The Death of John Chapman

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:

Oldest depiction of John Chapman, drawn from a description probably provided by Rosella Rice.

Oldest depiction of John Chapman, drawn from a description probably provided by Rosella Rice.

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.

Probable grave of John Chapman, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Probable grave of John Chapman, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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

Many of Chapman's seedling trees went unsold, grew too large for transplanting to an orchard, a simply grew wild and unpruned.

Many of Chapman’s seedling trees went unsold, grew too large for transplanting to an orchard, a simply grew wild and unpruned.

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.

Downing's Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, published the year of Chapman's death, catalogued and described commercial varieties of fruit.

Downing’s Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, published the year of Chapman’s death, catalogued and described commercial varieties of fruit.

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. . . .

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard On Sale

johnny appleseed coverAmazon  and Barnes and Noble have both dropped the price of the paperback edition of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard to $22.50.  The Kindle and Nook ebook versions are both priced at $13.75.  Powell’s also has it in stock for $23.25.  You can also shop online from a local independent bookstore through the IndieBound website.  Here’s a brief description from the History Book Club, which sells a book club edition for $17.99:

Most people forget about the legend of Johnny Appleseed after childhood—but the man behind the myth was a significant figure in the agricultural development of early America. In Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, William Kerrigan illuminates John Chapman’s life and reveals the environmental and cultural significance of the plant he propagated. Drawing on oral histories and material from archives and historical societies, he dissects the Appleseed myth, creating an eye-opening new portrait of the eccentric apple tree planter.

Known for his gentleness and self sacrifice, Johnny Appleseed stands apart from quintessentially masculine frontier heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. His apple trees, nonetheless, were a central part of the transformation of the West. Chapman, who planted trees from seed rather than grafting, came under assault from those who promoted commercial fruit stock and were determined to extend national markets into the West. He had taken a side in a culture war that ultimately transformed him into a curious relic of a pre-market era.

Tracing Chapman’s life from seedling planter to national legend, Kerrigan casts new light on the landscape of early America.

Stealing Apples

October 1923 cover of Country Gentleman magazine.

October 1923 cover of Country Gentleman magazine.

While traveling in eastern Pennsylvania in 1819, Englishman William Cobbett commented on the widespread American custom of taking apples from other people’s orchards without seeking permission. While many European travelers to the early American Republic wrote disapprovingly of the common practice of apple-pilfering, and saw it as a reflection of the American’s weak moral constitution, Cobbett concluded that the practice of taking apples from roadside orchards was so widespread that it would never be considered a crime in the United States. In an era when apples were abundant, the labor to pick and process them were in short supply, and primitive roads made getting perishables to distant markets a challenge, fruit frequently rotted on the orchard floor. William Cooper Howells recalled of his boyhood in eastern Ohio in the early 19th century that

William Cooper Howells

William Cooper Howells

there “were plenty of apples in the orchards . . . where they were always free to the passer-by.” Howells recalled that even a one mile trip to the flour mill could “spoil a day’s work” because along the path he would have to pass two orchards, a good fishing creek, and a good swimming hole. Howells was inclined to ask permission of the owner before taking fruit, which was always granted, but many other travelers, both children and adult, never bothered with such niceties. On his own family farm in 1820, “the peach crop was too great for us to manage, and much of it went to waste” despite the valiant efforts of the family to gather and dry as much of the crop as they could. As a result, Americans tended to see orchard fruit as a providential bounty free for the taking when God delivered it up.

From Noah Webster's American Spelling Book.

From Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book.

To be sure, many saw taking fruit without asking to be a sin and bemoaned the prevailing attitude “that every body has a legal right to eat as much fruit as he wants, wherever he can find it.” Essays on the moral instruction of children often used the example of taking apples from orchards without permission as a kind of gateway sin that could lead little boys down the wrong path. Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book used variants of a fable about a boy who stole apples in many editions of the primer. But in most of the cautionary tales about the sin of stealing apples, when the boys learn to ask the owner they were granted permission to take “just as many as you want.”  Even the moralists recognized that orchard fruit in season was in such great abundance that it would be stingy to deny anyone enough fruit to fill their pockets, so long as they asked.

