By: John Cech
Today is Johnny Appleseed Day, which marks the death, in 1843, of one of our nation’s most intriguing personages. He was born John Chapman, in 1775 in Leominster, Massachusetts, the son of a Minuteman, Nathaniel Chapman, who could well have been the yeoman farmer who fired “the shot heard round the world” at Concord Bridge. But bearing arms of any kind would not be in the offing for his son, who became one of our country’s greatest pacifists — a fervent Swedenborgian mystic who spoke with angels and, throughout his adult life, refused to harm so much as the fuzz on a mosquito’s wing.
Johnny eschewed all meat, believing that what he needed for his sustenance grew from the ground — like the famed apple trees that he planted on the western frontier from Pennsylvania to Indiana for fifty years of his adult life. What called him on his journey to the west that began in 1797 is a mystery. Some say that it was because of a dream he had of a land filled with flowering apple trees and a voice he heard that compelled him to plant the trees for this continental orchard. In Walt Disney’s 1950 animated version with the voice of Dennis Day, Johnny is an insecure dreamer who yearns to be a pioneer but fears he’s too small and weak to join the wagon trains until he is contacted by his buckskin clad guardian angel who urges him to hop on the nearest Conestoga. I’ll take the dream of the orchard any day.
For it seems that from the begining, Johnny had little angst about his physical powers and was by all accounts a remarkably hardy individual, tromping through the woods and marshes just beyond the frontier, barefoot — dressed, literally, in sack cloth. He had a tin pot for a hat; he slept outdoors in every weather, constantly on the move, this nurseryman and herbalist, planting his apple seeds so that the trees would be ready for transplanting when the pioneers arrived. He sold seeds and saplings when he could for a few cents, or swapped them for food, or gave them away — as he did nearly all of what he managed to earn throughout his life.
He was, simply, a wandering holy man, who was welcome in the roughest frontier settlements and in Native American villages alike. The first full account of him appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1871, already decades after his death, and they got it right when they reported that : “… his deeds will live in the fragrance of the apple blossoms he loved so well, and the story of his life, however crudely narrated, will be a perpetual proof that true heroism, pure benevolence, noble virtues, and deeds that deserve immortality may be found under meanest apparel and far from gilded halls and towering spires.”