Johnny Appleseed

In Graham's History of Richland County, Ohio, published in 1880, the author described, among the many agriculturists who worked to improve the livestock and plants brought into the country from the east, "a curious character called 'Johnny Appleseed'" who planted appleseeds along streams in the central part of Ohio. (Graham pp. 156-157, 197)

Early settlers apparently believed that John Chapman (for that was his real name) had been disappointed in love in his native Massachusetts and had come west under religious inspiration to plant apple trees for the settlers. An uncopyrighted pamphlet (containing some of H. Kenneth Dirlam's Appleseed research material) published by the Richland County Historical Society c. 1960 states: "We now know that he was born in the apple-growing section of Massachusetts, at Leominster, site of the Nashoba Valley Apple Blossom Festival, on September 26th, 1774...his father, Nathaniel Chapman, one of the "Minute Men"; his mother, Massachusetts-born Elizabeth Simons (not an Indian woman as one of the folklore legends has it).

"Several Years after his mother's death (while her husband was in the Revolutionary Army) John's father married Miss Lucy Cooley, and moved the family to her home at Longmeadow, near Springfield. Of John's boyhood years we have no definite record. A marker erected by the Springfield (Mass.) Garden Club (1936) in Stebbins Park declares:

"He spent his boyhood in this pleasant valley or somewhere nearby.
Here he received inspiration for his life work of spreading Westward
his gospel of beauty and service.

"Approaching manhood, as the eldest son in a large family (12 children) John felt it was time he should be on his own. Massachusetts families from Springfield and vicinity were pulling up stakes and heading for the new land West of the Alleghenies; why shouldn't he follow their example.

"Apparently he and his younger half-brother Nathaniel worked their way Westward - by helping farmers with harvesting and other chores - following the same route taken by many families from the Springfield area: across  Northern Connecticut, South along the Housatonic River; West to Fishkill, across the Hudson by ferry at Newburgh; then by post-road across NorthWest New Jersey to Easthampton, Reading, Lebanon to Harrisburgh - then on the old Pennsylvania Highway to the junction of the Allegheny & the Monongahela Rivers.

"We have nothing definite to bridge the gap between his father's second marriage and John Chapman's appearance in the upper Allegheny country of NorthWest Pennsylvania in the late 1790s. We know he was there then and by that time had decided to become a frontier apple nurseryman. Judge Lansing Wetmore tells of an apple nursery planted by John Chapman about 1797 upstream on Brokenstraw Creek, a few Miles from Warren, Pennsylvania.

"Several years later a Promissory Note throws additional light on the subject:

"For Value received I promise to pay Nathaniel Chapman, or order,
the Sum of One Hundred Dollars in land or apple trees, with interest
till paid, As witness my hand 
His early method was to acquire appleseeds from cider presses in Pennsylvania, cross the Ohio River, and navigate up the Muskingum planting appleseeds and healing herbs along the banks of that river and its tributaries. (Graham p. 269) The earliest report of his being observed in Ohio seems to be 1801. Land records and a map in the currently out-of-print Green Township book published by the Ashland County Genealogical Society show that he homesteaded or purchased a quarter-section of land in the south-central area of Green Township (later a part of Ashland County) in 1813, about two years after first appearing in this area, and held that land until he left permanently for Indiana in 1832. Around 1813 he was also living in a cabin in Perrysville in Green Township. Indeed, Chapman was not a homeless wanderer. He was a landowner and businessman, albeit more dedicated to his religion and less concerned with outward shows of wealth than most.

John Chapman drawn by a college student who had seen him in lifeJohn Chapman's appearance was variously described as humble and bizarre for he was scantily clad summer and winter, without shoes except in the severest weather when he might wear sandals or moccasins as often as the old pair of boots one pioneer writer claimed to have given him out of pity. This drawing of him (left) is said to have been made by an Ohio college student who saw him in life.

A claim that he was occasionally seen wearing his mush pot as a hat is likely a legend, but it is reliably reported that he would wear someone else's castoff hat or create for himself a sun hat from cardboard. This writer would expect that he might carry his mush pot on his head if his hands were full, but probably not as a substitute for "real" headgear. Pots of that period were handmade, usually of heavy copper, iron, or enameled iron. Such a burden would not long or comfortably serve the function of headgear. And above all, Johnny Appleseed was a man with a practical sense of function.

His innocent harmless demeanor inspired both settlers and natives to treat him with a special protectiveness and kindness not often experienced on the frontier. Stories abound concerning his respect of animals, his refusal to kill even the smallest harmless creature. He preferred a simple diet consisting mostly of potatoes, vegetables, milk which he highly favored and always enjoyed when he could get it (according to Graham) and, surprisingly, meats. He did draw the line at eating veal as, he said, in a land of milk and honey such as this the calves should be spared.

Graham reports that Chapman never indulged in coffee, tea, or tobacco. However certain native sources claim that he must have joined in the pipe-smoking during ceremonies, otherwise he would have been considered hostile, and both folklore and history document that the native residents respected and welcomed him. In fact, natives considered him a holy man; his innocence and gentleness in this savage land where they were fighting their Armageddon was, to them, beyond eccentricity.

To conclude from the above that John Chapman was mad or insane, however, seems a bit strong in the face of the evident respect which was demonstrated when, in a letter written in 1873, Jacob Newman's son who had known Chapman ranked him among the "respectable first-class pioneers ... men of truth and veracity". (Graham p. 450)

Legends claim that John freely gave away apple trees wherever he went. However both Graham and Dirlam's research establish that he usually did business with resellers. And the price he charged per seedling is reported by a contemporary as a five-penny bit. If a person could not pay, Chapman would give them the tree or trees they needed with agreement for later payment or with no mention of payment at all. Many families in the area of Ashland County still have an ancient apple tree on the place that they cannot bear to cut down though it bears no more fruit for legends abound among them of John Chapman planting this or that tree with his own hands in appreciation of a good meal or a warm night by the cabin fire.

Though Chapman was a peaceful man, there are stories of his heroism when the settlers were under threat. The most famous of these was his warning of native retribution after Greentown was burned.

(To Be Continued)


History of Richland County Ohio,
compiled by A. A. Graham, 1880

Green Township, a collection of maps, lists, census and tax data, cemetery records, etc. published by the Ashland County Genealogical Society.

"A Gatherer and Planter of Appleseeds",
a 16 page pamphlet of H. Kenneth Dirlam's speeches, original writing, and research published without copyright notice by the Richland County Historical Society, probably c. 1960. Dirlam was at the time a past President of that historical society.

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