As far as the law was concerned, taking apples from a roadside orchard was a trivial offense–at most an instance of trespass, for which the owner was only entitled to sue for the value of lost fruit, which in any given case would be so small as to not be worth the trouble. But as good roads and canals connected farmers to urban markets, and improvement-minded farmers invested more of their labor and resources into carefully cultivated, grafted fruit orchards with marketable winter apples, they began to perceive the passerby who pilfered a shirttail full of apples in the same light they did the pickpocket. Market-minded farmers grew increasingly frustrated that the law did not agree. As early as 1832, a court case in New York gave horticulturalists some hope that the legal system and the public might begin to take their grievance seriously. The case involved an apple-pilferer who took a farmer to court for assault. The pilferer had been caught in the act by the orchard owner who was holding a horsewhip when he demanded that the thief put down the fruit. When the brazen scoundrel refused, the

Smithers protecting Mr. Burns' orchard from apple-stealers?

Smithers protecting Mr. Burns’ orchard from apple-stealers?

orchard owner took the whip to him. The plaintiff’s lawyer confessed to the jury that he himself had on many occasions taken fruit from other men’s orchards, that no doubt the majority of the jury members had done so as well, and therefore the assault with horsewhip was entirely unwarranted. The jury disagreed and found for the farmer defendant. The story circulated among editors of agricultural journals, who read into the jury’s decision “the pleasing hope that we were on the eve of a revolution in regard to the plundering of fruit, and that a great improvement in public sentiment is taking place on this subject.”

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

The revolution did not occur overnight, but as farmers began organizing state agricultural societies, they began to lobby state legislatures to pass laws that treated apple-pilfering as a crime beyond mere trespass and imposed penalties far beyond the value of the product stolen. Eastern states, where farmers were earlier connected to urban markets, led the way. But Midwestern state soon followed. Ohio, the state where John “Appleseed” Chapman planted most of his seedling stock, passed a law stiffening penalties on apple-pilferers just one week after his death. The movement to criminalize apple-pilfering was at base a movement to press Americans to begin to recognize fruit-raising as a legitimate industry and fruit as a valuable form of property, worthy of the same protections extended to livestock and manufactured goods. It was also an effort to exterminate the old self-provisioning culture that John Chapman’s seedling apple trees represented.

Non-Fiction History and Historical Fiction

An interesting post on The American Scholar blog today by Paula Marantz Cohen, discussing the ways historical fiction can influence our understanding of the past.  “If you read Shakespeare’s histories,” Cohen contends,  “you will remember English history better than if you’d read an ostensibly objective account, but you’ll do so in a particular way.”  Of course, writers of historical fiction are free to changes the facts of the past in order to serve the narrative.  One of the challenges for the reader is the reality, as Cohen puts it, that “the vivid representation holds sway,” regardless of whether it is fully grounded in evidence.

johnny-appleseed_disney albumIn researching, writing and speaking about John Chapman, the man whose life formed the basis of the Johnny Appleseed myth, I regularly confronted the reality that a good story, well-told, had tremendous persuasive power, and could cause even a diligent historian to abandon a search for objective truth.  The vast majority of books published on Johnny Appleseed are works of fiction, but more than a few of them were started by writers intending to write non-fiction histories.  Part of this is the result of the draw of the good story, but another aspect is that most people leave incomplete traces in the historical record, and the temptation to “fill in” the blank spots can be hard to resist. Cohen notes that “The enticement of historical fiction is ultimately that it smooths out the inconsistencies in the past and fills in the unknown.”  Cohen, a distinguished professor of English at Drexel, is the author of both scholarly works and historical fiction.  In writing, What Alice Knew a work of historical fiction set in Jack the Ripper’s London, she confesses jack-the-ripper-5that in the process of writing, some facts that she was aware she had made up to serve her narrative,  became so alluring that “[she]  found [herself] drawn to believe [her] own fabrications.” The entire piece, titled “Based on a True Story,”  can be found on the American Scholar blog, and is worth a read.

