua River. His father, Nathaniel, was a farmer, carpenter, and wheelwright descended from Edward Chapman, who had arrived in Boston from Shropshire in 1639. Scarcely a year after the birth of John, his second child, the father left to fight in the Revolution as one of the original Minutemen, first at Bunker Hill in 1775, then with General Washington’s army in New York the next year, wintering at Valley Forge in 1777-78. John’s mother had died meanwhile. In 1780, following his discharge as a captain, Nathaniel Chapman married again, a Miss Lucy Cooley of Longmeadow, near Springfield, Massachusetts, and fathered ten more children by her. Though we have no proof that “Johnny Appleseed” was brought from his grandparents’ house in Leominster to grow up here, he probably did spend his later boyhood on the Connecticut River, learning to handle a raft and pirogue, learning about wildlife, with this new brood.
Longmeadow was on the Connecticut Path, walked by settlers going west toward the upper Susquehanna River, two hundred miles away. It’s thought that John Chapman, around 1792, at the age of eighteen, set out with his half-brother Nathaniel, who was seven years younger, for this frontier. They paused in the Wilkes-Barre region for a year or two, then may have ventured south to the Potomac in eastern Virginia and dawdled along from there toward Port Cumberland, then, via Braddock’s Road, to the Monongahela, and on by 1797 to Pittsburgh, during what was now John Adams’ presidency. According to one story, they traveled up the Allegheny that fall to Olean, New York, in search of an uncle who was supposed to have built a cabin there, only to discover that he had pushed on west. With scant provisions, they took over his abandoned home, and nearly starved. What saved them, it’s said, is that while John hiked out to earn money for food, some passing Indians luckily dropped in on his brother and provisioned him and taught him to hunt. (We don’t know if John was already a vegetarian—which would have been a terrible disadvantage for both in enduring such a winter.)
In any case, the experience may have estranged the two. With the warm weather, they separated, Nathaniel, in his late teens, being old enough to strike off independently and to settle eventually on Duck Creek near Marietta in southern Ohio on the Ohio River, where by 1805 Nathaniel senior, the former minuteman, also moved with his family. The older Chapman, though a captain in time of war, had been an indifferent provider, and died in 1807. One of his daughters, named Persis, and nineteen years younger than “Johnny Appleseed,” later was to play an important and softening role in Johnny’s life; but there is little evidence that John and Nathaniel ever troubled to see much of each other again, until 1842. That was fifty years after they had sauntered out from Longmeadow together, and John, famous and cranky and old, with a “thick bark of queerness on him,” as Robert Price expresses it, and only three years short of his death, trudged east from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was living with Persis and her family, to Marietta, for a final reunion.