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Johnny Appleseed - Paradoxical Frontiersman

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John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, USA on 26 September, 1774. He was the son of Nathaniel Chapman, a farmer, carpenter, and future Patriot soldier. Johnny's mother died two years after he was born. Very little is known about his early life, except that his father remarried and the family moved to Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

Around 1797, he left for Pennsylvania, a land many New Englanders revered. There, in what would later become the town of Warren, he planted his first apple trees. He made his money in an odd way. His business involved moving west, planting orchards where he thought that people might settle later, and nursing the trees. Eventually, people would come to settle in these areas and Johnny would have plenty of grown apple trees to sell to the frontiersmen1. Johnny generally chose very good spots, and many towns were built along his nurseries. He did not simply walk around sprinkling the ground with seeds - he tended to his plants well, and made intelligent decisions about the places that would best suit his business.

Johnny was indeed a good businessman – he was a frontier real-estate developer and he became very successful in his business. He used a simple system in planting and tending his orchards, but he always moved west as the frontier moved. Therefore, he never settled down, and was always moving. He first laid orchards in Ohio, especially in what would become Licking Creek, but continued to move west later in his life as civilisation moved into Ohio.

As he travelled, he met many people, and was very friendly to them. He preached Christianity, he gave them seeds, he helped them with chores, and he told them of his exploits (though many of the stories he told were probably invented or exaggerated). In return, they would often give him a meal2, and this perhaps helped spread the legend of 'Johnny Appleseed.' A homeless traveler, he gave many gifts to the children, especially the ones he knew well. It seems Johnny was always polite and nice to people.

By about 1806, he was a true legend, and he was well-known in many regions he entered. His name then was basically the same as it is now, and is not always given accurately. People most often described him as long-haired, bearded, blue eyed, strong, barefoot, and wearing a sack for his clothes. Another essential part of his wardrobe was his cooking pot, which he used as a hat. Whether this classic image is accurate is not known conclusively.

He was peculiar to say the least, and not only because of the way he looked. Although he was a frontiersman, he did not share many of the beliefs a traditional frontiersman might hold. For instance, he had a very different code of ethics; he was a vegetarian, never chopped down trees and never rode horses. He also was friendly to any indigenous peoples he met, often giving them medicinal plants3 (from which legends spread among natives that he was a medicine man). This was yet another attitude most frontiersmen did not share.

As the War of 1812 broke out, in which the Native American tribes fought with the British, Johnny once learned that his native friends were planning to massacre many white settlers. He went thirty miles (legend says running barefoot, unlikely but it suits his character) to warn of the massacres at each house he passed, probably saving many lives. As he warned each house, he would say:

'The spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he hath anointed me to blow the trumpet in the wilderness and sound an alarm in the forest; for behold, the tribes of the heathen are 'round for your doors, and a devouring flame followeth after them.

Johnny was tough. It was said that the soles of his feet were so leathery and rough, a rattlesnake fang couldn't pierce them. Sometimes he would step on coals to entertain children. He used his feet to melt ice for drinking-water in the winter.

Many people take his lack of shoes as symbolic of his view of nature. He did not try to conquer it. He was in harmony with nature, especially with animals. There are several tales that say he might play with bears, or keep a wolf he freed from a trap as a pet, or buy useless horses to keep them from being killed. His love of nature was often as legendary as his apple-planting and odd appearance. Perhaps this was exaggerated, but Johnny certainly loved all other living creatures.

His love of nature was probably affected by his religious faith. He studied the thoughts of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian. Johnny seemed to consider the spread of apples just as important as the spread of his religious ideals. Although he was only a simple planter (one that drank4 and told rotten jokes), Johnny was a devout Christian and probably a very intelligent person. He acted as a missionary in many ways as well.

Near the end of his life, Johnny ran a number of apple orchards and nurseries, stretching mostly through Pennsylvania to Indiana. It is thought that he owned and planted 1,200 acres of land (where many trees continue to give apples) through his life. Johnny Appleseed died in March, 1845 at the age of 70. He died in his sleep on the floor of settler William Worth's home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as a very rich man. A doctor called to examine his body said that his was the most peaceful dead body he had ever seen. He had spent nearly 50 years planting trees.

Legends of Johnny Appleseed

Your guest's tales of subsisting one winter on butternuts alone, or sharing a bed of leaves with a wolf, would have warmed the draftiest cabin, deepened the savor of the most meager meal. Sometimes the cause of civilization is best served by a hard stare into the soul of its opposite.
-From Johnny Appleseed: A Voice in the Wilderness

In 1871, an article on Johnny was in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, called 'Johnny Appleseed, A Pioneer Hero.' This resulted in the entire US knowing about this quirky planter on the frontier. The legend grew more and more, as several stories surfaced in the world about his life.

Now, so many stories, novels, and poems have been written about Johnny that there seems to be a whole sub-genre (of fiction - of course, most of the legends involving Johnny probably never happened) about him. He remains a hero and a symbol of the frontier5 in early America.

Some other stories (many improbable) of Johnny Appleseed that have spread through time include:

  • The day he died was the only time he was ever sick in his life.

  • The reason he left Massachusetts was because a woman left him at the altar.

  • Johnny learned many native languages to speak with tribes across the frontier. Natives let him participate in their meetings or communicate with white settlers for them.

  • Johnny never used banks. He buried all of his money in the ground, many times never to find it again. Often, when he had more money than he needed, though, he would simply give it away.

  • He could walk over ice barefoot in winter conditions and not feel anything in his feet.

  • He slept in a hollow log one night. When later asked why he did so knowing that a mother bear and her cubs were at the other end, he simply said that he knew that the bear wouldn't hurt him.

  • When a fire he had built outside was attracting mosquitoes and burning them up, he brought some water and put it out, because he didn't want to make himself comfortable at the expense of other animals.

  • When a hornet stung him while helping some settlers, he removed it gently with care to the amusement of the settlers. He said that it wouldn't be right to kill a hornet that didn't mean to hurt him.

  • One day, a settler forced Johnny to wear some shoes, declaring it sinful to do otherwise. Not long after, Johnny came upon this settler barefooted, and explained that he had given his shoes to a poor family that was obviously in greater need.

  • Johnny's best friend and longtime companion was a wolf he found in a trap.

Stories abound about Johnny Appleseed, but it's important to remember that he was a real person. He spent his life being kind to all and planting over a thousand acres of land, all without shoes.

1He charged reasonable prices, usually according to how much money the buyer had. He considered it more important that a tree be planted than for him to make a profit.2Though not a place to stay, for he preferred to sleep outside.3In some places, for many years, dog-fennel, a favourite plant of his, was known as 'Johnny Weed.' He would spread its seeds almost everywhere he went. Unfortunately, this plant would turn out to be a nuisance, rather than a particularly effective cure for anything.4Apple cider, perhaps? In fact it should be noted that, apples were primarily used not for eating at the time, but for making apple cider, the mildly alcoholic drink. Apples would not be widely used as food for some time in America.5Which is odd, as Johnny embodied the opposite of the frontier spirit in many ways.

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