Johnny Appleseed


John Appleseed aka John Chapman

John Chapman was a real person to be sure.  He was really quite a fascinating fellow.  For around forty-five years, he really did wander all around Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania planting thousands of apple trees.
He became the renowned Johnny Appleseed of folklore and hero of a 1948 Walt Disney film.  It seems that while he was alive, he was called John more often than Johnny.  Johnny Appleseed belongs more to the realm of myth and legend.
He always seemed to be one of the “great American oddballs.”  John Chapman/Appleseed was a true eccentric.  To me, he’s a sort of mild-mannered wild man.
Like many people, my interest in him was rekindled by reading Michael Pollan’s 2001 book The Botany of Desire.  In the first section, on apples, he gave a lot of attention to John Chapman, the life more than the myth.  Yet he came to the conclusion that he was “very much an American Dionysus” (yet a more kindly and innocent version).
Dionysus had ties to the wild world and to wine.  Chapman had ties to the wilderness and to hard apple cider.  He was a magical figure.
Michael Pollan: “He came bearing ecstatic news from other worlds and, with his apple trees and cider, promising a measure of sweetness in this one.  To a pioneer laboring under the brute facts of frontier life, confronting the daily indifferent face of nature, Johnny Appleseed’s words and seeds offered release from the long sentence of ordinariness, held out a hope of transcendence.”
I tracked down an old 1945 Johnny Appleseed Source Book.  I also borrowed a copy of  Johnny Appleseed Man and Myth.  This is Robert Price’s  1954 biography, the most complete book on Chapman to date.
He was born September 26, 1774 and died March 18, 1845.  He may have started planting apple trees in the late 1790’s.  It certain that by 1804, he was doing so.  He kept at it until the end of his life.  This was hard work, often under difficult conditions.  
Yet did make a living off of this.  He bought property, which became more valuable because it had apple trees on it.  But yes, he did “live like a poor man” and didn’t seem to be too caught up in his earnings.
He helped to promote apples by planting them.  He did so in a way to encourage their nature evolution, in full biodiversity.  They started off being popular mainly as a source of hard cider.  Their common use for sweet cider, pies and eating apples came later.
These quotes are from a short biographical sketch from October 20, 1871.  It was written by John W. Dawson who knew John Chapman.  He was age 25 when Chapman died.
His boat:  “…in 1830, he was seen one autumn day, seated in the section of a hollow tree which he improvised for a boat laden with apple seeds fresh from the cider presses of a more eastern part of the country, paddling up the Maumee river, and landing at Wayne’s fort… He kept the seed wet for preservation.  His boat was daubed with mud and tree-moss, and looked quite in comport with his rough garb, untidy appearance and eccentric habits.” 
Descriptions include the clothes he wore at his death:  “…a course coffee-sack with a hole cut through the centre through which he passed his head.  He had on the waists of four pairs of pants..”   (yet) “…his garb was not always alike…”  (and)  “He very rarely ate at table with others, and never slept in a bed.  He preferred to lie on the floor of a tavern or private house…” (and too) “Our hero may be considered insane by those who never knew him, but while this is not true, his fanaticism made him a religious monomaniac.”  His faith was in Swedenborgism, the Church of the New Jerusalem.  It was a big part of his life.
He was a man of the world yet a peaceable man.  It seemed that he never “did well with women.”  There seems to be no evidence of a romance.  He drank alcohol but not habitually or to excess. From the Robert Price biography:
“He would never touch tea, coffee, or tobacco, because when he got to the next world, he said, he could not have them and so he would not cultivate a taste for them here.  But milk and honey were different.  ‘We read that this is heavenly food,’ he pointed out.  He drank milk whenever he could get it.
Wild honey almost literally flowed at times in the Ohio woods, and the settlers helped themselves freely.  But if Chapman found a bee tree, he always looked carefully to see whether the insects had sufficient store for the winter before he touched the comb.”
Fourth Street, Detroit, August 21 2009

Fourth Street, Detroit, August 21 2009

Interesting websites including information on a documentary film and writing’s on Michael Pollan’s take on Johnny Appleseed: 

One Response to “Johnny Appleseed”

  1. Don Handy Says:

    What a contrast this presents to today’s capitalistic culture, wherein everyone is encouraged to grab as much as they can for themselves, others be damned! In some ways he seems like a archtype for hippies. In another, he seems like the living personification of Marx’s dictum “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his need.” We all need heroes, and he seems to me to be a better one than most.

    As far as mythology is concerned, I like to think that John Henry was a real, steel-drivin’ man, even though I know that he wasn’t.

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