Friday, April 8, 2016

Johnny Appleseed Man, Myth, Legend

Much like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and other frontier legends, Johnny Appleseed is one of those mythical characters every school child learns about. His story has become so entwined in the folklore surrounding him that it is hard to unravel truth from fiction.

Johnny Appleseed tending his apple trees
What we do know is he was born John Chapman, in Leonidas, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774. His father was a minuteman in the Revolutionary War, and is thought to have fought at Bunker Hill, as well as serving with Washington’s troops in New York. His mother died in 1776, most likely from tuberculosis.

Sometime in 1797 or 1798 Johnny made his way to western Pennsylvania where he planted his first orchard on Brokenstraw Creek. A few years later he was living near French Creek planting Orchards in that area.

Johnny Appleseed was a shrewd businessman. He seeded orchards several steps in advance of settlers moving into new territories, so he could have young apple trees ready for the settlers when they arrived.

According to an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in November of 1871, “Johnny would shoulder his bag of apple seeds, and with bare feet penetrate to some remote spot that combined the picturesque and fertility of soil, and there he would plant his seeds, place a slight inclosure around the place, and leave them to grow until the trees were large enough to be transplanted by the settlers.”


It was the method he would employ for the rest of his life. Johnny studied settlement trends, anticipating where new territories would open up—always speculating where the settlers would be two or three years out. Then he would gather up his leather bags full of apple seeds, load them on horseback, or toss them across his shoulders, and trudge off to some remote wilderness area to plant his new orchard. After he planted his seeds, he would enclose them with a fence of logs, fallen timbers, or brush. He would return at regular intervals to mend the fences, check up on his trees, and when the time was right—sell his trees for an average price of five or six cents each.

What surprised people the most was after Johnny did all of this work, he sold his trees when possible, but many times he gave them away to people who couldn’t afford them, or traded them for food and cast off clothes. Money wasn’t his main objective. Johnny was all about getting his trees into the hands of people who needed them.

Looks, and fashion, were not important to Johnny Appleseed. If the truth be told, he looked like a crazed lunatic, or the perennial Wildman of the Wilderness. Johnny “had long dark hair, a scraggly beard that was never shaved, and keen black eyes that sparkled with a peculiar brightness.” He went everywhere barefoot, even in the harshest winters, though sometimes he was seen walking with a boot on one foot, and a shoe upon the other. In later years “his principle garment was a coffee sack, in which he cut holes for his arms to pass through.” And, on his head, he wore a tin pan as his hat.

Apparently his strange looks didn’t scare people away from him. From all accounts, the settlers welcomed Johnny into their cabins. A number of frontier diaries exist that describe Johnny’s visits. He was popular with children and adults alike. Young girls looked forward to his visits often noting that he brought them bright calico cloths and ribbons. He enthralled the men and boys with stories of his adventures, and enjoyed performing different feats where he stuck pins and needles into the hardened and leathery skin of his feet.

At night he would spread himself out on the floor of their cabins, and begin reading from books that detailed his religion. One woman, who heard him talk, said “he was undoubtedly a genius.”

The Indians considered him a great medicine man, and allowed him to travel freely within their lands. Because of this he was able to save several settlements from Indian attacks during the War of 1812. One time he raced thirty miles through the wilderness stopping at every cabin between Mansfield and Mount Vernon, Ohio to warn people of an impending Indian attack. Undoubtedly many lives were saved because of the early warning.

Johnny was also a man of deep religious convictions. He devoured the religious works of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist turned religious visionary, who believed the final judgement of the world had occurred in 1757. After his spiritual awakening Swedenborg claimed he could visit heaven and hell whenever he wanted and converse with angels and demons. The main principle of his religion was to do good without seeking a reward for doing so.

Similar to Swedenborg, Johnny claimed he had frequent conversations with angels and spirits. According to one source, two spirits “of the feminine gender…had revealed to him that they were to be his wives in a future state…” if he avoided marrying in this lifetime.

He was a friend to animals and would buy lame horses, paying someone to feed and care for them, until he could transport them to a safe area, or place them with a kindly owner. He believed every creature, and thing had feelings, and refused to cut down trees or kill insects.
In March of 1845 Johnny visited the home of William Worth. He curled up to sleep on the cabin floor that night, and never woke up. After his death his legend continued to grow, and soon it became difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

What we do know is at the time of his death, Johnny Appleseed, a man who cared little for money, had accumulated a small fortune in real estate. It is estimated he held over 1200 acres in prime orchard lands in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.

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