Who Was Johnny Appleseed?
John Chapman was an eccentric frontier nurseryman who established orchards throughout the American Midwest. He became the basis of the folk hero Johnny Appleseed, who has been the subject of countless stories, movies and works of art.
John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774. His father, Nathaniel Chapman, fought as a minuteman at the Battle of Concord, and later served in the Continental Army under General George Washington. In July 1776, while her husband was at war, Elizabeth Chapman died in childbirth. Nathaniel returned home and remarried shortly thereafter. He and his new wife, Lucy Cooley, had a total of 10 children together.
A limited amount is known about Chapman's early life. He may have traveled west to Ohio with his brother initially, meeting up with the rest of his family in 1805. It is likely that Nathaniel, a farmer, encouraged his son to become an orchardist, setting him up with an apprenticeship in this area. By 1812, Chapman was working independently as an orchardist and nurseryman.
Chapman traveled widely, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, pursuing his profession. While the legend of Johnny Appleseed suggests that his planting was random, there was actually a firm economic basis for Chapman's behavior. He established nurseries and returned, after several years, to sell off the orchard and the surrounding land.
The trees that Chapman planted had multiple purposes, although they did not yield edible fruit. The small, tart apples his orchards produced were useful primarily to make hard cider and applejack. Orchards also served the critical legal purpose of establishing land claims along the frontier. As a consequence, Chapman owned around 1,200 acres of valuable land at the time of his death.
Chapman was a follower of the New Church, also known as the Church of Swedenborg. He spread his faith while traveling to establish orchards, preaching to both Anglo-American and Indigenous peoples he encountered along the way.
Among Chapman's eccentricities was a threadbare wardrobe, which often did not include shoes and often did include a tin hat. He was a staunch believer in animal rights and denounced cruelty towards all living things, including insects. He was a practicing vegetarian in his later years. Chapman did not believe in marriage and expected to be rewarded in heaven for his abstinence.
Death and Legend
The exact place and time of Chapman's death are matters of dispute. Nineteenth-century sources suggest that he died in the summer of 1845 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, though contemporary sources often cite March 18, 1845, as his death date.
After his death, Chapman's image developed into the pioneer folk hero Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed festivals and statues dot the Northeastern and Midwestern United States to this day, and Johnny Appleseed is the official folk hero of Massachusetts. The character has served as the focus of countless children's books, movies and stories since the Civil War period.
The legend of Johnny Appleseed differs from the life of the historical Chapman in several key respects. While Chapman planted strategically for profit, the Johnny Appleseed character sowed seeds at random and without commercial interest. The fact that Chapman's crops were typically used to make alcohol was also excluded from the Johnny Appleseed legend. Despite these discrepancies from the historical record, the Johnny Appleseed character reflects an interest in the frontier settlement during a period of expansion in the far western portion of the continent.
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