John Chapman: St. Francis . . . or Steve Jobs?


John “Appleseed” Chapman:

steve_jobs.w.applesaint_francis_of_assisi.bird.cross

Saint Francis . . . . . . . or Steve Jobs?

The legend of Johnny Appleseed has been retold to generations of children.  The wandering apple tree planter is held up to young people as a force for good in the world.  In most of the children’s literature John Chapman most resembles St. Francis of Assisi—a generous soul who committed himself to a life of poverty in order that he could do good for others.  In the story of Johnny Appleseed, bringing the gift of the apple tree to poor frontier families is the focus of his benevolence.  When I give talks at local historical societies and libraries, many in the audience are often unsettled when I mention that he sold his seedling apple trees.  That John Chapman may have earned cash from his activities upsets their image of him as a man whose mission was one of pure benevolence.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, as local historians began a serious effort to find evidence that John Chapman had spent time in their communities they began unearthing evidence in an unexpected place: land records offices.  John Chapman, it appears not only sold his trees for money, but he bought and sold land, amassing, at times, as many as 800 acres or more.  For some champions of the Johnny Appleseed legend, evidence that their hero sold apple trees and speculated in land was quite troubling, as it appeared to undermine their view that he was a man absent of personal material desire.  But other Johnny Appleseed aficionados embraced this new information, and in a post-WWII era when the reputation of the American businessman was ascendant, they began to promote a

Was John Chapman kinda like this man . . .

Was John Chapman kinda like this man . . .

vision of John Chapman as a successful businessman.  One writer during the Reagan era even declared that “Johnny Appleseed was an entrepreneur—the kind of small businessman so much a part of the building of America—who conceived and executed a unique and daring enterprise of growing and selling apple tree seedlings . . . One of the key ingredients of business success is a sound understanding of the nature of the market served. Johnny Appleseed seemed to have comprehended his market exactly.” In his efforts to portray John Chapman as a true capitalist, the writer denied  that Chapman ever gave away his products for free, despite much evidence to the contrary. “He deliberately, and in a business-like way sold the seedlings to pioneer farmers,” this champion of the Johnny Appleseed-as-businessman idea insisted.  Others who have subscribed to the Johnny Appleseed-as-businessman idea have exaggerated the extent of his accumulated wealth at the end of his life.

There are many problems with the Johnny Appleseed-as-successful-businessman

 . . . or more like this woman?

. . . or more like this woman?

idea, and the first of these is that a close look at his economic transactions suggests that he was a poor land speculator.  He often bought high and sold low, or defaulted on land entirely when he could not make payments.  When his estate was finally settled after his death, it appeared that he was neither rich nor poor, but someone who simply “got by.” His credits and debits pretty much cancelled each other out in the final reckoning.  But the larger problem is that it is clear that for at least the last two decades of his life amassing wealth was not John Chapman’s objective.  He continued to live the life of a pauper, despite the demand for his trees, and spent nearly all of the money he earned helping others.  While it is true that he put a price on his trees, he commonly followed a “pay what you can” model, charging full price to those who could afford it, and discounting or even giving away trees to those in tighter financial straits.

Perhaps a better label to apply to John Chapman is that of “social entrepreneur.”  The idea of the social entrepreneur has gained recognition in recent decades, yet still remains imperfectly defined.  Most commonly it is used to describe persons or

Rocker Jon Bon Jovi opened Soul Kitchen, a "Pay What You Can" restaurant.

Rocker Jon Bon Jovi opened Soul Kitchen, a “Pay What You Can” restaurant.

organizations that employ their entrepreneurial skills to affect positive social change rather than to maximize profits.  Company’s like Newman’s Own, founded by the late actor Paul Newman, that devote 100% of their profits to charitable causes is one example; the website Kiva.org, which allows individuals to extend no-interest loans to entrepreneurs in impoverished regions is another. Chapman fits this broad definition of social entrepreneur pretty well.  He recognized the demand for seedling apple trees on the expanding frontier, and found a way to fill it.  By making them available to settlers using a pay-what-you-can model, he improved the lives of frontier families.  And most of the money he made off this venture he re-invested in people, purchasing religious tracts which he distributed freely on the frontier, and giving money and goods to those he encountered who had pressing needs.

To learn more, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchardnow available at finer bookstores, from the History Book Club, and in Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader editions.

Was Johnny Appleseed a Barefoot Vegetarian?


Was Johnny Appleseed a Barefoot Vegetarian?

While researching my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, I sifted through mountains of oral traditions and tall tales about the legendary apple tree planter.  What proved to be more difficult to find were concrete traces of the real John Chapman preserved in the historical record.  Some of the more useful sources of information about Chapman were Dry Goods Store ledgers in some of the communities where he resided.  But I was certainly caught by surprise with a discovery I made at the Crawford County Historical Society in Meadville, Pennsylvania.  There, in a Holland Land Company store ledger from the 1790s, I found this list of items purchased by John Chapman: brandy, whiskey, sugar, chocolate, tobacco, three pairs of “mockasins,” gunpowder, and pork.

In the popular legend Johnny Appleseed carried no gun, went barefoot everywhere, was loathe to harm any living creature, was a vegetarian, and is sometimes described as a teetotaler.  These brief entries in the Holland Land Company records appeared to upend those legends.  In fact the Holland Land company store ledger isn’t the only story that suggests John sometimes carried a gun. A story from Warren, Pennsylvania describing his first crossing of the Alleghenies also has him fitted out with a rifle.  And one of the central Ohio stories recounting Chapman’s time there during the War of 1812 has John responding to suspicious gunfire by grabbing his own rifle to investigate, and returning later with a venison ham given to him by the deer-hunting neighbor responsible for the first shot.

Nevertheless, many people who knew John Chapman in his later years recounted his extreme aversion to harming any living creature, and asserted that his diet was vegetarian.  In all likelihood, Chapman adopted a vegetarian diet later in life.  If he did, he may have been among the nation’s first advocates of the vegetarian diet.  In the early 1820s, when John Chapman was in his

The Reverend William Metcalfe, leader of the Philadelphia Bible Christians, one of the earliest advocates of vegetarianism in the new nation.

mid forties, what was perhaps the first vegetarian community was established in Philadelphia.  The Reverend William Metcalfe and his followers, calling themselves the Bible Christians, shared with John Chapman an interest in the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. .  Metcalfe’s conversion to vegetarianism was at least in part a response to Swedenborg’s description of meat-eating as a dramatic sign of man’s fall. By the end of the 1820s, vegetarianism had found other American advocates as well, including Sylvester W. Graham, promoter of the Graham diet, and Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott.  All three of these early American advocates of vegetarianism argued for it on both spiritual and scientific grounds.

As for those moccasins, Chapman’s aversion to footwear is recounted in many sources that span his adult life.  But there are also surviving stories which recount that in times of very severe weather, he might be seen wearing the ragged, discarded boots of others. But even these he would give to others who in his mind needed them more than he did.  The three pairs of moccasins he acquired at the Holland Land Company Store in 1797, he may have purchased because they would be easy to carry, and might be traded for other things he needed, or be given to others in need.  And what should we make of the brandy and whiskey John Chapman purchased?  John Dawson, who knew Chapman in his later years recalled that he “was generally regarded as a temperate man . . . but occasionally he would take a dram of spirits to keep himself a little warm, as he said.”   That John Chapman was not a fiery prohibitionist should come as no surprise.  Many of the apples from the seedling trees John Chapman planted found their way to the cider mill, where they were converted to cider, both hard and sweet, and some then into cider brandy.  But that is a subject worthy of a future post.