Orchardist, businessman, ambassador of the Swedenborgian Christian faith, mediator, vegetarian, and animal rights advocate, John Chapman deserves his legend status. Today, many cities and towns celebrate Johnny Appleseed Days each September, even if the man himself never set foot in the area.
Chapman was born September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts. He learned his orchardist skills while serving as apprentice to a man named Crawford. At age 18, the enterprising Johnny took his talents west. He began planting apple tree nurseries and selling seeds and saplings to pioneers migrating west. As new territories were settled, Chapman himself moved west, expanding his business. Chapman often helped settlers plant their own nurseries. Chapman explained to settlers that apples could supplement the meat they obtained through hunting, and provide a year-round staple. Johnny’s motivation was not financial gain, but rather an innate desire to celebrate nature’s bounty. During Chapman’s 50-year odyssey, he traveled through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. He eventually owned more than 1,200 acres of land across four states. He left his property and orchards to his sister Elizabeth upon his death. Chapman succumbed to pneumonia in February or March of 1845 near Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Chapman traveled his circuit of nurseries, tending to his trees on a yearly cycle. Often, neighbors would tend to his trees in his absence. Chapman was well-known to settlers throughout Ohio and Indiana. He was welcomed by all and was always offered a meal or a place to sleep.
Chapman spent many years in North Central Ohio. He saved the town of Mansfield, Ohio, from attack during the War of 1812. Chapman ran 26 miles from Mansfield to Mount Vernon, Ohio, to summon help. The town’s fear of attack arose following the murder of a local shopkeeper.
Chapman lived a Spartan life. His love of nature and wildlife was reflected in his lifestyle. He slept in the open forest except during the most severe weather. He wore the simplest clothing, walked barefoot most of the year, did not eat meat, and befriended everyone he met. He often served as mediator between settlers and Native Americans.
Today, the ubiquitousness of apples owes much to John Chapman. During his time, apples were predominantly used for making cider. Cider mills were happy to let Johnny take their discarded seeds to grow new apple trees, which would in turn benefit their business. Not until a century later did the slogan, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” firmly establish apples as a fruit to be primarily eaten.
Treat yourself to Kathy Jakobsen’s beautifully illustrated book Johnny Appleseed featuring Reeve Lindbergh’s rhymed verse celebrating Chapman’s life and legend.