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
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.