December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
The quietly compelling legend of America’s gentlest pioneer
“There is in the western country a very extraordinary missionary of the New Jerusalem. A man has appeared who seems to be almost independent of corporal wants and sufferings. He goes barefooted, can sleep anywhere, in house or out of house, and live upon the coarsest and most scanty fare. He has actually thawed the ice with his bare feet.
“He procures what books he can of the New Church; travels into the remote settlements, and lends them wherever he can find readers, and sometimes divides a book into two or three parts for more extensive distribution and usefulness.
“This man for years past has been in the employment of bringing into cultivation, in numberless places in the wilderness, small patches (two or three acres) of ground, and then sowing apple seeds and rearing nurseries.…”
—From a report of the Society for Printing, Publishing and Circulating the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, Manchester, England, January, 1817.
“… he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream.”
—Vachel Lindsay, In Praise of Johnny Appleseed.
—From A Book of Americans by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét.
He was real flesh and blood, not a folk construction like Paul Bunyan—and he plied the trade of an appleman for almost fifty years with inspired generosity, not ascending solely to a single day’s public drama, like the steel-driving hero of Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, John Henry. Yet Johnny Appleseed, too, has survived simply as a folk figure of whom little is known, as a memory fuzzy in outline, mainly inscribed in children’s literature and turn-of-the-century romances and poetry or Louis Bromfield novels.
Born John Chapman (1774-1845) in Leominster, Massachusetts, he proved to be a man with a mission along the frontier, which in those days included western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. If he had kept a diary, he might be compared to John James Audubon and George Catlin, who come down to us through their own words and pictures, although—more of a frontiersman than they were—he worked humbly and busily to facilitate that frontier’s passing. In a way, his name is as durable as Andrew Jackson’s, who died in the same year, but he has been remarkably neglected by the historians, probably because he conforms to none of the national stereotypes and illustrates nobody’s theories.
We think of the swaggering, unscrupulous prototype frontiersman who bushwhacked Indians and scouted for the Long Knives, the mountainman who went into the bush with two horses and a squaw, and in order to live, ate his pack horse in January, his saddle horse in February, and his sad squaw in March. In the gaudy parade of liars, killers, pranksters, boasters and boosters that fill up B. A. Botkin’s. A Treasury of American Folklore , Johnny Appleseed, along with Abe Lincoln and George Washington, occupies a tiny section entitled “Patron Saints.” (John Henry and Paul Bunyan are “Miracle Men.”) But, legendary walker that he was, he is fabled as much for abusing his feet as for sporting tin pots on his head or cardboard headgear. In icy weather, at best he wore castoffs given to him—sometimes one shoe and one broken boot, tied on with varicolored string wound around his ankle, sometimes only one shoe, with which he broke trail through the snow for his bare foot. He preferred, if possible, nothing at all. There is the story of Johnny quietly confronting a pharisaical camp-meeting preacher who had demanded of the congregation, “Where now is the man like the primitive Christian who is traveling to Heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiment?” Johnny of course walked forward in the upside-down coffee sack with holes for his head and arms that was his usual garb, and lifted his bruised bare feet, one by one, putting them right on the pulpit stump.
Nowadays we like heroes in boots, however. Saxophone players, clerical workers, hair stylists, “anti-heroes,” ladies dressed for the office, partially disrobed ladies, vacationers fussily dashing into an airport taxi, all are likely to wear cowboy boots, jack boots, ski boots, sandhog boots, desert boots, with kinky belt buckles that broadcast a physical vigor and spiritual sadism the wearer doesn’t really even aspire to feel. Our great West, our old westering impulse, has become a costume jewel.
