- Historic Sites
The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
Mr. Price—who devoted, he says, the better part of twenty-five years to sifting the provable from unprovable legends about Johnny Appleseed—does not believe the Chapman boys ever went from Wilkes-Barre to Virginia. Indeed, with the affectionate overfamiliarity of an expert who has perhaps overmastered a subject, he slightly belittles the legends he does believe. But he ascribes adventures aplenty to them in the area of the upper Allegheny near Warren, in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he has found evidence they had moved by 1797. In the spring of 1798, along Big Brokenstraw Creek, Johnny may have planted his first apple seeds. Only four other settlers were in residence on the creek, but they were busy fellows who within ten years would be rafting pine logs clear to New Orleans. Johnny probably lost his patches of orchard land to a more aggressive citizen. The next season—his brother gone by now—he had moved fifty miles, to French Creek, another tributary of the Allegheny. He was an exceedingly vigorous soul, doubtless a whiz at wielding an axe (one posthumous legend has him competing with Paul Bunyan). This was a time of wrestling great oaks and stupendous pines, of big snowstorms, when reportedly he toughed out one winter holed up on an island on French Creek subsisting on butternuts alone. That spring, or another, he was so impatient to get an early start downriver that he set his canoe on a block of ice on the Allegheny, where it would not be crushed in the jams, and fell asleep and floated a hundred miles or so before he bothered to wake up.
It was an element in the myth of Johnny Appleseed that he could doze off in the most dangerous circumstances—so calm he was. Once, in Seneca territory, he was being chased by a war party, before he had made his name favorably known to them, and as the story goes, he slipped into a swampy reedbed and lay with just his mouth above water, napping until the warriors gave up hunting him. In Ohio the Indians he knew were Delawares, Mohicans, and Wyandots, who were soon driven out of the state in the aftermath of the attacks they mounted (or allegedly hoped to mount) with British encouragement during the War of 1812. That summer and fall, with his woodcraft and marathon-endurance, John Chapman fulfilled a hero’s role, once racing thirty miles from Mansfield to Mount Vernon, Ohio, to summon reinforcements and arouse the white settlers to the peril posed by General William Hull’s surrender to British forces at Detroit. He spouted Biblical language, according to at least one witness, though inevitably there were some false alarms: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he hath anointed me to blow the trumpet in the wilderness, and sound an alarm in the forest; for behold, the tribes of the heathen are round about your doors, and a devouring flame followeth after them.” This is the self-dramatist in him that made Casey Jones, John Henry, and Davy Crockett heroes also.
Casey Jones died from driving his locomotive faster than he ought to have. But Mr. Price reminds us that Chapman lived out his three score and ten years, and that the error of folklore is to simplify. The young buck strenuously logging, snowshoeing, existing on butternuts in the French Creek period, must have been quite a different figure from “Johnny Appleseed” practicing his kindnesses and charities during the two and a half decades he lived in Ohio and brought apples to Ashland, Bucyrus, Cohocton, Findlay, New Haven, Van Wert, and many another town on giveaway terms. Odd as he was—with the gossip that trailed him hinting that earlier in life he may have been kicked in the head by a horse—he seems almost to have passed for a solid citizen here. People didn’t mind him dandling their babies on his lap. He even suffered (we may infer) the very insignia of solid citizenship, a “mid-life crisis,” somewhere during the years from 1809 to 1824, when he would have been between thirty-five and fifty years old.
That is, he had been a mystic before, and he ended his days in Indiana as a kind of landmark, with the “thick bark of queerness” still on him, thoroughly a mystic again. But for a few years in central Ohio apparently he tried to become a practical man. He speculated in a couple of town lots in Mount Vernon, one of which he sold after nineteen years for a profit of five dollars. By 1815 he had leased four quarter-sections of land of a hundred and sixty acres each for ninety-nine years at nineteen dollars a year apiece—a Mrs. Jane Cunningham his partner. But a recession occurred in 1819, tightening the money supply miserably. As a man accustomed to selling his goods for lOU’s, he saw his principal holdings forfeited for want of money. His biographer makes the point that toward the close of his life, perhaps under Persis’ influence, he bought another two hundred acres, around Fort Wayne. Altogether, a documented total of twenty-two properties, amounting to twelve hundred acres, can be totted up that he leased or owned for a time. But it would be a good guess to say that he accepted the 1819 recession as a lesson that he was intended to be an appleman, not a speculator, and an instrument of the bounty of God.