So what do you think?  What are the hazards and opportunities historical fiction presents to the writer of non-fiction?

“The Invention of Johnny Appleseed” now available online

Fall 2012 issue of the Antioch Review.

Fall 2012 issue of the Antioch Review.

“The Invention of Johnny Appleseed” first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Antioch Review.  It is excerpted from the final chapter of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which is available at finer bookstores and at a number of online sellers, including:

Powell’s Books

Harvard Bookstore

Elliott Bay Book Company


Barnes and Noble

It is also available in ebook form:



Sony Reader

My interview with the New Books In Food Network

A few weeks ago, I connected with Eric Lemay of the New Books Network and recorded this interview about my new book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchardwhich is now out in ebook form (Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader) as well as hardcover and paperback.

Below is Eric’s introduction to the interview, which is about one hour long.

Not many of us, not even the most ardent foodies, think of the crab apple as a fruit worth eating, Imagemuch less extolling, but Henry David Thoreau saw something like the American pioneer spirit in this hard, gnarled, sour hunk of fruit.  In his essay “Wild Apples,” he celebrates the apple because it “emulates man’s independence and enterprise.”  Like America’s first settlers, he goes on, “it has migrated to this New World, and is even, here and there, making its way amid the aboriginal trees.”  He claims that “[e]ven the sourest and crabbedest apple, growing in the most unfavorable position, suggests such thoughts as these, it is so noble a fruit.”

William Kerrigan quotes from this passage at the start of his fascinating book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) and he shows us the man behind the myth, a man very different from the one we might expect, but a man who nonetheless seems like the real-world embodiment of Thoreau’s thoughts on the apple.  Born in 1774, John Chapman is the planter who would eventually become Johnny Appleseed.  Kerrigan not only tells us the story of his life and afterlife, but also the story of the American apple, which begins, surprisingly enough, in Kazakhstan and goes on to our moment of genetically modified fruits and heritage varietals.

At the center of this story, Kerrigan shows us the journey of an unusual American for his time and then the creation of an unusual—and perhaps timeless—American myth.

John Chapman, Lydia Maria Child, and the Frugal Life

John Chapman, Lydia Maria Child, and the Frugal Life 

One of the many Johnny Appleseed stories preserved in central Ohio communities

A slop pail. Standard household equipment in the pre-disposal days.

was of the day a farm woman opened her front door to find John Chapman fishing scraps of stale bread out of a slop pail that she intended for her hogs.  The woman was startled enough by the scene, but startled still more by John Chapman’s reaction to her discovery: he scolded her for wasting food perfectly suitable for human consumption on swine.

John Chapman’s radical commitment to the frugal life was the subject of many stories told about him.  His primitive dress, constructed primarily of the castoffs of others, and his insistence on the meanest of diets suggest that he took Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6:25, quite literally: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?”

Historians often refer to the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War as the era of the “market revolution.”  During these years, advances in transportation technology—good roads, canals, steamboats, and eventually railroads—gave Americans greater access to material goods.  The change in lifestyle was nowhere more dramatic than in the trans-Appalachian west, where communities moved rapidly from isolated frontier outposts to middle-class communities deeply integrated into a national economy.  While most embraced this revolution, like all change it also fostered some ambivalent reactions.  In particular, some saw the new material prosperity as a threat to personal piety, and the new rules of economic exchange as a threat to traditional notions of community.

It is worth considering whether John Chapman’s continued commitment to a life of austerity when material comfort was within reach was his personal reaction to the changes the market revolution had brought.  If so, he was not alone. In eastern cities, small numbers of committed middle-class reformers embraced “retrenchment,” and replaced their fine furniture with simple wooden tables, and their fancy silverware with more primitive utensils.   Perhaps no greater symbol of ambivalence to the new

Lydia Maria Child

materialism was the popularity of Lydia Maria Child’s best-selling book, The American Frugal Housewife.   First published in 1829, Frugal Housewife was an early American best-seller, in its 33rd edition by 1855.  Sub-titled “for those who are not ashamed of economy,” Child’s advice manual offered American women countless practical tips for getting by with less.In fact a piece of advice that Child offers in the preface of that book is curiously similar to the advice John Chapman gave to the startled farm wife:  “Look frequently to the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs which should have been in the grease-pot,” Child admonished her readers, and “look to the grease-pot, and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.”

