The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
He had arrived on the Licking River in Ohio from the Allegheny in 1801, aged twenty-six. Only three families lived in what has become Licking County, but Ohio was only two years short of statehood by then. Ebenezer Zane was blazing Zane’s Trace from Wheeling, on the Ohio River, through Zanesville and Chillicothe, capital of the Northwest Territory, toward Maysville, Kentucky. Farther north, there was an access path from Pittsburgh for a hundred and sixty miles to the Black Fork of the Mohican River, and from Pittsburgh by an old Indian trail to Fort Sandusky and on toward Detroit.
He seems to have come this first time on foot with a horseload of seeds. More than three hundred thousand apple seeds will fit in a single bushel, so he had his work cut out for him. He may have been wearing his fabled mush pan on his head (if he ever did), with plenty of plantings in Pennsylvania behind him and his vision of the figure he wanted to cut for the rest of his life in front of him.
But we don’t know if Johnny preferred winter to summer apples, or sharp flavors to sweet. We don’t really know how hard he worked, because, set against this picture of a religious zealot for whom apple trees in their flowering were a living sermon from God, is the carefree master of woodcraft who supposedly strung his hammock between treetops and lazed away the pleasant days. He came back in succeeding summers to his nurseries to tend them—back to these patent and bounty lands “homesteaded,” in a later phrase, or deeded to Revolutionary soldiers, or to the Refugee Tract, reserved for Canadians who had been persecuted by the British, and the Firelands, granted to Connecticut citizens in recompense for damage inflicted during the war. Straight land sales on settled portions of the Ohio River at this time involved terms of two dollars an acre, with fifty cents down.
In 1806—and perhaps the prettiest of all of the memories of John Chapman that have survived—he was noticed by a settler in Jefferson County, on the Ohio, drifting past in two canoes lashed together and heaped with cider-press seeds, both craft being daubed with mud and draped with moss to keep the load moist. He stopped to establish a planting a couple of miles below town, and probably another at the mouth of the Muskingum, at Marietta, near where his father had settled the year before. Ascending the Muskingum, past Zanesville, to a tributary called Walhonding, or White Woman’s Creek, where the Licking River comes in, he poled up to the Mohican River and finally to the Black Fork of the Mohican, where he already may have had a nursery growing, because central Ohio by now was not unfamiliar country to him. His earlier seedlings would have been ready to sell if five years had passed.
With this canoe trip, apparently, his fame began. He had been a local character, but there were other applemen who made a business of selling trees, mostly as a sideline to farming. (Five pennies per sapling was the price at the time.) Furthermore, a hundred years before John Chapman ever arrived, the French had brought apple seeds to the Great Lakes and Mississippi, so that some of the Indian towns along the old trails already had orchards, from which the settlers could trade or pilfer as the Indians gradually were driven away. But where Johnny differed was that he alone had set himself the task of anticipating the patterns of settlement, as a public mission, across what had become by 1803 the state of Ohio. He moved along coincident with or a step ahead of the first flying parties of settlers, to have apple trees of transplantable age ready for them when they got their land cleared. Apple vinegar was the basic preservative for pickling vegetables such as beans, cucumbers, and beets; apple butter was a principal pleasure of winter meals; and apple brandy was one of the first cash exports that could be floated downriver to New Orleans. So he began to be recognized as something of a public servant as he went about.
He planted on loamy, grassy ground, usually at riverside, constructing a fence of the brush and trees that he had cut down, and girdling any bigger trees that stood near enough to cast their shade over the soil. He would clear a patch and plant and fence it, sometimes sleeping in his hammock, looking startlingly serene, swinging there, to travelers who were full of frightening tales of the woods. Or he might strip slabs of bark from a giant elm and lay them against it for a lean-to, or toss together a quick Indian hut of poles and bark, stretching out on a bed of leaves inside. And then he drifted on, grubbed more ground clear, constructed another barrier fence. Some of these little gardens he never bothered to hunt up again, confident that the settlers would discover them. Others he hurried back to, hearing that a herd of cattle had broken in. Through these oak, hickory, and beech forests hogs ranged, as well as cattle, and there were great flocks of passenger pigeons, and wolves, which the more brutal pioneers skinned alive and turned loose to scare the rest of the pack. On the Whetstone River, near the Clear Fork of the Mohican, the Vandorn boys helped him build a fourteen-by-sixteen-foot cabin for wintering over, impressed at how fearlessly he slept on top of a windfall as the wolves and owls howled.