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.

Disney’s Johnny Appleseed


Johnny Appleseed's Bible features prominently in the Disney version of the story, from the 1948 animated feature Melody Time.

Johnny Appleseed’s Bible features prominently in the Disney version of the story, from the 1948 animated feature Melody Time.

John Chapman earned the nickname “Johnny Appleseed” during his lifetime, and people started sharing stories about the eccentric apple tree planter in the Ohio and Indiana communities where he spent much of his life long before he died in 1845.  But Johnny Appleseed did not emerge as a figure in the American national origin story until the 1870s.  In the late 19th century and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, most of the promoters of the Johnny Appleseed legend were social reformers, some of a socialist bent, who celebrated Johnny Appleseed’s efforts to promote a common social good by providing apple trees available to all.   After World War II, the range of acceptable national myth narratives narrowed considerably. As the United States increasingly defined itself against Soviet communism, interpretations of Johnny Appleseed

Disney made Appleseed part of its team of early American superheroes, alongside Paul Bunyan, John Henry and others.

Disney made Appleseed part of its team of early American superheroes, alongside Paul Bunyan, John Henry and others.

reflected this change. When Disney released an animated version of the Johnny Appleseed story in 1948, John’s faith in God was front and center. The narrator stated that three other great nation builders had their distinctive tools in their mission— Paul Bunyan had his axe, John Henry his hammer, and Davy Crockett his rifle— but Johnny Appleseed’s tools were his bag of apple seeds and his Holy Bible. The cartoon opens with a young Johnny singing a Disney-created song that has come to be known as “The Johnny Appleseed Grace,” and many believe it was actually written by Chapman.

disneyjohnnypotbibleThe Lord’s been good to me

And so I thank the Lord

For giving me the things I need

The sun and rain and the apple seed

Yes He’s been good to me

disneyjohnnyguardianThe Johnny Appleseed story told by Disney is a near perfect sermon on postwar American values. Faith in God and the ability of the individual to make a difference in history are the central themes. Johnny celebrates American freedom, singing, “Here I am ’neath the blue blue sky, doing as I please,” thanking God for that freedom. Soon his attention is drawn to a long train of Conestoga wagons pushing west, each containing a pioneer family. The wagon train has its own song celebrating American individualism:

disneyjohnnyconestogaGet on a wagon, rolling west

Out to the great unknown

Get on a wagon rolling west

Where you’ll be left alone.

The rivers may be wide

The mountains may be tall

But nothing stops the pioneer

we’re trailblazers all.

While John longs to join them, he believes he cannot— that he is too weak and too small,

The diminutive Johnny goes west without a gun, but in the Disney version, this is a result of his poverty and small size. No pacifist, he dreams of emulated the gun-toting frontiersman.

The diminutive Johnny goes west without a gun, but in the Disney version, this is a result of his poverty and small size. No pacifist, he dreams of emulated the gun-toting frontiersman.

and does not own the gear he needs. Johnny’s “private guardian angel,” sent down from heaven, convinces him that all he needs is his faith, his Bible, and his apple seeds. Johnny sets out through a rugged wilderness, “a little man all alone, without no knife, without no gun,” but to avoid the impression that Johnny is a pacifist, Disney included a scene where he imagines he is shouldering a rifle like the ones he saw the men on the Conestoga wagons hold, and another where he picks up a stick from the woods, and pretends to aim and shoot with it.

The creatures of the wild forest Johnny Appleseed will transform into an ordered orchard embrace him as a friend.

The creatures of the wild forest Johnny Appleseed will transform into an ordered orchard embrace him as a friend.

Notably, the Indian makes only a minor appearance in Disney’s Johnny Appleseed. Instead, Johnny Appleseed works to win over the trust of the forests animals, convincing them, by his kindness, of the benign nature of his mission to transform the wilderness. The Disney story ends with an image of an aged Johnny Appleseed atop a ridge, his shadow stretching across a transformed landscape of fields and orchards:

disneyjohnnyoldhilltopnurseryThis little man, he throwed his shadow clear across the land, across a hundred thousand miles square and in that shadow everywhere you’ll find he left his blessings three love and faith and the apple tree.