In her obsession for keeping and finding uses for every candle stub and even the smallest scraps of fabric and twine, Child was a kindred soul to Chapman.  For Child, as for Chapman, frugality was religion and had the power to improve the world. “True Economy,” Child declared, “is a careful treasurer in the service of benevolence; and where they are united respectability, prosperity, and peace will follow.” Similarly, John Chapman’s own frugality allowed him to be more charitable, giving away not just his own worn out shoes to a barefoot family, but also cash he earned selling apple-seedlings and had saved by sleeping rough rather than paying for board.

Both Child and Chapman were products of the market revolution era, and each in their own way offered some resistance to it; Child through her advice manual, and Chapman through his lifestyle.  It is no accident that the vast majority of Johnny Appleseed stories that come down to us are about his later years, when John Chapman, the primitive Christian, found himself living in a world transformed by markets. It was only then that his radically anti-materialistic lifestyle truly stood out.  John Chapman’s increasingly middle-class neighbors appear to have found his lifestyle eccentric but also charmingly quaint.  While they had little desire

Acquiring this popular bumper sticker is perhaps the twenty-first century equivalent of buying a book on household economy.

to follow his example, they nonetheless harbored a nostalgia for simpler times, and worried about what values had been lost with the passing of the frontier.  By retelling stories about Johnny Appleseed, they were, in a sense, trying to honor those pre-market values.  They also honored them in a curiously modern way: by heading to the nearest dry goods store to purchase a copy of Ms. Child’s best-selling book.  By doing so, they hoped to demonstrate that despite their new material comfort, they were “not ashamed of economy.”

“The Invention of Johnny Appleseed” in the Antioch Review


Fall 2012 Issue of the Antioch Review

The Fall 2012 issue of the Antioch Review, “Johnny Appleseed and Other Legacies,” features a range of excellent non-fiction and fiction essays and poetry, including my essay, “The Invention of Johnny Appleseed.”  The essay, which is excerpted from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, examines how Americans of different generations found new meanings in the story of the wandering apple tree planter.

Who would Johnny Appleseed Vote For?

Who would Johnny Appleseed vote for?

There is nothing more American than a Presidential political campaign.  Every four years Americans who love their country pontificate, cajole, and argue with their neighbors about which candidate will not destroy the republic, and watch televised political debates with the same level of intensity they bring to annual Super Bowl parties.  And when Election Day passes, their momentary feeling of glee or despondency quickly fades into battle fatigue.  So if I am going to go out on a limb and speculate on Johnny Appleseed’s political perspective, I’d better do it today, as in two weeks absolutely no one will want to read this post.

If cable television and the internet exist in heaven, perhaps Johnny Appleseed is watching right now and choosing sides.  Does he identify with Mitt Romney, who, like him, was a missionary for a Christian sect operating on the periphery of mainstream Christianity?  Or does he relate more to Barack Obama, who also spent much of his childhood with an absent father and in a financially unstable household?

When I teach the politics of early America to my U.S. History classes, I have to caution my students to not conflate the political parties of the past with our current ones.  The issues that divided the Republican and Democratic parties of the 1850s, for example, are quite different from the concerns of voters in 2012, and neither of the two parties today much resemble their 1850s counterparts.  Did John Chapman even vote? No voting lists with John Chapman’s name on them survive, but one early Knox County, Ohio historian claimed that he was one of the fifteen voters to take part in Owl Creek’s first local election.  But my question is posed playfully.  We do not know, for certain, whether John Chapman preferred the Federalist Party or the Democratic-Republican Party in 1810, or if he was inclined to support William Henry Harrison’s “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign over Democrat Martin Van Buren’s in 1840.

We can’t say anything with certainty about John Chapman’s political perspective, but we do know much more about the politics of those who have celebrated and retold his story over the years.  John Chapman may not have revealed to us whether he was a Harrison or Van Buren man, but in the one hundred and sixty-seven years since his death, his life and legend have been celebrated by both progressives and conservatives.

