John Chapman, better known as “Johnny Appleseed,” was born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1774 (September 26th is also celebrated as Johnny Appleseed Day, along with March 11th, the day of his death). His father, Nathaniel Chapman was a Minuteman who fought in the Revolutionary War and served with General George Washington. John’s mother, Elizabeth, died shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Nathaniel Chapman remarried after the war and had 10 children.
John and his half brother Nathaniel, Jr. journeyed west around 1792, just about five years after the Constitution was ratified. They lived as vagabonds, living off the land and taking odd jobs. Their father and siblings joined them in Ohio in 1805 where they started a family farm.
The Legend of Johnny Appleseed
Johnny Appleseed’s legend begins when John Chapman left the family farm and signed on as an apprentice orchard man for an orchardist named Crawford. After that, fact and fiction become intertwined. There are anecdotal reports of “Johnny Appleseed” appearing here and there over the middle Atlantic states, with key sightings in Pennsylvania. It’s likely that Chapman had combined his love of itinerant travel with his skills as an apple orchardist, and roamed the young United States looking for opportunity, locating landowners interested in planting apple orchards or starting cider mills.
While the legend depicts Johnny Appleseed as a barefoot vagrant, cooking pot on his head, and roaming the landscape strewing apple seeds randomly, it is far more likely that he was more of an eccentric-but-skilled professional, establishing nurseries of apple trees, and selling his services progressively westward to landowners interested in planting orchards. He’d teach his clients how to establish an orchard, how to keep deer and livestock at bay, and once the nursery was thriving, he’d move on to the next person interested in planting orchards. If he had to stay in one place for any length of time, he’d erect a teepee-like structure and live humbly on the bare ground. It is said that his only possessions were the clothes on his back, a bowl and a spoon, and a cooking pot for his gruel.
When it came to getting paid for his nursery work, it is said that Chapman charged based on what his clients could afford. Richer landowners would pay cash for young apple trees, whereas he might accept used clothing or food from poorer settlers.
John Chapman’s Later Life
Later, Chapman began to mix the gospel with his nomadic lifestyle. He was a follower of what is known as the Swedenborgian faith, begun by Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Chapman was a dynamic speaker, and local residents would gather to hear him speak. This too may have been another way he made money while traveling. But it’s clear that he was a man of deep faith, and believed that traveling across the country, preaching and setting up orchards was his path to salvation.
His obituary in the Fort Wayne Sentinel, on March 22, 1845, gives some insight into this unique American character:
On the same day in this neighborhood, at an advanced age, Mr. John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed).
The deceased was well known through this region by his eccentricity, and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman, and has been a regular visitor here upwards of 10 years. He was a native of Pennsylvania we understand but his home—if home he had—for some years past was in the neighborhood of Cleveland, where he has relatives living. He is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself almost the common necessities of life—not so much perhaps for avarice as from his peculiar notions on religious subjects. He was a follower of Swedenborg and devoutly believed that the more he endured in this world the less he would have to suffer and the greater would be his happiness hereafter—he submitted to every privation with cheerfulness and content, believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter.
In the most inclement weather he might be seen barefooted and almost naked except when he chanced to pick up articles of old clothing. Notwithstanding the privations and exposure he endured, he lived to an extreme old age, not less than 80 years at the time of his death—though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was 60. He always carried with him some work on the doctrines of Swedenborg with which he was perfectly familiar, and would readily converse and argue on his tenets, using much shrewdness and penetration.
His death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.