Despite the story’s celebration of individualism, Disney’s Johnny Appleseed stopped short of praising difference in favor of conformity. Johnny Appleseed was a generic Christian in the story, not an apostle of unconventional Swedenborgianism. Johnny Appleseed could be an eccentric in postwar America, but the boundaries of that difference were increasingly constrained in a culture that valued conformity even as it professed to celebrate the power of the free individual.

You can view the entire Johnny Appleseed animated short here:

The War On the Cider Apple


johnny appleseed coverJohn “Appleseed” Chapman was a propagator of seedling apple trees–trees whose fruit was of unpredictable quality and often too bitter for fresh-eating.  While early 19th century farmers could find many home uses for seedling apples, among the most common uses was the production of hard cider.  As improved roads and canals began to link more rural Americans into the market economy, the seedling apple tree came under increasing assault, not just from agricultural reformers who disdained it for its lack of commercial value, but also from temperance reformers who viewed it as an important source for alcohol.  The following excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard explains how the temperance movement’s war of the poor seedling apple tree emerged:

. . . by the end of the 1820s, the threat to John Chapman’s seedling orchards was not simply economic and scientific but, increasingly, moral. Fruit from a seedling tree had many uses for a family of course, but in a world where more and more farmers grew food to sell rather than consume, the seedling orchard came to be seen as having just one purpose, the production of hard cider and cider brandy. Per capita alcohol consumption rates in the United States were among the highest in the world in the 1820s, and a temperance movement emerged to combat the evil of drink. Whiskey and other distilled spirits were the focus of many of the early temperance advocates, as their extremely high alcohol content made them the greatest threat. Homemade apple 220px-Peter-Cartwrightcider began its life free from alcohol, then gradually fermented to a content of 6 to 8 percent. “New cider” was the term most frequently used for that beverage that had yet to ferment. When the circuit-riding minister Peter Cartwright stopped at an inn for a dinner of hot bread, he and his companion washed it down with “new cider.” It was not until they mounted their horses and renewed their journey that they realized the refreshing beverage they had so eagerly quaffed was not so new, as both men had trouble staying upright on their horses. Because the alcohol content of cider was not enough to ward off the growth of bacteria, cider-makers frequently fortified it with corn whiskey or other distilled spirits to get its alcohol content above 10 or 12 percent. Another common method was to leave the barrels outside on a cold night and scrape off the ice that formed in the top half of the barrel overnight; what was left behind, often called applejack had roughly double the alcohol content.

Some early advocates of temperance viewed hard cider as relatively harmless, even as moral thermometera healthful alternative to distilled spirits. Benjamin Rush was among the earliest advocates of moderation in the consumption of alcohol and boasted that a crowd of seventeen thousand who had gathered in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, celebrated with nothing but beer and cider, “those invaluable federal liquors” in Rush’s construction, in contrast to hard liquor, which he associated with antifederalism. Rush also produced a “moral and physical thermometer” assessing various beverages on their health and moral properties. Water, milk, and “small beer” were at the top and the drinks of the truly temperate, while gin, whiskey, and rum were the beverages of the most dissipated. But Rush placed “Cider and Perry” just below the beverages of the truly temperate and suggested their effects were not all bad–that they produced “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment, when taken only at meals, and in moderate quantities.” Farm laborers seemed to agree, as farmers who took on hired hands in the harvesting season were expected to provide their workers with a ready supply of hard cider to refresh them and keep up their strength.

