By the time John Chapman died in March 1845, he had already earned a reputation as an eccentric in the central Ohio and Northeastern Indiana communities where he spent most of his adult life. But even those who knew him best knew little about his origins, and some of the basic facts of his life—and even the precise day and location of his death and burial—remained in dispute for a full century. It was only in the years after his death that locally preserved oral traditions began to coalesce into the Johnny Appleseed legend. His debut before a national audience came only in November, 1871, when an essay in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine spread his story to the nation. In subsequent years more stories emerged, some from people who knew him, others invented from whole cloth. The piece below is an excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, recounting the first newspaper report of his death:
In March 1845, John Chapman passed away. The Fort Wayne Sentinel noted that “his death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.” But other accounts tell of him falling ill and finding shelter at the home of William Worth, who cared for him in his last days. According to a witness, he was wearing at the time of his death “a coarse coffee-sack, with a hole cut through the centre through which he passed his head. He had on the waists of four pairs of pants. These were cut off at the forks, ripped up at the sides and fronts thrown away, saving the waistband attached to the hinder part. These hinder parts were buttoned around him, lapping like shingles so as to cover the whole lower part of his body, and over all these were drawn a pair of what was once pantaloons.” This erratic collection of scraps was not enough to protect him from the cold winds that whip across the plains of northeast Indiana. His death was attributed to “the winter plague.”
Chapman’s death warranted more ink in the local Fort Wayne newspaper than that of an immigrant laborer who died the same day. “Dies— In this city on Tuesday last, Mr. Thomas McJanet, a stone-cutter, age 34 years, a native of Ayrshire, Scotland” was the full obituary for Mr. McJanet. Chapman’s notoriety made him worthy of several paragraphs. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that John Chapman “was well known through this region by his eccentricity and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman and has been a regular visitor here upwards of twenty years.” The obituary also indicated that he was a follower of Swedenborg and “he is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself the most common necessities of life.” The paper credited his religious beliefs for this contradiction.
As to other details of his life, the Sentinel could only repeat local speculation and rumor.
He might have been born in Pennsylvania; he might have had family near Cleveland; and most interestingly, “he was not less than eighty years old at the time of his death— though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was sixty.” Chapman was in fact seventy-one. One is left to wonder what aspects of John Chapman’s person made him seem older than he actually was and which made him seem younger. Perhaps his gaunt frame, unkempt hair and beard, ragged clothes, and sun-dried skin were responsible for the editor’s adding a decade to his age, while his physical fitness made him seem younger. Or perhaps it was his disinterest in money and material things and his quaint ideas, about God making rail fences for families in need, that led the editor to conclude he was at least an octogenarian. No one of later generations could possibly be so out of step with the times.
Yet while Chapman’s local notoriety was worthy of several paragraphs in the Fort Wayne newspaper, news of his death did not spread quickly. . . . It was many years before the collection of locally told stories about John Chapman began to coalesce into a coherent story of his life; basic facts about such things as his birthplace and date, and even the date and exact place of his death, remained elusive or contested for a century after his passing.
It took more than a decade to settle John’s estate. The estate records provide a clearer understanding of John Chapman’s financial situation at the time of his death. In northeastern Indiana he held title to four parcels of land, totaling about 175 acres. Three
of these were fully paid for, but he still owed $ 120 in payments and taxes on one forty-two-acre parcel, and the land was valued at about that much. He still held legal title to one of his school lands leases near Mansfield and perhaps one or two other small Ohio properties. And he had property in apple trees. One nursery of two thousand apple trees was assessed at a value of forty dollars, or two cents per tree, and another of fifteen thousand trees, assessed at three cents a tree, deemed to be worth $ 450. In Mercer County, Ohio, an estate administrator was able to sell about 440 of Chapman’s seedling trees for six cents apiece. Yet the true value of seedling trees was fleeting. . . . As it took years to settle Chapman’s estate, the value of any remaining seedlings evaporated. John Chapman also owned at the time of his death “one gray mare,” valued at $ 17.50. Furthermore, Chapman was owed money by several people, presumably unpaid bills for trees from his nursery.
Against these assets were quite a few claims. Chapman’s brother-in-law William Broom claimed $ 127.68 for improvements he had made on one of John’s canal land parcels. This included clearing and fencing four acres of land, “building a Log House 18 by 21 feet,” and “scoring and hewing timber” for a barn. Joseph Hill claimed $ 104 against the estate for periodically providing John with board between 1837 and 1844: fifty-three weeks total, at a rate that was sometimes $ 2, sometimes $ 1.50 per week. Richard Worth claimed $ 7.50 for boarding John for five weeks, spread across five years, and also for the funeral expenses he incurred for laying him out. . . .
When the final settlement was sealed in January 1856, almost eleven years after John’s death, claims against the estate exceeded its total value, and most, but not all claims were paid. John Chapman did not die a wealthy man, but he was not impoverished either. From a dollars and cents perspective, John Chapman “got by,” and that seemed to be exactly what he intended to do.
He picked a very fitting time to pass into the next world. The depression that had followed in the wakes of the panics of 1837 and 1839 had begun to lift by 1843, and two years later Midwestern farmers seemed more enthusiastic than ever about advancing from self-provisioning lifestyles to commercial agriculture. In January 1845, a statewide journal devoted to the advancement of agriculture in Ohio, the Ohio Cultivator, published its first issue, indicating that a critical mass of improvement-minded farmers had established themselves in the state. Also in that year Andrew Jackson Downing published the first edition of his catalog of American orchard fruit, Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. And there were other signs of the changing times.
Just one week after John Chapman’s passing, the Ohio state legislature finally passed a law establishing severe penalties for damaging fruit trees. . . . The political leadership of Ohio had endorsed the idea that apples were not simply God’s providential bounty but a commodity with a measurable market value. By the end of 1846, nineteen Ohio counties had formed agricultural societies to protect the interests of Ohio’s commercial farmers, and in the following years new ones sprung up annually. . . .