The story of Johnny Appleseed is part of the American national origin story, in which white male American heroes conquer and domesticate a wild and uncivilized content. Johnny Appleseed shares the stage in this drama with a host of other frontier characters. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone dispatched dangerous animals and hostile Indians, Mike Fink made the interior waterways safe for commerce, the thoroughly fictional Paul Bunyan felled the forests with his axe, and Johnny Appleseed provided a source of sustenance to the frontier families who followed in the form of apple trees. Yet the meek and charitable Johnny Appleseed has always fit uneasily in this company. This is in large part because the legends built around Boone, Crockett and Fink were born in the Jacksonian age, which celebrated masculine aggression; the Johnny Appleseed legend emerged in a Victorian era, where feminine virtues were ascendant.
Perhaps no person had a greater influence in turning John Chapman’s life
into legend that Rosella Rice. Born in Perrysville, Ohio in 1827, Rice had personal memories of Chapman’s visits to her family home when she was a child. In adulthood, Rosella Rice built a career writing fiction for women’s magazines, like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Arthur’s, sometimes under her own name and also under the pseudonyms Chatty Brooks and Pipsissaway Potts. Along the way, she also wrote down her recollections of the wandering apple tree planter, and collected other stories about him from friends and neighbors. She provided material on Chapman for several of the early county histories published in central Ohio and a sketch of Chapman for another local writer, James M’Gaw, and was almost certainly one of the primary sources for W.D Haley, who wrote a piece on Johnny Appleseed for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1871. In 1876, she published her own account of Johnny Appleseed’s story in Arthur’s Magazine.
Rice’s depiction of the wandering apple tree planter was thoroughly Victorian and even hagiographic. “His bruised and bleeding feet now walk the gold-paved streets of the New Jerusalem,” Rice proclaimed, “while we so brokenly and crudely narrate the sketch of his life— a life full of labor and pain and unselfishness; humble unto self-abnegation; his memory glowing in our hearts, while his deeds live anew every springtime in the fragrance of the apple-blossoms he loved so well.”
Rice claimed that virtually every “orchard in the white settlements came from nurseries of Johnny’s planting,” and described his makeshift and shabby seedling nurseries as shrines of natural beauty. Rice claimed that she knew where many of these nurseries were and insisted that Chapman planted his trees in natural temples, framed by the sweeping arches of giant sycamores— hardly a practical location for raising sun-hungry seedling trees.
She also depicted Chapman as a man attuned to feminine sensibilities. According to Rice he “liked women better than men. He seemed feminine in many of his attributes, and in his likes and dislikes he was decidedly womanish.” When Chapman arrived at a pioneer home, Rosella recalled, he seemed instantly attracted to the company of women and eager to learn about the development of each child since his last appearance.
For W. D. Haley, the writer who first brought Chapman’s story to a
national stage, Johnny Appleseed’s story was clearly a tonic for the usual violent and vulgar frontier fare. He had no interest in the “rapine and atrocity” of the frontier experience celebrated in so many “dime store novels.” With Johnny Appleseed’s story he sought to celebrate “sublimer heroisms than those of human torture, and nobler victories than those of the tomahawk and scalping-knife.
A few years later, Lydia Maria Child, another American writer of a reformist bent would publish a poem of Chapman’s life, titled “Apple-seed John.” By that point, the trajectory of the Appleseed legend had been fixed, and while later writers would add elements to the story, Johnny Appleseed would always serve as a counter-weight to the legends which situated the nation’s birth in violence and aggression.
The life and writings of Rosella Rice have largely been forgotten, but one resident of her hometown has been working to bring them to a broader audience. To learn more about Rice, and to read some of her writings, visit Peggy Mershon’s website, Rosella Rice–Her Stories.