On March 11th we remember a man who made apple (and pear) trees bloom across the nation. National Johnny Appleseed Day celebrates a kindly legend who lived by sage teachings and labored to bring the shade of fruit trees across much of the United States.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana in Johnny Appleseed Park there is a grave marking the spot where the legendary sower of apple seeds rests.
He was born John Chapman on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts to Nathaniel and Elizabeth Simons Chapman. Not much is known about his early life other than his mother died when he was two. His father packed up Johnny and his sister (an infant brother had died the previous year) and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. His father served as a Minuteman and fought at Bunker Hill.
Then in 1797, Chapman shows up in northwestern Pennsylvania propagating his apple seeds and working his way steadily into the frontier of West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and eventually as far west as Illinois and Iowa and as far north as Michigan and Wisconsin.
Chapman developed as an orchardist and nurseryman, and by the early 1800s was working on his own. While his legend imagines him as a messy nomad, in reality, Chapman was much more pragmatic. Frontier law allowed people to lay claim to land through development of a permanent homestead. Such a claim could be made by planting 50 apple trees. So in his travels through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, Chapman would plant swaths of seeds to begin an orchard, then sell them to settlers once the land had grown bountiful. This made him quite the land baron as he traversed 100,000 square miles of Midwestern wilderness and prairie. When he died on March 11, 1845 at the age of 70, he owned more than 1200 acres of land.
Chapman was often noted for his threadbare clothes and preference for bare feet. But these eccentricities may have been offerings to his faith, the Church of Swedenborg (also known as The New Church), a Christian denomination established in 1787. The second part of his signature look—that sack of apple seeds—was most definitely accurate. Because the Church forbade its members harming God’s creation, Chapman became a vocal animal rights activist and vegetarian. He also refused to use grafting to create his orchards, believing that this growing technique physically hurt the source plants. So, he carried a large sack of seeds everywhere he traveled. However, his oft-depicted tin pot hat has not been authenticated.
Though some say Chapman had picked up his nickname by 1806, it wasn’t until after his death in 1845 that the legend of Johnny Appleseed really took off.
By the time the U.S. government outlawed alcohol in 1920, Chapman had become an American folk hero. But this didn’t stop the axes of FBI agents who mercilessly tore down orchards to prevent the making of homemade hooch. Aside from slaughtering Chapman’s trees, this also nearly killed America’s connection to hard cider. The beverage rooted deep in our history has only recently seen a resurgence in popularity.
Chapman considered himself a missionary of the New Church, a Christian denomination that became established the late 18th century and preached that nature and God are intertwined. He spread these teachings wherever he planted his seeds.
John Chapman’s great-great-great-great grandnephew, also named John Chapman, still maintains a couple of small apple orchards in Athens, Maine. At least one tree in his stock is reportedly descended from his forebear’s own trees. Appreciative of his ancestor’s legacy, the modern-day Chapman has donated new trees from the Appleseed collection several times, most notably one he planted at Unity College in 2012.
Here’s a 1948 Disney cartoon about Johnny Appleseed.