In its earliest years, leading advocates of temperance called for moderation in the consumption of alcohol and the avoidance of distilled spirits. But as the movement gained steam in the 1820s, an “ultraist” faction began pressing for total abstention from alcohol. They rejected the view that cider-drinking should be tolerated or seen as a “healthy” alternative to distilled spirits. A man could get drunk on cider as surely as he could on whiskey. “It takes a long time to make a man a drunkard on cider,” one anti-cider crusader declared, “but when made, he is thoroughly made, is lazy, bloated, stupid, cross and ugly, wastes his estate, his character, and the happiness of his family.” Another ultra who campaigned against hard cider claimed its effect on families was often worse than distilled spirits. He cited the wife of a cider-drunkard who had told him that “cider made [the drunkard] more brutal and ferocious in his family. Rum overcame him quicker, laid him prostrate and helpless on the floor, or in the ditch; cider excited him and gave him the rage and the strength of a maniac.”

cider barrelBy the late 1820s, the ascendant ultraist faction in the temperance movement began to point an accusing finger at the farmer’s seedling apple trees. An article republished in religious and agricultural journals across the country in 1827 raised the question “What Shall I Do with My Apples?” Its author was determined to make the cider apple the newest front in the contest between God and Mammon, declaring that this was a question every Christian farmer should be asking himself. “If he gathers his apples, of course he must make them into cider; and if he makes the cider, of course he must sell it; and if he is to sell it, of course he must sell it to the distiller, or procure it distilled and then sell the brandy; and if the brandy is sold, it must be drank, and in this way every barrel will make and circulate liquid fire enough to ruin a soul, if not destroy a life.” The author of the piece rejected the farmer’s argument that to leave apples to rot was to waste God’s bounty and instead cast the farmer as acting in pursuit of profits in the marketplace at the expense of his neighbors. “If no other market can be found for our cider, but at the still, let it be a matter of conscientious inquiry with every farmer, whether it is right for him to make more cider than he wants for reasonable use in his own family” when he knows his surplus will be distilled into cider brandy and sold to the intemperate. The author of the piece concluded that the only righteous path for the Christian farmer to take in regards to his seedling trees was to “burn them.”

cider appleOthers began to pile on. A correspondent in Cincinnati’s Western Observer said that farmers who raised fruit for the cider and brandy market would only join the temperance crusade “if ever the dictates of conscience get the ascendancy over the mammon of unrighteousness,” framing the problem in the familiar language of a struggle between market-driven capitalism and Christian values. A letter in The Western Recorder condemned “a certain innkeeper for purchasing two barrels of Hard cider for $1.25 each” and selling it to his customers, one of whom “had a bill of $8 charged to him for his portion of the cider, which, at six pence a quart, would amount to thirty-two gallons!” The innkeeper was “a professor of religion” and therefore should have refused to sell alcohol. Instead, he had made a nice profit at the drunkard’s expense. By putting “the bottle to the mouth of his neighbor, [he] has done the deed, and is now calculating . . . on the wages of his iniquity.” The Western Christian Advocate recounted the story of a good temperance man and churchgoer who was regularly in the habit of turning his surplus apples into cider until the day he encountered a neighbor and fellow church member who got drunk on it. Troubled by his complicity in his friend’s downfall, he destroyed his cider press and never made the beverage again.

But other campaigners against cider, perhaps conceding that in a contest between piety and profit the latter would ultimately win, began to make the case that taking apples to the cider mill was neither in the farmer’s moral nor in his pecuniary interest. The costs of the hired hands required to gather all of the apples, the efforts to get the fruit to the cider mill, and the fees for processing them into cider were greater than the returns, these writers claimed, as cider fetched such low prices on the market. A more profitable strategy was for the farmer to let the hogs have those apples not fit for fresh eating. Self-provisioning farmers had long followed this practice, as it kept orchard floors clean and their small stock of half-wild pigs fat, and it required little of their scarce labor. But now horticultural improvers converted to temperance promoted fattening hogs on cider apples to a class of farmers concerned with maximizing the revenue on their farms. Those seedling apples lying on the orchard floor could be “converted” to pork with little effort. Both religious magazines and the agricultural journals devoted to improvement enthusiastically embraced the strategy of fattening hogs destined for markets on the old orchard’s windfalls.

