- Historic Sites
The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
He liked to plant on quarter-sections set aside for the support of the first schools, or might do so on an existing farm if the owner agreed to share what grew. Once a few years had passed, he didn’t need to make such long trips for seeds and, if he were working thirty miles away, might deputize a farmer who lived close to an orchard to honor the notes he wrote out for people who wished to purchase trees.
By 1816 Persis had moved with her family from Marietta to Perrysville, on the Mohican’s Black Fork. Mansfield lay between the Clear and Black forks, and Mount Vernon was on the Kokosing, which wasn’t far off. So, with some of his kin in the area (his brother-in-law worked for him), and with the good will which his exploits in the War of 1812 had engendered and the investments in land that he was attempting to pay for, the region around Perrysville became his home. During his forties he traveled less, but even after he had lost most of his land and had renewed his vows of poverty-moving west again with horseloads of apple seeds to the Miami and Tiffin rivers—he came back to Perrysville to winter with family and friends.
His fifties seem to have been severely austere, like his twenties and thirties. He planted on the Sandusky; had fifteen thousand trees at Milan on the Huron; started a nursery in Defiance in northwest Ohio when that village was six years old, and other nurseries along the proposed route of the Miami and Erie Canal. From Toledo he traveled west up the Maumee River toward Indiana, working the banks of its tributaries—the Blanchard, the Auglaize, the St. Mary’s—the population of Ohio, meanwhile, having vaulted from 45,000 in 1800 to 580,000 in 1820.
In 1822 he may have gone to Detroit to sightsee, and, around 1826, to Urbana and Cincinnati. In 1830, just after the future city of Fort Wayne had been platted, he is said to have landed on the waterside from the Maumee in a hollow log filled with seeds. Thereafter he labored in Indiana, boarding with Alien County families like the Hills and Worths for a dollar or two per week, but still going back to Perrysville to spend each winter, until 1834, when Persis and her husband moved out to join him.
Various myths have him continuing on to the Ozarks, to Minnesota, to the foothills of the Rockies. He did not, but undoubtedly he gave seeds to pioneers who ventured much farther west. He may have seen Illinois and the Mississippi River and crossed into Iowa. But Alien County lies at the watershed separating the Wabash, flowing to the Mississippi, from the Maumee, flowing toward Lake Erie and eventually the St. Lawrence, so it is appropriate that Johnny stopped here. Like the plainsmen and mountainmen, he was a man still “with the bark on,” but apples were his particular witness to God, and apples do not grow well on the Great Plains. “I, John Chapman (by occupation a gatherer and planter of apple seeds),” begins a deed from the Fort Wayne days. He was an appleman first of all. Maybe he didn’t even long to participate in the drama of the Great West ahead.
He was a legend by now—a bluebird, to the bluejay figure of the raftsman Mike Fink, who had poled the Ohio River nearby at about the same time. Mike Fink, a very rough guy who died twenty years earlier than Johnny on a trip to the Rockies, once set his common-law wife on fire in a pyre of leaves when she winked at another man. He is more typical of the frontiersmen we remember. What would a conventional movie-maker do with a vegetarian frontiersman who did not believe in horseback riding and wore no furs; who planted fruit trees in praise of a Protestant God, and gave much of his money away to impoverished families he met; who would “punish” one foot that had stepped on an angleworm by walking with it bare over stony ground and regretted for years killing a rattlesnake that had bitten him in the grass; who would douse his campfire when mosquitoes fell into it?
Near Persis’ home in Fort Wayne, he had a log cabin and eleven cleared acres and timber cut for a barn, when he died in 1845. He didn’t die there, but at the home of the Worth family on the St. Joseph River not far off, presumably of pneumonia contracted during a fifteen-mile trudge in mid-March, leading his black ox to repair an orchard fence that cattle had trampled down. At his death—so the Worths said—he had on a coffee sack, as well as the waist sections of four pairs of old pants cut off and slit so that they lapped “like shingles” around his hips, under an antiquated pair of pantaloons.
His life had extended from the battle of Bunker Hill to the inauguration of James K. Polk as president; and the last person who claimed to have seen Johnny Appleseed with his own eyes didn’t die until just before World War II. He was a frontier hero “of endurance that was voluntary, and of action that was creative and not sanguinary,” as that 1871 issue of Harper’s put it. Historians, by neglecting individuals of such munificent spirit as Johnny, and leaving us with only the braggarts and killers, underestimate the breadth of frontier experience, and leave us the poorer.