Like St. Nicholas, whose life morphed into the legendary figure of Santa Claus, or Phoebe Moses, who became Annie Oakley, John Chapman’s real life was so unusual that it inspired a legend: Johnny Appleseed. While legends are often dressed up in the fairy tale garb of whimsy, fantasy, and out-sized virtue, the real stories of the people behind the legends are often more interesting and inspirational than the legends their lives have inspired.
Johnny Appleseed is a case in point. Most everyone has heard of Johnny Appleseed because of the numerous books, films, cartoons, and works of art about his life planting apple trees on the frontier. Elementary school teachers are particularly fond of teaching about him to their students. However, if the real Johnny Appleseed walked into a school today, he most probably would have security on him faster than you can say apple pie.
Johnny Chapman Growing Up
John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774, two years before the Revolutionary War. Nathaniel Chapman, his father, fought in the Battle of Concord as a minuteman and later served in the Continental Army under General George Washington. While her husband was at war, Elizabeth Chapman (John’s mother) died in childbirth, in July of 1776, leaving John and his older sister, Elizabeth, motherless. The newborn baby followed his mother in death two weeks later. It is believed that relatives took in John and Elizabeth. Very little is known of Chapman’s childhood other than his father remarried in 1780 to a woman named Lucy Cooley and together they had 10 more children. It is reported that he learned the apple business after being apprenticed to a neighbor’s apple orchard in his adolescence.
Some accounts state that John, when he was 18, and his half-brother Nathaniel, who would have been 11, went west in 1792, living a nomadic life until 1805. John and Nathaniel then joined the rest of their family when they moved west to Ohio. Chapman became an itinerant nurseryman in the mid-West, already acquiring the nickname “John Appleseed” by the beginning of the 1820s in Ohio.
Most stories depict him as scattering apple seeds across clearings in the wild frontier, but in reality he visited cider mills where he picked out apple seeds from the residue left after making cider and then took those seeds and established nurseries. According to the Explore Pennsylvania website, Chapman:
Created nurseries by clearing areas of scrub and building brush fences to protect the developing “whips,” as the young trees were called, from deer and other animals. As the whips grew, he camped nearby in a wigwam-like structure and busied himself by weeding his orchard, mending the fence, starting other nurseries, or visiting frontier families. And depending on his assessment of a person’s ability to pay, he sold, traded, or simply gave away his little apple trees. When he had no more seedlings, or simply decided it was time to move on, he headed west.
While some depict him as giving away apples, Chapman was essentially a businessman. He leased or bought property for his nurseries, usually locating them along sources of water, and then selling or bartering the apple tree seedlings. He seemed to always be establishing his nursery just ahead of the next wave of immigrants. However, he was also a very generous man, almost a missionary. He was an adherent of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist who founded a sect of Christianity called the New Church.
Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio, which was founded by the Swedenborgian Church, believes that it was while Chapman was living in Western Pennsylvania that he became a member of the church. According to Urbana University’s website:
The Johnny Appleseed Educational Center & Museum is housed in Bailey Hall [circa 1850], which is named after Francis Bailey, an early convert to the faith in America. Bailey was the printer of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He also printed the religious tracts Chapman distributed on the frontier. Judge John Young and his wife Maria Barclay Young, ward of Bailey, introduced a young Chapman to the Swedenborgian faith while he was establishing an apple orchard for them in Greensburg, PA. Barclay Hall, which is connected to Bailey Hall, is named after Young.
While many accounts of Chapman’s life gloss over the years he spent in our area, they were very crucial in forming the man who became Johnny Appleseed. A book published in 1930 by Henry Chapin titled The Adventures of Johnny Appleseed illuminates how much living in the Pittsburgh area affected Chapman.
Here it is that Jonathan Chapman ceased to exist, and a new man with strange far-away ideas in his head came to life, a man people called Johnny Appleseed. Not quickly, by no stroke of lightning! Johnny Appleseed had been forming a long time in the shell of young Chapman. For twelve years Pittsburgh swallowed him up, but Johnny also swallowed Pittsburgh and all the meaning of life it could teach him. He worked in the shipyards along the Monongahela. When he wanted to think, he worked with his hands at some tasks he loved, and by-and-by, the idea he wanted came uncalled for out of the thin air and he knew what he wanted. And so, although he also knew in his heart that some day he would slide out upon the current of the Ohio and go on and down into the greater wilderness, he built himself a log home on a grassy rise of ground called Grant’s Hill.
Chapman is believed to have been living the area during the Whiskey Rebellion, although it is not known if he was a part of it. Whether he was a part of it or not, no doubt he had interest in its outcome as, contrary to popular belief, Chapman’s sole purpose in planting apple trees was not for the purpose of supplying the settlers with wholesome snacks along the way. Most of the apples he planted were used in the making of cider and distilling apple brandy and applejack. Apples grown from seeds are usually too sour for eating out of hand and were mainly used for this purpose.
There is a historical marker in Venango County, Pennsylvania, near Franklin on French Creek that states Chapman lived there from 1797 to 1804. It also states that he had a nursery there as well as one near Warren, Pennsylvania. To this day, every October Franklin hosts its annual Applefest.
Other accounts of Chapman in our area state that in 1801 he shipped 16 bushels of apple seeds from western Pennsylvania down the Ohio River, most likely in preparation of moving to Ohio when his family arrived there.
In addition to his spreading apple trees across the frontier, he also spread God’s Word. Like a John the Baptist of the American wilderness, Chapman “traveled hundreds of miles on foot wearing a coffee sack with holes cut out for arms and carrying a cooking pot, which he is said to have worn like a cap over his flowing hair.”
Although strange in dress, his reputation nonetheless was sterling, so much so that he got along well with the Settlers and Indians alike who also lived in the mid-West.
It is believed that Chapman traversed thousands of miles, moving on from Ohio to Indiana, where he eventually died in Fort Wayne in 1845 on March 12. He was laid to rest there with a memorial marker, but the legend lives on about this unique man who for a time called Western Pennsylvania home.