In the first one hundred years after his death, the Johnny Appleseed legend appeared to have its greatest appeal to political and social progressives and radicals.  W.D.

The November 1871 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine which introduced the Johnny Appleseed story to a national audience.

Haley, the Unitarian minister-turned-journalist who first brought John Chapman’s story to a national audience in an 1871 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine essay was a leader in the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Grange movement.  The Grange movement was the farmer’s response to the economic crisis they faced as a result of industrialization and the rise of monopoly power.  Grange members formed cooperatives to bolster the price of their produce, lobbied for regulation of the railroads, and the establishment of Rural Free Delivery of the mail.  “Faith, Hope, Charity, and Fidelity” was their motto, and they encouraged their members to “buy less and produce more.”  Haley saw Johnny Appleseed as a patron saint of the farmer frontier.

While the politics of the Grange were moderately progressive, the politics of Johnny Appleseed’s next great champion were quite radical for their day.  Lydia Maria Child was a feminist, anti-imperialist, and advocate of the rights of Native Americans.  She was also a prolific writer, and her book American Frugal Housewife was a best seller in the mid 19th century.  For poetry, she is most remembered for her Thanksgiving poem “Over the River and Through the Woods,” but she took on the subject of “Appleseed-John” in 1880.  She found in Johnny Appleseed a kindred soul, one who prized frugality, charity, and concern for the well-being of the most marginalized people in society as much as she did.

In the twentieth century, the people’s poet Vachel Lindsay celebrated John Chapman’s life in a series of poems. Lindsay at times appeared to aspire to be a twentieth-century version of Johnny Appleseed. He set off on several “tramping expeditions” across the nation with little money in his pocket, eager to meet ordinary Americans, and swap poems for food and shelter. Traveling across the nation, he gave recitals of his poetry in a frantic, populist style he called “High Vaudeville,” and many of his poems were choreographed and performed as dance. Lindsay combined a deep patriotism with a concern for the poor and dispossessed. He voted the socialist ticket, embraced pacifism, and had utopian dreams for his nation.  His best poem about the tree planter, “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed,” is the subject of another entry in this blog.

Perhaps the most radical champion of Johnny Appleseed was American Communist Party member Howard Fast, who made Chapman the hero of his first young adult novel, The Tall Hunter, in 1943.  After WWII, Fast became a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was imprisoned for three months for refusing to divulge the names of persons who had contributed money to a orphanage for the children of American anti-fascist veterans of the Spanish Civil War.  Blacklisted for years, many of Fast’s patriotic historical novels are now staples in American schools.

During the Cold War era, more conservative representations of John Chapman emerged.  When the Walt Disney Corporation made a cartoon of John Chapman’s life in the 1948 film Melody Time, they emphasized Chapman’s faith in God and the power of the individual to make a difference in the world.  In the Disney version, Chapman carried a Bible with him at all times, and no mention was made of the tracts of the New Church—a Christian sect deemed outside the mainstream of American Christianity—which he distributed freely as he traveled.

By the 1980s it became increasingly common to hear John Chapman described as an entrepreneur and successful businessman.  A writer for the American Fruit Grower rejected the idea that John Chapman ever gave away his products for free, but instead sold them at their market price.  “Johnny Appleseed was an entrepreneur, the kind of small businessman so much a part of the building of America,” the writer declared, “who conceived and executed a daring enterprise of growing and selling apple tree seedlings.”

With the end of the Cold War, Johnny Appleseed seems to have become a figure with champions on both the left and right.  Many Christians celebrate his deep faith and piety.  Children in Christian schools often recite the Johnny Appleseed Grace. Conservative champions continue to portray Chapman as a “successful businessman” who amassed a fair amount of wealth during his lifetime. (Chapman’s relative wealth or poverty at the time of his death will be the subject of a future blog post.)

But Johnny Appleseed has also been celebrated by the sustainable agriculture movement, by vegetarians and environmentalists, and others who are ambivalent about the march of global capitalism and the rise of big agriculture.

