LIMA — From western Pennsylvania, across Ohio and into eastern Indiana, John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, is remembered on historical markers and monuments, parks and schools. The Fort Wayne Tincaps nickname is a nod to his purported penchant for wearing a cooking pot on his head.
He was, in the words of A. Banning Norton writing in an 1862 history of Knox County, “the oddest character in all our history,” although as author Howard Means noted a century and a half later, ”the competition for ‘oddest American (anything)’ grows stiffer year by year.”
Still, Means wrote in his 2011 book, “Johnny Appleseed: the Man, the Myth, the American Story,” Chapman “must count among the most singular of them all — nurseryman; religious zealot, real estate dabbler; medicine man; lord of the open trail, with the stars for his night-light; pioneer capitalist; altruist; the list could go on.”
Chapman, who Norton described as “of medium height, quick and restless and uneasy in his motions, and exceedingly uncouth in dress,” roamed the Ohio frontier in the first half of the 19th century.
“He would find suitable spots of ground along the banks of creeks and rivers, in which to make small clearings and there he would plant the seed he had gathered, fence in the ground, and then leave it to germinate and grow in coming years into fine nurseries, which he would have in readiness for the coming settlements,” Norton wrote. “He did not restrict his operations to the settled portions of the country but went into the wilderness regions and among the Indians and wild beasts, having his trust in God and fearing no harm.”
By the late 1820s, the frontier had advanced into western Ohio when Chapman made a deal with Jacob Harter of Amanda Township. Under the agreement, Harter leased a half acre of land — located east of Defiance Trail — to Chapman. In return Harter was to receive 40 apple trees Chapman would plant on the site. In 1835, Harter filed a receipt in the Allen County Recorder’s office confirming receipt of the trees. Samuel C. McCullough, who came to Perry Township around 1835, recalled his father visiting a nursery in Amanda Township planted by “a strange man named Johnny Appleseed.”
Chapman was born 245 years ago, Sept. 26, 1774, at Leominster, Massachusetts. His early years, Means noted, “disappear into the mists.” His father, Nathaniel Chapman, “marched with the Minutemen and fought at Bunker Hill. Elizabeth, his mother, died shortly after delivering her third child, in the summer of 1776,” Means wrote. “Where and with whom John and his older sister, Elizabeth, might have lived until their father returned from service is lost to history, but they are thought to have joined him and his new family in Longmeadow, just south of Springfield, Massachusetts, in about 1781.”
A decade and a half later, Chapman and his half-brother Nathaniel “fetched up on the edge of western Pennsylvania, almost at the close of the century, just as the new American nation north and west of the Ohio River was being born,” Means wrote. “The match of man, moment and opportunity could not have been better.”
Although, Means noted, no one knows for certain where Chapman acquired his skill as an orchardist, the Ohio frontier was “an ideal place to exercise it.” Apples were a vital dietary supplement “whether dried for winter or pressed and fermented into applejack and hard cider …,” he wrote.
Chapman acquired his apple seeds from the cider mills of western Pennsylvania. Douglas Hurt in his 1996 book “The Ohio Frontier” noted that “Many people commonly collected apple seeds from cider presses in order to expand their orchards … Chapman’s trees, of course, were suitable only for cider apples, but that did not matter to his customers.”
From western Pennsylvania, Chapman “had paddled into the Ohio wilderness in the opening years of the 19th century in two lashed-together canoes, a catamaran of his own design, carrying nothing but a few tools and two sacks stuffed with apple seeds,” according to Means. “The land then teemed with danger: wolves, wild boars, and especially black rattlesnakes, known to pioneers as massasaugas.”
Chapman’s first nursery was near Carrolton, a village 22 miles southeast of Canton. “He planted other nurseries along the Muskingum and Licking river valleys. In time his nurseries could be found across central Ohio from Zanesville to Newark to Lake Erie …,” according to Hurt. By the War of 1812, he had pushed into the Lake Erie watershed. “Soon his nurseries grew along the Blanchard, Maumee, Auglaize, and St. Marys rivers in northwestern Ohio,” Hurt added.
At some point in his travels, Chapman became a follower of the New Church, which was based on the writings of Swedish mystic and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who died two years before Chapman was born. Chapman often delivered his beliefs along with his apple seeds. “Through chapters torn from Swedenborg’s books and through his own after-dinner orations, John Chapman — the New Church’s most famous North American disciple — carried those truths to the cabins and shacks of the frontier,” Means wrote, adding that “God alone knows what the settlers who lived there must have made of the message, or the messenger …”
Chapman’s half century of wandering the frontier ended near Fort Wayne, Indiana, in late winter 1845 after the 70-year-old Chapman set out on foot to protect a nursery which had been invaded by cattle. He returned with pneumonia and died March 18, 1845, at the home of a friend named William Worth north of Fort Wayne.
“The deceased was well known through this region by his eccentricity and the strange garb he usually wore,” the Fort Wayne Sentinel wrote on March 22, 1845. “He followed the occupation of a nurseryman and has been a regular visitor here upwards of 20 years.” He’s buried at Fort Wayne.
By the following year, “tales of Johnny Appleseed began to circulate, and within a generation his legend became permanently etched in American folklore,” Hurt noted. “Apart from the Johnny Appleseed mythology and his own remarkable history, John Chapman’s greatest legacy can be seen at apple-blossom time in Ohio.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.