By 1829, at least a few farmers had taken the advice of “burn them” to heart. One report circulated in several journals told of a New Haven, Connecticut, gentleman who “ordered a fine apple orchard to be cut down, because the fruit may be converted into an article to promote intemperance.” The editor of the New York Enquirer mocked this wasteful action, opining that “in this age of Anti-Societies, we may soon see the worthless of the land in league, to establish an Anti-Apple and Anti-RyeSociety. Every time and age has its mania:–We hope the world will sober down before dooms-day.” The story of the monomaniacal temperance man destroying apple orchards became part of the folklore of New England and the Midwest, and not only missing orchards 230px-Henry_David_Thoreaubut also abandoned ones were attributed to the zeal of the reformers. Years later, Henry David Thoreau bemoaned the loss of seedling apple trees across the New England countryside. He repeated a story he had heard “of an orchard in a distant town on the side of a hill where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider.” Thoreau was nostalgic for that time “when men both ate and drank apples, when the pomace heap was the only nursery, and trees cost nothing but the trouble of setting them out,” a time long past when he penned these words in 1859.

The number of orchards actually chopped down by temperance ultraists was likely not as great in reality as in local folklore. But the endless moral castigations orchard-owning farmers faced from the temperance crusaders seemed to have an effect. Many a pious farmer was surely troubled by the accusations that by selling apples to cider mills he was serving Mammon instead of God. Many writers attributed the abandonment and neglect of old seedling orchards across New England to the temperance crusade, their owners apparently deciding to forgo the attacks on their moral character by simply neglecting orchards and letting nature swallow them up.

Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard at your favorite bookstore.  Also available for Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader.

“An apple a day may not keep the doctor away, but it can make fine history.”


Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

I was pleased to receive the first review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in an academic journal today. I have attached a PDF of the review from Northwest Ohio History, but here are a few excerpts:

“Like all good agricultural history, this book reminds us what every American farmer used to know . . . [ but Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard] does good agricultural history one better. As a cultural history, this book puts the “culture” back in agriculture and offers a grand intellectual sweep rarely seen today.”

“This breadth of argument and free interplay between topic and period are a refreshing change from the microscopic studies that have become the bread-and-butter of specialized historical journals.”

“This book also has a great deal to offer the regional scholar. Here the broad sweep of historical change has both a face and a place: John Chapman turned Johnny Appleseed and his ubiquitous apple nurseries. Chapman is the ideal subject for such treatment and this book carefully reconstructs that life in detail, carefully teasing fact from fiction through his years in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. . . . Chapman’s money troubles with the Owl Creek Bank in central Ohio, for example, become effective illustrations of the causes of both the Panics of 1819 and 1837. An apple a day man not keep the doctor away, but it can make fine history.”

Read the full review here: Kerrigan.NWOH.review

Pick up the book from your local independent bookseller, Powell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through the History Book Club.

Choice “highly recommends” Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard


Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

“This book takes away the dross of mythology, but replaces it with the realistic humanity of a most fascinating, unique American.”

Kerrigan, William.  Johnny Appleseed and the American orchard: a cultural history.  Johns Hopkins, 2012.  231p index afp; ISBN 9781421407289, $50.00; ISBN 9781421407296 pbk, $25.00.
50-4430  SB63  2012-12916 CIP

The legend of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774-1845) is a fundamental component of American folklore. Disney created a cartoon that captured the legend in caricature in 1948. By contrast, Kerrigan (Muskingum Univ.) provides a book that brings reality to the myth(s) and, in doing so, paints a compelling picture of the social dynamics of the period both prior to and during John Chapman’s life. Readers will feel transported back to those days, as Kerrigan describes the religious, geographic, and economic environment. Like quality biography, this is good history, with a well-told story and excellent scholarship. Chapman was dedicated to providing seedling apples for fermented cider for settlers at the front edge of the expanding US territories of the 18th and 19th centuries, the present regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Kerrigan debunks many Chapman myths, including his vegetarianism, unwillingness to hunt or kill animals, or commitment to pacifism. This book takes away the dross of mythology, but replaces it with the realistic humanity of a most fascinating, unique American. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Academic and general audiences, all levels. —G. S. Howell, emeritus, Michigan State University

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s Books are currently engaged in a price war, discounting the price of the paperback version .

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.

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

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

It is also available in ebook form:

Kindle

Nook

Sony Reader

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.”