Finally, in his best-selling book Botany of Desire (2001) Michael Pollan presents John Chapman as a social subversive, bringing alcohol in the form of hard cider to otherwise “dry” frontier communities.  Pollan declared Johnny Appleseed to be “Dionysus’s American son,” and “a figure of the fluid margins, slipping back and forth between the realms of wildness and civilization, man and woman, man and god, man and beast.”

Americans of various political and social orientations have found in Johnny Appleseed’s story elements to celebrate and honor.  And I suspect future generations will take other lessons from his life.  Were John Chapman to descend from the sky tomorrow, would he be more comfortable in the crowd at an Occupy rally, or at Christian religious revival?  My hunch is that he’d be delighted to attend both.

Vachel Lindsay, Johnny Appleseed Poet

A Kindred Spirit

Of the many artists and poets who have celebrated the life of John Chapman, Vachel Lindsay is perhaps my favorite. Lindsay at times appeared to aspire to be a twentieth-century version of Johnny Appleseed. He set off on several “tramping expeditions” across the nation with little money in his pocket, eager to meet ordinary Americans, and swap poems for food and shelter. Lindsay combined a deep patriotism with a concern for the poor and dispossessed. He voted the socialist ticket, embraced pacifism, and had utopian dreams for his nation. 

Traveling across the nation, he gave recitals of his poetry in a frantic, populist style he called “High Vaudeville,” and many of his poems were choreographed and danced. Although there are some surviving recordings of Vachel Lindsay performing his poetry, I am not aware of any recordings of his performance of “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed.” Lindsay cared deeply about how his poems were read, and sometimes offered his readers puzzling instructions on how to read them.  In the introduction to his Collected Works, Lindsay instructed: “All my verses marked to read aloud should be whispered, however contradictory that may seem.  All poetry is, first and last, for the inner ear, and its final pleasures are for the soul, whispering in solitude.”  I confess to taking this advice literally.  But when I read “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed,” the whisper that leaves my lips is a glorious shouting in my head.  One last note:  Vachel Lindsay included italicized instructions on how to hear this poem along the margins of the text.  I have included these odd little instructions in brackets and italics, as close to their location in the original printing as I could.   

Vachel Lindsay on a tramping expedition. He often swapped poems for food and a place to sleep..

In Praise of Johnny Appleseed

I.              Over the Appalachian Barricade

[To be read like old leaves on the elm tree of Time, Sifting soft winds with sentence and rhyme.]

 In the days of President Washington,

The glory of the nations,

Dust and ashes,

Snow and sleet,

And hay and oats and wheat,

Blew west,

Crossed the Appalachians,

Found the glades of rotting leaves, the soft deer-pastures,

The farms of the far-off future

In the forest.

Colts jumped the fence,

Snorting, ramping, snapping, sniffing,

With gastronomic calculations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

The east walls of our citadel,

And turned to gold-horned unicorns,

Feasting in the dim, volunteer farms of the forest.

Painting of Vachel Lindsay by artist Ted Keylon.

Stripedest, kickingest kittens escaped,

Caterwauling “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Renounced their poor relations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to tiny tigers

In the humorous forest.

Chickens escaped

From farmyard congregations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to amber trumpets

On the ramparts of our Hoosiers’ nest and citadel,

Millennial heralds

Of the foggy mazy forest.

Pigs broke loose, scrambled west,

Scorned their loathsome stations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

Turned to roaming, foaming wild boars

Of the forest.

The smallest, blindest puppies toddled west

Lindsay gesturing dramatically during a reading.

While their eyes were coming open,

And, with misty observations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

Barked, barked, barked

At the glow-worms and the marsh lights and the lightning-bugs,

And turned to ravening wolves

Of the forest.

Crazy parrots and canaries flew west,

Drunk on May-time revelations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to delirious, flower-dressed fairies

Of the lazy forest.

Haughtiest swans and peacocks swept west,

And, despite soft derivations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to blazing warrior souls

Of the forest,

Singing the ways

Of the Ancient of Days.

And the “Old Continentals

In their ragged regimentals,”

With bard’s imaginations,

Crossed the Appalachians.


