MAN or myth? Many today may not have ever hear of Johnny Appleseed or realize that he was a real life human being. They may think that he was another America’s legendary figures like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyon and his blue ox, Babe.
“Appleseed,” however was a real life human being and a legend in his own time but whose character and deeds had a fictional ring to them. We mention him because he visited northwest Illinois, though fleetingly.
Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman was born in 1774 or ‘75 in Massachusetts and grew up in Connecticut. By 1797 he’d moved to southwest Pennsylvania and then in 1801 lived in Knox County, Ohio where he remained for about twenty years. By then the well-known apple seed treks had begun.
An eyewitness told of seeing him in about 1806 transporting sacks of apple seeds down the Ohio River in a strange contraption of two canoes lashed together with its cargo piled high. Ever after he could be seen walking or leading a forlorn horse that he’d either found or bartered for to carry his life’s work. Somewhere a revelation had struck him that he should plant seeds everywhere he could, then as they sprouted, transplant them to make an orchard at a proper site for generations to come ... Cider, apple butter, applejack, pies, vinegar, etc. Apples were very necessary to the early settlers.
Delving deeper and deeper into the mostly untouched wilderness from the Ohio River northward to the Great Lakes he trudged through the uncleared forests, swamp, out onto the prairie backtracking in a few years to see the development of the seeds that he had bartered or bought first from a cider ill in Pennsylvania. As civilization approached he explored into Indiana and Illinois eschewing material goods an entire lifetime. His clothing was tattered throw-away, often rags he bartered for; sometimes a rough burlap-like sack with three holes cut into it for head and arms and little else except for the tin kettle he was so often pictured in. Some believe that it was a humorous accessory to draw the attention of children whom he particularly enjoyed. He usually gave little girls and women a scrap of calico or a piece of ribbon that became a keepsake. Boys received a whistle he may have carved from a twig.
Johnny was described as being small, thin and wiry with an untrimmed black beard and uneven hair. Barbers were not common after all! But he was always clean and inoffensive though crudely clad. His ski was sunburned and coarsened by the sun and his eyes a keen, sharp black that had a peculiar sparkle. There was a definite aura about him and everyone who met him became fascinated by him; he was welcomed everywhere even by the native Americans who respected his work and lack of pretension. Rough frontiersmen, strangers, lone homesteaders in the outback offered him hospitality. He often slept on the ground with only a ragged blanket to cover him. Or on the puncheon floor of a humble log cabin, asking for no favors. Though offered food, he usually declined and would accept only bread and milk or small particles of food but no meat. He ate only vegetables, roots, fruit, grains. He did not believe in killing or eating animal flesh. He mostly shunned leather for clothing, too. One quote concerning him said, “Whether impelled in his eccentricities by some absolute misery of the heart which could only find relief in incessant motion or governed by a benevolent monomania, his life was devoted to planting apple seeds in remote places.”
Another reference stated, “A man of restless activity.” There were other short descriptions that said such things as “constant motion,” or unable to sit quietly for any long period. It makes one wonder if he had some condition that caused him to tremble or was nervous with some illness. He had disciplined himself to constantly walk and plant the seeds, to do something constructive.
Whether the religion he’d adopted, Swedenborgianism, was responsible for the endless quest, preparing orchards for future generations is not clear.
He often cared for and cured sick or starving animals and would not eat animal flesh or wear leather in a day when it was a major piece of clothing and footwear.
Taking care of a horse for instance, he would get it back into shape, then barter or trade it to someone needy for an item he could use. His objective was to become a “primitive Christian.” Neither did he believe in grafting or pruning the apple trees he’d sown—it would hurt them!
In the first half of the 1800’s there were dozens, hundreds of sects, cults, denominations formed for the slightest reasons so it is easy to see that Chapman could be caught up in an idealistic movement. He had said, however, that he had been visited by angels two of which were of the female persuasion. His profound reverence for the Swedish“seer”s’ revelations was almost to the superstitious (Some called Swedenborg a mystic but he had no pretensions for such).
Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Sweden in 1688, that nation’s most learned genius—a scientist, philosopher and theologian although he neither founded any church nor preached a sermon. He traveled in Europe and Britain to study and adapt new ideas. His notes reveal that he had prototypes laid out for the airplane and the submarine also mathematical figures, if continued on, would have led to the atom as put down by today’s nuclear physicists; a man before his time. In his later years he embraced philosophy and meditation, writing that the unity of God appeared in both essence and person. He died in London in 1772 and was buried there but in 1908 the Swedish government moved his remains to the cathedral in Uppsala. No parishes were formed in his lifetime but in 1810 a Swedenborg Society was organized in London to publish his works. Earlier, 1784, a few disciples gathered to form the “Church of the New Jerusalem,” or “New Church” which today still exists small in numbers of congregation throughout the world. Most likely some of Swedenborg’s? Appleseed carried a New Testament and other books, writings. Johnny would separate several pages from the book and lend them to the backwoods men, only some of which could read so it’s a question if they understood the deep philosophy of the Swedish thinker. Some may have read the end of the book before the opening pages and so forth, but Johnny would circulate the pages as he looked for places to plant the apple seeds, he had an eye for orchard sites.
He had no society to sponsor printing up tracts as some sects or denominations did, so his basic “lending” was how he accomplished the deed of “spreading the word.”
Sometimes as he lay on the floor of a crude log cabin as the hosts were in their beds, he would read to them; “His voice rising denunciatory or thrilling, strong and loud like the roar of waves and wind; soft and soothing like the balmy air of a spring day ...”
Well into his sixties, his hair now white, he was still traveling with the sacks of apple seeds, doing his duty as he’d one time promised. The first years he’d obtained the seeds from a cider mill in Pennsylvania but as the frontier pushed ever westward his sources moved also. As settlement occurred he was happy for the use of his orchards and the growing settlements but would rather have had solitude so he pressed into the remaining wilderness.
No one yet has figured out why he went beyond the usual territory into Iowa in 1843 but on his return he stopped in Whiteside county at Aaron Jackson’s who had claimed land on the east edge of present day Morrison, a timber. Jackson had taken up the claim in Mt. Pleasant Township in 1837 where he lived throughout his life, holding many public, local offices and serving, too, on the State’s Constitutional Convention committee. Jackson and Chapman were well acquainted from their days in Knox County, Ohio where Chapman had converted Jackson to Swedenboriganism. It was proper that they meet again. Probably staying but one night, Johnny Appleseed went on to Lee County to Melugin’s Grove (near Compton) where he likely met with John Smith, another witness to Swedenborg’s philosophy and knowing Johnny from Back East. This visit was written in a letter to Silas Mitchell to a friend at the time which confirms our touching with the American icon all those years ago.
Johnny Appleseed had but a few short years to live following his visit in the Northwest but his self-sacrificial ways, his kindness, his devotion to principles was as strong as in his youth.
A detailed item written by the late Dr. Curt Gronner, Morrison, and printed by the Whiteside News-Sentinel in 1976 was sent to PDQ Me by Dr. Gronner following its publication. Other colorful anecdotes were found in a compilation gathered in a book of 1892 but the Appleseed article had been written “about twenty years before” by W.D. Haley. It was detailed, too, but space prevents including more here. We appreciate their appearance. Johnny Appleseed came alive.
Haley’s article is quoted, “We must not lead the reader to believe that Johnny’s life, so full of hardship and peril was a gloomy or unhappy one. There is an element of human pride in all martyrdom which if it does not soften the pain, stimulates the power of endurance.” And certainly John Chapman did benevolent deeds in his martyrdom.
The apostle of appleseed had walked twenty miles his last day and coming to a cabin had but particles of food to eat then read the Beatitudes sitting at the door to watch the sunset. AS usual, he slept on the floor. When the family woke in the morning they found him near death. This was in Allen County, Indiana, 1847. He was seventy-two years old.
Johnny Appleseed had a curious life as an eccentric hero in both the magnificent of his everyday deeds and as a patriotic hero, too, by tirelessly walking the entire region around an area threatened in the War of 1812, warning the settlers of attack by the British and the Indians. Because of that many tragic events were prevented. Johnny Appleseed’s adventures were many and various as he trudged countless miles—barefoot. He was always happy to say after prayers in a long day—the message is fresh, straight from Heaven.