Like many folk stories, that of the legendary American folk hero, Johnny Appleseed, has very real roots in historical fact. The real name of the man who is credited with bringing apple orchards to the settlers of the American frontier was John Chapman, a missionary of the Swedenborg Church as well as an orchardist, an entrepreneur, and possibly the first documented vegetarian in the United States.
John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman was one of the many Americans of his time – the early 1800s – who answered the land-settlement call to “Go West, young man.” That’s just he did, travelling first from Massachusetts to the Alleghany, then throughout the Ohio River region to its end near Fort Wayne, Indiana.
He lived an eccentric and peripatetic life, driven by a two-fold mission – to plant apples orchards from which to supply fruit and nursery-grown seedling trees to the settler families setting up homesteads in the new frontier land, and to spread the word of God as a missionary of the Swedenborg Church. Long before the Disney company created its animated version of John Chapman’s story in 1948, indeed, even within his own lifetime, “Johnny Appleseed” already had a firm place in American folklore and was well on his way to becoming a modern legend.
The True Story Of Johnny Appleseed
The true story of Johnny Appleseed has become mixed up with legend, over time, with the help of a Disney movie that was only loosely based on the real life story of John Chapman. Many people now believe Johnny Appleseed was just a character in a story, but no, he was real.
Historians know he was born in Massachusetts in 1774, his family background, a fair amount of what he did in his adult life as an apple-planting wanderer in the Ohio Valley, and that he died at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the spring of 1845.
An unusual kind of American folk hero, Chapman planted trees rather than felling them with one swipe of a mighty axe, Paul Bunyan style, and was known for his acts of kindness and friendship, rather than his markmanship or courage in combat.
It’s interesting to note that the apples he brought to the settlers were not simply a source of food, as we might suppose, but the means for them to fulfill their legal obligations to farm that land in order to claim it for their own. The apple trees he planted were, in large part, not ‘eating apples” as we know them today but the varieties used to make cider – applejack – which brought its own lightness of spirit to what must have been a very difficult existence.
The essence of John Chapman’s nature, the force that shaped his life and actions – according to the Swedenborgian clergyman Ray Silverman, author of The Core of Johnny Appleseed – was his strong and simple faith. His was a Christian faith based on love with a lot of room for the pleasures of life, for joy and good fellowship.
But let Ray Silverman describe Johnny Appleseed in his own words – I think you’ll be intrigued, as I was, and want to learn more about the real man behind the popular legend.
Just the Facts, Johnny!
- John Chapman was born September 26, 1774, at Leominster, Massachusetts. The placename is not pronounced as its written, but more like “Le’minster,” or, in the New England accent, “Le’min stah.
- John’s parents were Nathaniel Chapman – a Minute Man of the American Revolution who fought, among other places, at the Battle of Bunker Hill – and his first wife Elizabeth Simonds (d. 1776, possibly in childbirth, possibly of tuberculosis, or both). Elizabeth’s family name is also found spelled Simons and Symonds.
- The Chapman family in North America descended from one Edward Chapman, who came to the Boston area from Yorkshire about 1639, according to a number of quite reliable sources. For more on the genealogy of Johnny Appleseed’s branch of the Chapman family tree, see the Chapman Family Association website at www.chapmanfamilies.org.
- Some sources – notably Eleanor Atkinson’s 1915 fictionalized account, Johnny Appleseed: the Romance of the Sower – refer to him as Jonathan Chapman; this is not correct. John Chapman was the proper name of our orchardist; Jonathan Chapman was one of his numerous half-brothers.
- He received the nickname “Johnny Appleseed” during his lifetime, perhaps even as early as 1806.
- John Chapman never settled long in one place, often camping rough or sleeping on the floors of settlers’ homes where he stopped on his travels, but his lifestyle was a choice, not a necessity. In fact, he was far from destitute and owned sizable tracts of land, both apple orchards and timber land, across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
- John Chapman died in 1845. The exact day of his death is not absolutely certain, but certainly it was in mid-March of that year, and he is believed to have died of pneumonia. Some sources say he died on March 11, but by far the majority have March 18 as his death date. The date given on the bill for his coffin (March 17, 1845) may be an error.