While many people may only be familiar with a cartoon version of Johnny Appleseed that shows him wearing a tin pan on his head and planting apple trees everywhere he went, there really is much more to this unique American character. Johnny Appleseed was a true American pioneer who helped redefine the American frontier by his careful and deliberate planting of orchards full of apple trees. He helped settlements to be established and grow due to the need for apples that would literally help struggling pioneers flourish in their new homes.
Johnny Appleseed was born John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts on September 26, 1774. His parents were Nathaniel Chapman and Elizabeth Symond Chapman. His father was one of the Minutemen who fought at Concord on April 19, 1775. Nathaniel Chapman also fought with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. John was his parent’s second child. He had an older sister named Elizabeth and a younger brother Nathaniel Jr. who died along with their mother when he was just three weeks old. John’s mother Elizabeth and baby Nathaniel both died from complications of tuberculosis.
Young John and his sister Elizabeth were then taken to live with relatives. It is assumed that these relatives were Elizabeth’s parents who took care of both of the children while their father was fighting with the army. After leaving the army, Nathanial Chapman marred Lucy Cooley in 1780. She was from Longmeadow, Massachusetts and already had ten children from her previous marriage. Records do not clearly indicate how many additional children Nathaniel and Lucy had but they did have at least two while young John and Elizabeth were living with them.
There is little reliable information available about John’s early life with the new family. But records indicate that he did start his westward journey about 1797. After apprenticing with a nurseryman, John Chapman was well informed about the best ways to grow apple trees. He was a practical nurseryman. He realized that there was a real need and an opportunity for service in supplying seeds and seedlings.
He became known by the settlers as Johnny Appleseed as he started many nurseries throughout the Midwest by planting seeds which he bought from cider mills in Pennsylvania. He was instrumental in helping establish the frontier because in order to assure stability of the newly established homesteads, the law required each settler to plant fifty apple trees the first year. This was also because apples were a practical necessity in the early settler’s diets.
Johnny Appleseed also owned many tracts of land throughout Ohio and Indiana. He used this land to plant apple seeds, transplant seedlings and set out orchards. While he never sought to acquire wealth he had a great deal of foresight about acquiring lands that would escalate in value. He was also known for his kind and generous business practices and was known to extend credit that had little chance of being repaid. He felt that it was his duty to spread charity and kindness along with his apples.
Johnny Appleseed was also a deeply religious man. He was a self-appointed missionary of the Church of the New Jerusalem. This church was a Christian church that was based on the biblical interpretations of Emmanuel Swedenborg who was a Swedish scientist and theologian. Johnny never missed a chance to spread his religious tracts and preach from his Bible to any settlers who would listen to him.
While he was both a wanderer and an eccentric, it seems that Johnny Appleseed was beloved by many. He was even accepted as a peacemaker between the Indians and the settlers. It is believed that Johnny Appleseed died on March 18, 1845 just short of his seventy-fifth birthday. He had traveled for more than fifty years spreading apple trees and his beliefs. He left a legacy that is both beloved and celebrated even today.