John Chapman (September 26, 1774 – March 18, 1845) was born in Leominster, Massachusetts. He is best known as an American pioneer orchardist. A deeply religious man, John Chapman became a self-appointed missionary for the Church of the New Jerusalem, a Christian church based on the Biblical interpretations of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist and theologian.
Known to many as the beloved Johnny Appleseed, he understood the practical value and real need for his service of supplying seeds and apple trees. He traveled through the Midwest states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. His strategy was to plant the seeds he obtained from cider mills in Pennsylvania in areas he believed settlers would find appealing. Apples were a true necessity in the diets of early pioneers so the law of the day made it mandatory for each settler to plant 50 apple trees their first year in a new area.
Chapman became an American legend while he was still alive through various works of art and literature devoted to his life story. He was an early conservationist, what would be called today an ecologist. He is exemplary and extraordinary as a man who lived for God, lived for the sake of his fellow human beings, lived in harmony with nature, loved across the boundaries of cultures and ethnicities, and lived simply and sacrificially.
John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774. He was the son of Nathaniel Chapman, who fought at Concord as a Minuteman as early as April 19, 1775, and later served in the Continental Army with General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. Johnny was born around the time that the battle of Bunker Hill was fought.
While Nathaniel was in military service, his wife died (July 18, 1776) shortly after giving birth to a second son, named Nathaniel. The baby died about two weeks after his mother. Nathaniel Chapman ended his military service and returned home in 1780 to Springfield, Massachusetts.
In the summer of 1780 he married Lucy Cooley of Longmeadow, Massachusetts and they had 10 children.
According to some accounts, John, at the age of eighteen, persuaded his half-brother Nathaniel, eleven, to go west with him in 1792. The two of them apparently lived a nomadic life until their father, with his large family, came west in 1805 and met up with them in Ohio. Nathaniel the younger then probably quit moving around with Johnny to help his father farm the land. John Chapman had one sister, Elizabeth.
Records show that John Chapman appeared on Licking Creek, in what is now Licking County, Ohio, in 1800, when he was 26 years old. He probably came up the Muskingum River to plant near the Refugee Tract, which would soon fill up with settlers, when Congress actually got around to granting the lands. In April 1798, the Continental Congress had ratified resolutions to donate public lands for the benefit of those who had left Canada and Nova Scotia to fight against the British in the Revolutionary War. The lands were actually set apart in 1801 and patents issued in 1802. Grants of land ranging from 160 acres to 2,240 acres were awarded. Johnny, with true Yankee enterprise, went ahead and planted his nurseries before the refugees arrived. Licking County, then a part of Fairfield, contained only three white families. By the time families were ready to settle the area, Johnny's tracts of land were ready for market.
This was the plan that John Chapman followed for nearly a half-century. Chapman went ahead of the great immigrant flood ever sweeping westward. He planted with an eye to future markets, and seldom did he make a poor choice. Many towns have risen on or near his nursery sites.
The apple orchards sown by Chapman were not today's familiar sweet snack, produced by grafting clones of a few exceptional varieties. Seed-grown apples vary significantly from tree to tree, but are typically small, sour fruits. Still, they added vitamin C and fiber to a frontier diet heavy in game meat. Whole apples can be stored in a root cellar for months, and dried apple sections known as snitz keep indefinitely. Snitz were used to flavor soups and stews, and in such popular entrees as snitz and knep, an apple and pork dish.
The juice could be made into hard cider (sometimes frozen to make applejack or distilled to make brandy), which was the preferred alcoholic beverage in the early American West. Although Chapman himself was a teetotaler as well as a vegetarian, his version of Swedenborgian theology condemned drunkenness, rather than requiring total abstention from alcohol. On the frontier, water supplies were often of questionable quality, and alcoholic beverages could be the healthful alternative.
In addition to the trees transplanted from Chapman's orchards, wild apple trees began to appear. Wildlife stealing windfall apples would deposit some of the seeds they ingested, complete with a nice dollop of fertilizer. Between the unimproved trees from Chapman's orchards and wild apple trees, a number of trees bore better apples, and an explosion of named varieties occurred. Many of today's most popular named varieties first appeared in the 1800s.
When settlers found that young apple trees would be available, they increasingly brought scion wood with them from New England, New York, and Virginia to graft into usable eating varieties.
Chapman's outlays were minimal. He obtained the seed for free from cider mills eager to have new customers. He dressed poorly, even for the frontier, and spent most of his time traveling from home to home on the frontier. He would tell stories to children, spread the Swedenborgian gospel to the adults, and received supper and shelter for the night in return. He would tear a few pages from one of Swedenborg's books and leave them with his hosts.
He made several trips east, both to visit his sister, and to replenish his supply of Swedenborgian literature. He typically would visit his orchards every year or two, and collect his earnings. The majority of earnings during his lifetime were given to his sister, to his church, and to various needy people he came upon.
Chapman owned orchards that today would be worth millions of dollars. He would obtain land, paying for it with the promise of apple trees, clear it and plant an orchard, leaving it in the care of a nearby settler who would sell trees on shares. His orchard managers were instructed to sell trees on credit. As settlers were setting down roots in the community, this was sound credit management.
Chapman made friends with many of the Native American tribes and was known to have learned many of their languages well enough to converse. Memoirs from settlers who knew Chapman well indicate the impression that many tribes held him in a high regard, and that his unusual zeal for serving others led some to believe he was touched by the Great Spirit. For that reason, they allowed him to listen to their council meetings, and he was therefore sometimes able to avert trouble between a tribe and incoming settlers.
It has been suggested that Chapman may have had Marfan syndrome,, a rare genetic disorder. One of the primary characteristics of Marfan syndrome is extra-long slim limbs, and Johnny Appleseed was exceptionally tall and slim. Johnny was sickly as a child. He died in his sleep as an adult. Marfan syndrome is closely associated with death from cardiovascular complications.
Johnny was an ascetic of sorts, practicing a life of self-denial. He went barefoot and wore rags, even in the coldest midwestern winter, and was a vegetarian. Those who propose the Marfan theory suggest that his compromised health may have made him feel the cold less intensely. His long life, however, refutes that theory.
There is some vagueness concerning the date of his death and his burial. Harper's Magazine of November 1871 (which is taken by many as the primary source of information about John Chapman) gives the date as 1847. Other sources, however, give the year as 1845 and some give the date as March 18, though it is difficult to find documentation of this date. Although the actual site of his grave is disputed, a national historic landmark gravesite is located in Johnny Appleseed Park (formerly known as Archer Park) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Some claim it to be on the present grounds of Fort Wayne's Canterbury Green apartment complex and golf course. Historical documents say he was buried beneath an apple tree along the St. Joseph River, on the Archer farm, "four miles north of Fort Wayne." Both the Canterbury Green and Archer/Johnny Appleseed park locations, now located in the central part of Fort Wayne, are on land that was once the Archer farm.
After his death, Chapman's story was changed into the pioneer folk hero Johnny Appleseed.
The popular image of “Johnny Appleseed” had him planting apple trees randomly, everywhere he went to the benefit of pioneering families. In fact, he planted orchards, from which settlers could obtain trees at modest cost.
The folk hero Johnny continues to be celebrated in Johnny Appleseed festivals and statues around the Northeast and Midwestern states.
All links retrieved May 24, 2018.
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