By Mark Tully
Almost everyone is familiar with the legend of Johnny Appleseed. What some may not know is that he was a real person! The story takes us a little past our period, but it’s an interesting story none-the-less and has some local relevance–especially to those of you who live in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Johnny Appleseed was born as John Chapman on September 26, 1774 in Leominster,
Massachusetts. It is said that Johnny’s father, Nathaniel Chapman, had fought in
the battle at Concord Bridge on April 19, 1775. John had a sister, Elizabeth, and
a brother, Nathaniel Jr., who died in infancy 1776. John’s mother, Elizabeth Symond
Chapman, succumbed to
tuberculosis and died in 1776.
Nathaniel Chapman remarried in 1780, and eventually he and his new wife, Lucy Cooley, had ten children (including John and his sister).
John left home and started his journey westward sometime around 1797. Contrary to legend, “Johnny Appleseed” as John Chapman came to be known did not randomly scatter his apple seeds. He traveled ahead of the early settlers and started nurseries throughout the Midwest. Many of his seeds were purchased from cider mills in Pennsylvania, but as his fame grew people also began saving seeds for him.
The laws of the day required each pioneer family to plant 50 apple trees during their the first year of homesteading. Apples were a practical foodstuff as they were relatively resistant to disease and kept well during the long, tedious trip west. Johnny Appleseed owned several parcels of land throughout the Ohio Valley and started many orchards in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Reports vary as to Johnny’s mode of travel. Some say he travelled only on foot, others say he rode on horseback, and some claim he travelled the riverways in two canoes lashed together to form something like a catamaran.
Even in those early days, grafting was the most common way of propagating apple trees, but Johnny felt that cutting into a tree was cruel, so preferred to plant seeds. He never accepted money for his seeds or seedlings, but would barter for food and clothing as he went. Legend has it that Johnny was commonly attired in an old coffee sack with a tin kettle, his only possession besides his seeds, perched upon his head.
John Chapman has also been credited with spreading several medicinal herbs and plants like dog fennel or Mayweed. Johnny believed this noxious weed helped cure malaria, which it does not, and now it is considered an invasive pest.
Johnny is also credited with spreading day lillies. It is said that the tall orange flowers that grow wild along many Midwestern highways and road sides were distributed by John to the wives of early settlers.
John was a religious man and also spread the word of god. He was a follower of the Church of the New Jerusalem, a church based on the teachings of Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, and Johnny acted as a missionary of sorts, spreading Christianity in addition to apple seeds. He was well respected by both the Indians and settlers and was often called upon to settle disputes. After the fall of Detroit during the war of 1812, Johnny played a Paul Revere-like role, warning settlers of impending Indian raids and attacks so they could defend themselves or lead their families out of danger’s path.
Johnny Appleseed died on March 18, 1845 in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the age of 74.
He was relatively unknown until an 1871 article in Harper’s Weekly appeared and quickly
made him a household name. Today the route of his travels from the East and through
the Midwest is marked by numerous monuments and historical markers–and the bright
orange day lillies that line the roadways.
For more information, contact:
The Johnny Appleseed Trail Association
110 Erdman Way
Leominster, MA 01453-1819
Phone: (978) 534-2302
Fax: (978) 534-2436
American Folklore and Legend, Jane Polley, editor (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association) 1978
Johnny Appleseed Trail Association Web site: