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The Legend of Johnny Appleseed

H. S. Knapp. Drawing of Jonathan Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed (1862). Public domain.

John Chapman, better known as “Johnny Appleseed,” was born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1774, and September 26th is 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 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

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.

How To Celebrate

The best way to celebrate Johnny Appleseed Day is to indulge in the delicious fruit he helped to spread across the United States. Chapman was also an animal lover so take some time to be extra kind to them.

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  • Donna says:

    Carmela – (see my previous comment) my email is jdbeal@hotmail.com

  • Donna says:

    Carmela, I would also like to see your Chapman Family Book. Is it possible that you could scan it to me? My mom is a Chapman, and there are many other Chapmans in our area. It’s always been rumored that we may be related to John but we never verified it. We live 30 miles east of Cleveland Ohio. Thank you!

  • James West says:

    Back in those days apples were not the quality of today. Most apples were turned into wine!!! But, he did plant the seed that gave us red delicious apples we eat today. All red delicious apples came from the same tree from graphs. Stark Brothers Nursery bought the tree from Johnny for a large sum of cash for those times.

  • Todd Mathis says:

    Carmela Rice I would be very interested in viewing your chapman history book. I am a direct decedent of James Chapman, John’s brother. My email is todd.mathis33@yahoo.com

  • Paul says:

    I think Johnny Appleseed day should be better publicized for an outstanding Christian fellow who is definitely an American icon! Someone we can be proud of.

  • Stephanie vescio says:

    We are supposed to be related some how to Johnny Appleseed. Carmela rice ?? I would love to know more and figure out how / where the relations come in , in our family.

  • Carmela Rice says:

    I’m proud to say Johnny Appleseed is part of my Chapman Family History and we have a Chapman Family Book that shows the history.

  • Michelle Pulley says:

    My daughters ate Johnny Appleseed’s 8X great nieces. According to the family folklore. Has anyone tracedis family?

  • JEH says:

    What happened to the ten children?

  • mary ann brannen says:

    love your article please keep writing

  • kate stevens says:

    As a child I had a “45” record of the song of Dan Davis’ grace that he says. We put our Mom’s sauce pans on our heads and pretended we were Johnny Appleseed.

  • mark jones says:

    For 50,000 years the lore of the Australian Originals was never to move the seeds or plants. To do this was to mess with universal lores. They lived through perhaps 5 ice ages, they learned the cycles of the planet.

    Enter, the white fella, with his gruel and his bible, which told of the original sin and the tilling of the soils. These mad monks of the new world who saw a commercial future, through the good book.

    In 200 years the colonisation of my country has seen the demolition of this ancient culture. It has also seen the degradation of ravenous mining sector who build their empires.

    Johnny Appleseed was the start in the US around about the time that blankets were being dispersed with small pox to the Originals of America and Australia, and around the world.

    This bloke isn’t a hero, and the people that run the industrial plant industry these days are not either. They are a perpetuation of a religious zeal that speaks of dominion and not communion.

    By the way, I do love the article, it is beautifully written.

  • jason Chapman says:

    He my family member

  • Mary Elfstrand says:

    Thank you for this delightful article. What an amazing man… and quite a legacy.

  • m.C says:

    Due to the enactment of the high Whiskey tax, Apple cider was exempt hence Apple Trees! Johnny was a Rebel!

  • Dan Davis says:

    My favorite grace to sing before meals at camp was always “Johnny Appleseed.” I love it even more now!
    Oh the Lord’s been 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’s been good to me!

  • Rod Schaffter says:

    There is a Monument in the city of his birth, Leominster, Massachusetts, and an elementary school there is named in his honor.

    Here is a picture of the monument; apparenly there is uncertainty about the date of his death…


  • Thayer Jordan says:

    Great article.

  • Linda Burnham says:

    Thank you. This is great.

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