A boy

Blew west,

And with prayers and incantations,

And with “Yankee Doodle Dandy,”

Vachel Lindsay

Crossed the Appalachians,

And was “young John Chapman,”


“Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,”

Chief of the fastnesses, dappled and vast,

In a pack on his back,

In a deer-hide sack,

The beautiful orchards of the past,

The ghosts of all the forests and the groves—

In that pack on his back,

In that talisman sack,

To-morrow’s peaches, pears, and cherries,

To-morrow’s grapes and red raspberries,

Seeds and tree-souls, precious things,

Feathered with microscopic wings,

All the outdoors the child heart knows,

And the apple, green, red, and white,

Sun of his day and his night—

The apple allied to the thorn,

Child of the rose.

Porches untrod of forest houses

All before him, all day long,

“Yankee Doodle” his marching song;

And the evening breeze

Joined his psalms of praise

As he sang the ways

Of the Ancient of Days.

Leaving behind august Virginia,

Proud Massachusetts, and proud Maine,

Planting the trees that would march and train

On, in his name to the great Pacific,

Like Birnam wood to Dunsinane,

Johnny Appleseed swept on,

Every shackle gone,

Loving every sloshy brake,

Loving every skunk and snake,

Loving every leathery weed,

Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,

Master and ruler of the unicorn-ramping forest,

The tiger-mewing forest,

The rooster-trumpeting, boar-foaming, wolf-ravening forest,

The spirit-haunted, fairy-enchanted forest,

Stupendous and endless,

Searching its perilous ways

In the name of the Ancient of Days.

II. The Indians Worship Him, but He Hurries On

Painted kings in the midst of the clearing

Heard him asking his friends the eagles

To guard each planted seed and seedling.

Then he was a god, to the red man’s dreaming;

Then the chiefs brought treasures grotesque and fair,—

Magical trinkets and pipes and guns,

Beads and furs from their medicine-lair,—

Stuck holy feathers in his hair.

Hailed him with austere delight.

The orchard god was their guest through the night.

While the late snow blew from bleak Lake Erie,

Scourging rock and river and reed,

All night long they made great medicine

For Jonathan Chapman,

Johnny Appleseed,

Johnny Appleseed;

And as though his heart were a wind-blown wheat-sheaf,

As though his heart were a new built nest,

As though their heaven house were his breast,

In swept the snowbirds singing glory.

And I hear his bird heart beat its story,

Hear yet how the ghost of the forest shivers,

Hear yet the cry of the gray, old orchards,Bound volume of "In Praise of Johnny Appleseed"

Dim and decaying by the rivers,

And the timid wings of the bird-ghosts beating,

And the ghosts of the tom-toms beating, beating.

 [While you read, hear the hoof-beats of deer in the snow. And see, by their track, bleeding footprints we know.]

 But he left their wigwams and their love.

By the hour of dawn he was proud and stark,

Kissed the Indian babes with a sigh,

Went forth to live on roots and bark,

Sleep in the trees, while the years howled by.

Calling the catamounts by name,

And buffalo bulls no hand could tame.

Slaying never a living creature,

Joining the birds in every game,

With the gorgeous turkey gobblers mocking,

With the lean-necked eagles boxing and shouting;

Sticking their feathers in his hair,—

Turkey feathers,

Eagle feathers,

Trading hearts with all beasts and weathers

He swept on, winged and wonder-crested,

Bare-armed, barefooted, and bare-breasted.

 [While you read, see conventions of deer go by. The bucks toss their horns, the fuzzy fawns fly.]

 The maples, shedding their spinning seeds,

Called to his appleseeds in the ground,

Vast chestnut-trees, with their butterfly nations,

Called to his seeds without a sound.

And the chipmunk turned a “summerset.”

And the foxes danced the Virginia reel;

Hawthorne and crab-thorn bent, rain-wet,

And dropped their flowers in his night-black hair;

And the soft fawns stopped for his perorations;

And his black eyes shone through the forest-gleam,

And he plunged young hands into new-turned earth,

And prayed dear orchard boughs into birth;

And he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream,

And he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream,

And he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream.