Anomalous, unassimilable, Johnny Appleseed was a frontiersman who would not eat meat, who wished not to kill so much as a rattlesnake, who pitied the very mosquitoes that flew into the smoke of his campfire. He liked to hear the wolves howl around him at night and was unafraid of bears, yet reportedly slept without shelter one snowy night, rather than roust out of hibernation a mother bear and her cubs who had crept into a hollow tree that he had intended using. Although he would sometimes buy a worn-out horse to save it from mistreatment, boarding it with one of his friends for the winter—and though he scoured the woods in the fall for lame horses that the pioneers, packing their way through the country, had abandoned—apparently he believed that riding the beasts was discourteous to them, and he only employed a horse to carry his bags of seeds or, late in his life, to drag an old wagon.
Though in a sense he was the nation’s paramount orchardist of the nineteenth century, Johnny Appleseed denounced as wickedness the practices of grafting and pruning, by which all commercial fruit is produced, because of the torture he thought such a knifing must inflict on the tree. He was shy in a crowd but a regular sermonizer among people he felt at home with—probably a bit of a bore at times, but no simpleton. In Steubenville, Cincinnati, and Urbana, Ohio, he knew the leading New Church Swedenborgians, and between his arrival in central and northern Ohio and the time of his death, Swedenborgian societies sprang up in at least twelve of the counties there, many individuals testifying that it was Chapman, the colporteur of Christian literature, who had first “planted the seed.”
As a religious enthusiast, he was more on the Franciscan model than the harsh zealots, from Puritan to Mormon, whom American social historians are accustomed to writing about. And as an entrepreneur with considerable foresight about the eventual patterns of settlement, he allowed himself to be utterly clipped and gypped in matters of real estate through much of his life. When somebody jumped one of his land claims, his main concern seemed to be whether they would still let him take care of his apple trees. When he sold apple seedlings, he liked to be paid with an IOU, scarcely having any use for money except to give it away to needy families, and left to God and the debtor’s own conscience the question of whether he was finally paid. Instead, he bartered for potatoes, corn meal, salt and flour, and peddled cranberries—a fruit that the pioneers combined into stews or dried with suet for a midwinter treat. Often he shucked corn, split rails, and girdled trees for his keep. He ate nuts and wild plums in the woods on his trips, and cooked his corn mush, roasted his potatoes, and probably carried Indian-style “journey bread,” which was made by boiling green corn till it was half done, drying it again in the sun, then browning it in hot ashes when ready to eat, pounding it fine, and possibly stirring in birch or maple syrup or summer berries or honey (though Johnny always left enough of that in the comb for the bees to live on). If many people never paid him for the seedlings he distributed so diligently, others returned his kindness by their hospitality to him as he passed back and forth. The belt of territory he worked in shifted gradually westward during the course of his life, but he wintered in the easternmost towns—after his strenuous summers at the borders of settlement—and so would migrate between several homesites, several circles of friends.
He gave little gifts of tea when he had money, but probably didn’t drink it himself, preferring a biblical drink of milk or milk and honey. He did use snuff, however, and would sip a dram of hard liquor to warm up in cold weather—if one can generalize fairly about his conduct from isolated instances of testimony about five decades of such intense and fervent activity. He was wiry in build, short by our standards but average for then, with peculiarly piercing blue eyes, good teeth, a scanty dark beard that later turned gray, and uncut dark hair, parted down the middle and tucked behind his ears. When not in a coffee sack, he dressed in a collarless tow-linen smock or straight-sleeved coat that hung down to his heels, over a shirt and burr-studded pants that had been traded to him for his apple seeds.
He was quick-talking and restlessly energetic as a visitor, but wind-beaten, hollow-cheeked, and gaunt-looking from eating so little and walking so far. Yet somehow, despite his eccentric demeanor, he was remarkably effective in the impression he made, “some rare force of gentle goodness dwelling in his looks and breathing in his words,” as W. D. Haley wrote in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for November, 1871, in the first biographical sketch which brought Johnny Appleseed to national attention. Not even small boys made fun of him, knowing his boldness at bearing pain— besides walking barefoot in the snow, he would poke needles into himself without flinching, for the children’s edification. He had a string of good stories of Indians and wolves for them, and presents of ribbon and whatnot that he carried with him to give to their sisters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.