• Notes From The Frontier

The Legend of Johnny Appleseed

Nearly all of us have grown up with the legend of Johnny Appleseed. But, like the legend of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, a lot of myth was mixed in with fact. But as is usually the case, fact is far stranger than fiction!





























Johnny Appleseed was born John Chapman in 1774 in Massachusetts. His father was a Minuteman under George Washington. When the family moved West to Ohio, John apprenticed under an orchardist named Mr. Crawford and his destiny was firmly planted.


As a young man he began wandering, spreading the gospel of his Swedenborgian faith and the goodness of apples. Part of his faith incorporated that idea that suffering on earth diminished suffering and increased the joy in the hereafter. So John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, embraced poverty and homelessness, he preached about his religion but also worked planting apple trees and nurseries for farmers and orchardists. He spread seeds and sermons propitiously and became a legend during his own life.


According to an 1871 article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, he told children stories and preached in a lyrical voice, as one of his followers recounted: "We can hear him read now, just as he did that summer day, when we were busy quilting upstairs, his voice rising denunciatory and thrillin—strong and loud as the roar of wind and waves, then soft and soothing as the balmy airs that quivered the morning-glory leaves about his gray beard. His was a strange eloquence at times, and he was undoubtedly a man of genius."


In his travels and planting, he communed with many Native Americans. He admired them and some were even converted by his preaching. They regarded him as someone who had been touched by the Great Spirit and even unfriendly Indians left him alone.


Chapman also loved animals and was known to nurse wounded creatures and save others from abuse. He was often depicted in paintings and illustrations as wearing a cooking pot on which birds or chipmunks would be perched. In a collection of stories about the apple aficionado, Eric Braun wrote that he had a pet wolf that had started following him after he had healed its injured leg and nursed him back to health. Another story related that he had saved an abused horse that was going to be killed. He bought the horse, nursed it back to health and gave it to a needy person, but required a promise that it would always be treated kindly.


Later in life, he became a vegetarian because of his concern for animals. He never married and was hopeful he would find his soulmate in heaven if he did not find her on earth.


Johnny Appleseed’s legend grew across the young land, teachers taught about him in school, books were written about him and songs composed. He was celebrated in the traveling song and religious hymns that came to be sung before meals in some American homes: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me. Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen.”


But, as with many legends, there was more to the story perhaps. Johnny Appleseed best liked apples to make cider. During that time cider was hard cider, that is, it had alcohol in it. In his bestselling book, The Botany of Desire,” Michael Pollan wrote: “Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcomed in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus." Or, as author Laurie Dove wrote about him in How Stuff Works: “Johnny Appleseed originated the concept of BYOB: bring your own booze!"


And, although Johnny Appleseed DID live a life of poverty, he was hardly poor. In fact, he bought thousands of acres of land in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and also planted orchards across the frontier as a way of settling the land and establishing ownership. Later, these orchards were sold to settlers. When Chapman died, he owned more than 1,200 acres of orchards across several states that he left to his sister. But it cannot be denied that he was a generous and gentle soul, and preached the gospel of the goodness of apples, not just for eating but for cider. And, since cider was the most common beverage of the pioneers, this was not an insignificant gift.


Johnny Appleseed planted orchards for 50 years in many states. No one knows how many trees he may have planted. But if he averaged more than five per day, he certainly planted over a million trees during his lifetime. He died in 1845. One of his trees still survives on a farm in Nova, Ohio, where Johnny Appleseed is believed to have planted an entire orchard of Rambo apple trees in 1830. The tree still produces fruit and its seeds and cuttings have been used to propagate hundreds of new "Johnny Appleseed" trees throughout the years, making it one of the nation's most valuable and prolific heritage plants. In fact, the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum in Urbana, Ohio, transplanted seedlings from this lone survivor in honor of Appleseed's contributions to agriculture.


One other unlikely remnant of Johnny’s apple legacy has permeated American culture, but in a quirk of fate, diametrically opposite from his gentle, pacifist life. In the early 1970s when author David Morrell was writing his first novel, First Blood, about a soldier hero, he was having trouble finding the right name for his main character. His wife, Donna, brought home some apples from a roadside market. The name of the apple: Rambo.


Johnny Appleseed preached the goodness of apples and the goodness of people. He may be the reason that apples are America’s favorite fruit, the antidote for keeping the doctor away, and the teacher’s gift on the first day of school. He was as American as mom’s apple pie.

PHOTOS: (1) In legend, Johnny Appleseed was often associated with the Rambo apple, which is a cultivar whose origins are unknown but may date back to the Swedish-American colony of New Sweden in 1637. Johnny Appleseed was a Swedenborgian missionary, as well as an orchardist, and spread seeds and sermons propitiously throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, an West Virginia. But some historians reject that association, since the legendary apple lovers did not believe in grafting, due to his religion, and Rambo trees require grafting to perpetuate. (2 & 3) Born John Chapman, he wandered the young nation planting trees and nurseries from seeds and preaching. (4) He became a legend while he was still alive and a part of early American legend. Many books and movies have been based on his life. (5 & 6) In popular culture, Johnny Appleseed was often depicted barefoot, with only the clothes on his back, a bag of apple seeds, and wearing a tin cooking pot, that he carried to cook with. He is often shown with animals because he loved animals and was known to save many injured or abused creatures. (7) The last surviving apple tree that Johnny Appleseed was known to plant is in Nova, Ohio, and is more than 175 years old. Many grafts have been taken off the tree to perpetuate the symbolic tree. (8) A 5¢ U.S. postage stamp was issued on September 27, 1966 (the day after his birthday) commemorating John Appleseed. (9) Here’s an unlikely cultural reference from apples and Johnny Appleseed! David Morrell, the author of the First Blood novels about Rambo, said that he got the name for his protagonist from the Rambo apples his wife brought home from a roadside market when he was struggling to name his soldier hero!


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

Posted August 22, 2019 on Facebook

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  • Notes From the Frontier