by Alan Borer
It is hard to pin down the facts of folk heroes, if any. Paul Bunyan may or may not have been one of several lumberjacks. Mike Fink was real, but few of the tales told about him are true. There is divided opinion about the identity of John Henry, who “died with a hammer in his hands.” But an Ohio folk hero is quite well documented, even if not all of the stories they tell about him are.
John Chapman (1774-1845) is better known to us Johnny Appleseed. Chapman was a colorful character, to say the least. A native of Leominster, Massachusetts, Chapman was early apprenticed to an orchardist. He learned the art of planting, grafting, and caring for fruit trees. As a young man, Chapman experienced a religious conversion, and spent the rest of his life propagating Christianity as interpreted by the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg.
Chapman wandered the wilds of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana acting as Swedenborg’s apostle and planting apple seeds. It is uncertain just how calculating an orchardist Chapman became. He planted apple orchards wherever the land and his peripatetic travels took him. He kept ahead of even the earliest settlers, who often found Chapman-planted stands of apple trees waiting when they arrived at their new homes in the wilderness. Chapman owned hundreds of acres of orchard in the old northwest, and ironically, died a landed, if not wealthy, man.
Wealthy or not, John Chapman’s lifestyle was eccentric in the extreme. Again, not all of the tales told about Johnny’s life are true, but many of them were remembered by aged pioneers 75 later. Chapman wore a frying pan for a hat, a potato sack for a shirt, and went barefoot. A strict vegetarian, he was known to have rescued bread crusts from the slop buckets of pigs because it was wrong to waste food. Chapman would not put any animal in harms way; he once extinguished a campfire because insects were consumed by his flames.
Chapman’s peaceful ways extended to settlers and native people alike. Indians regarded the odd behavior of Chapman as a sign he had a connection to the world of spirits, and he walked and visited among the tribes freely. When the War of 1812 renewed hostilities between Native and European Ohioans, Chapman raced, on foot, from cabin to cabin, urging the whites to seek shelter in the blockhouse at Mansfield.
“Johnny Appleseed” spent a great deal of time in the Mansfield area, planting orchards and preaching. But he also had extensive dealings around Newark, Steubenville, Urbana, Wooster, Ashland, and Mount Vernon. Chapman also had several connections to our area. He owned a seed nursery on the Blanchard River in Hancock County about. 1828, and owned three town lots in the village of Mt. Blanchard in the same county. At about the same time, Johnny owned land on the Maumee River, at the mouth of the Tiffin River and also near the village of Florida, both in Defiance County. Somewhat later, in 1834-36, he owned parcels in Allen County, Indiana’s Maumee Township totaling over 100 acres.
Chapman was no stranger to the notorious Black Swamp. Reportedly he had apple seedlings ready to sell to families “that were beginning to push up the streams into this dismal corner of the wilderness.” Several pioneers recollected a seedling nursery belonging to Chapman “somewhere near Fort Findlay on the upper Blanchard.” This nursery may be related to Chapman’s landholdings in what would become Mount Blanchard. One family bought apple trees from Chapman as he paddled a canoe down the Blanchard.
The Defiance area was full of actual or reputed Chapman plantings. “He started several thousand seedlings,” at his nursery at the mouth of the Tiffin River. Allegedly, Chapman slept in a “giant hollow sycamore” tree near this nursery. His Florida, Ohio, nursery was planted with seedlings from the Tiffin River plot. Another nursery near Kingsbury Park in Defiance was allegedly Chapman’s work.
John Chapman proceeded further and further up the Maumee and finally wound up in Fort Wayne. He did not exactly “settle” there, for he took long planting, fencing, and inspection trips all through Ohio. And being who he was, he continued to help others. In Fort Wayne, he often stayed in the cabin of Mr. and Mrs. William Worth. The Worth’s son Richard liked to tell tales of Johnny Appleseed. One story was brief: “One time while on the banks of the Maumee, he was attacked by a bear, which he killed with a pole while swimming towards him.” Chapman, who preached friendship toward animals, may or may not have done this.
Chapman died in Fort Wayne in March of 1845, at the Worth cabin. He had some assets, including a gray mare horse and several plots of land in Knox and Richland Counties in Ohio and Maumee Township in Allen County, Indiana. He died during the “hard times” of the 1840s, and there were many creditors who sought a piece of his estate. He never married, but left an enormous impact on the Middle West.
Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana are full of plaques and memorials to the ragged, wandering orchardist, who seemed to be part John the Baptist and part Francis of Assisi. Yet there was another side to Chapman. One of his quirks lay in the well-attested fact that he would not plant grafted apple trees. Yet wild apple trees mostly produce an inedible sour or bitter apple, usable only for making cider, which quickly turned “hard.” And in a time where no water was guaranteed potable, cider was a safe (and lucrative) choice
Did Johnny Appleseed plant the wilderness for apple pies and applesauce, or for alcoholic hard cider? Did he understand the connection that the tens of thousands of seeds he planted would probably yield fruit fit only to be made into alcohol? Did John Chapman, vegetarian and animal lover, make money by growing the fruit used to fuel the rampant alcoholism of the early nineteenth century?
We may never know. John Chapman blessed Ohio with apple trees, but their use was up to us.
[John Chapman’s story is told most fully and accurately in Robert Price, Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth (Bloomington, 1954.). Also used in this essay was Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire (New York, 2001) and W. J. Rorbaugh, The Alcoholic Republic (Oxford, 1979).]