And so for us he made great medicine,

And so for us he made great medicine,

And so for us he made great medicine,

In the days of President Washington.

  1. III.        Johnny Appleseed’s Old Age

[To be read like faint hoof-beats of fawns long gone From respectable pasture, and park and lawn, And heartbeats of fawns that are coming again When the forest, once more, is the master of men.]


Long, long after,

When settlers put up beam and rafter,

They asked of the birds: “Who gave this fruit?

Who watched this fence till the seeds took root?

Who gave these boughs?” They asked the sky,

And there was no reply.

But the robin might have said,

“To the farthest West he has followed the sun,

His life and his empire just begun.”

Self-scourged, like a monk, with a throne for wages,

Stripped, like the iron-souled Hindu sages,

Draped like a statue, in strings like a scarecrow,

His helmet-hat an old tin pan,

But worn in the love of the heart of man,

More sane than the helm of Tamerlane!

Hairy Ainu, wild man of Borneo, Robinson Crusoe—Johnny Appleseed!

And the robin might have said,

“Sowing, he goes to the far, new West,

With the apple, the sun of his burning breast—

The apple allied to the thorn,

Child of the rose.”

Washington buried in Virginia,

Jackson buried in Tennessee,

Young Lincoln, brooding in Illinois,

And Johnny Appleseed, priestly and free,

Knotted and gnarled, past seventy years,

Still planted on in the woods alone.

Ohio and young Indiana—

These were his wide altar-stone,

Where still he burnt out flesh and bone.

Twenty days ahead of the Indian, twenty years ahead of the white man,

At last the Indian overtook him, at last the Indian hurried past him;

At last the white man overtook him, at last the white man hurried past him;

At last his own trees overtook him, at last his own trees hurried past him.

Many cats were tame again,

Many ponies tame again,

Many pigs were tame again,

Many canaries tame again;

And the real frontier was his sunburnt breast.

From the fiery core of that apple, the earth,

Sprang apple-amaranths divine.

Love’s orchards climbed to the heavens of the West.

And snowed the earthly sod with flowers.

Farm hands from the terraces of the blest

Danced on the mists with their ladies fine;

And Johnny Appleseed laughed with his dreams,

And swam once more the ice-cold streams.

And the doves of the spirit swept through the hours,

With doom-calls, love-calls, death-calls, dream-calls;

And Johnny Appleseed, all that year,

Lifted his hands to the farm-filled sky,

To the apple-harvesters busy on high;

And so once more his youth began,

And so for us he made great medicine—

Johnny Appleseed, medicine-man.


The sun was turned –up broken barrel,

Out of which their juicy apples rolled,

Down the repeated terraces,

Thumping across the gold,

An angel in each apple that touched the forest mold,

A ballot-box in each apple,

A state capital in each apple,

Great high schools, great colleges,

All America in each apple,

Each red, rich, round, and bouncing moon

That touched the forest mold.

Like scrolls and rolled-up flags of silk,

He saw the fruits unfold,

And all our expectations in one wild-flower written dream.

Confusion, and death-sweetness, and a thicket of crab-thorns!

Heart of a hundred midnights, heart of the merciful morns.

Heaven’s boughs bent down with their alchemy,

Perfumed airs, and thoughts of wonder.

And the dew on the grass and his own cold tears

Were one in brooding mystery,

Though death’s loud thunder came upon him,

Though death’s loud thunder struck him down—

The boughs and the proud thoughts swept through the thunder,

Till he saw our wide nation, each State a flower,

Each petal a park for holy feet,

With wild fawns merry on every street,

With wild fawns merry on every street,

The vista of ten thousand years, flower-lighted and complete.

Hear the lazy weeds murmuring, bays and rivers whispering,

From Michigan to Texas, California to Maine;

Listen to the eagles screaming, calling,

“Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,”

There by the doors of old Fort Wayne.

In the four-poster bed Johnny Appleseed built,

Autumn rains were the curtains, autumn leaves were the quilt.

He laid him down sweetly, and slept through the night,

Like a stone washed white,

There by the doors of old Fort Wayne