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Monday, January 23, 2023

A Few Things I Learned About Johnny Appleseed

The question caught me off guard. A lady passenger on the river cruise boat AMERICAN QUEEN asked me about Johnny Appleseed, the frontier-era itinerant apple tree planter. Had I researched him and his activity in Washington County, Ohio? No, I told her, believing that he spent no time here. She said emphatically that he and his family had close connections in the area. I pondered that response, standing in the early morning fog at Marietta’s Ohio River landing - on the exact spot, I later learned, where Chapman and his family landed more than 200 years ago. 

Most of us have heard of John Chapman, AKA Johnny Appleseed. He was a Massachusetts native who in the early 1800's wandered from Western Pennsylvania, to Ohio, and eventually to Indiana. He planted apple tree orchards on the leading edge of settlement in those respective areas until his death in 1845. 

Here are some of my research findings:

Don’t know much about Johnny.
The “Don’t Know Much about Hist-or-y” song lyrics float through my brain. Historical facts about John Chapman are sparse; legends and stories abound. Only a handful of documents exist - a census tract here and there, property records, and a few notes payable that he signed. Most of what we “know” comes from others who knew him or heard about him.

One of dozens of children’s books written about Johnny, many of which presented romanticized or mythical versions of him and what he did. Image from

Below are quotes from various authors on the search for the real Johnny:
  • William Kerrigan: “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.”
  • Karen Warwick: “Chapman’s legacy stretches far beyond his trees, to the seeds he planted in storytellers imaginations.”
  • Gary S. Williams quoting Louis Bromfield. “The truth is, of course, that Johnny Appleseed has attained that legendary status where the facts are no longer of importance.”
  • David McCullough: Much would be written and said about Johnny Appleseed, including much that has little or no bearing on the truth.
I discovered that Johnny Appleseed authors often refer to “traditions” when studying John Chapman’s life. A tradition is a body of stories or common beliefs which may be widely circulated but often not verifiable. Example from author Kerrigan: “There was a (Pennsylvania) tradition that…John may have worked as a logger.” There are dozens of traditions from many different communities - including Marietta.

Pre-Ohio life of Johnny
Knowledge of John’s first twenty years is scant. Some broad outlines can be surmised by his father’s life. Nathaniel Chapman Sr. was a carpenter and farmer; the family was poor. John’s mother Elizabeth noted later in a letter to Nathaniel that they could not afford to buy a cow. Nathaniel was gone for several years serving in the Revolutionary War. His wife, John’s mother, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis in 1776. Nathaniel was discharged from the Continental Army in 1780 and married Lucy Cooley that same year. They lived in Longmeadow, MA. John was then six years old; it is likely that he lived in that household. One source says that John was apprenticed to an orchardist, Mr. Crawford, at age 13. If this is true, it gave him invaluable knowledge of fruit trees and orchard management. 

Moving West
He left Massachusetts in the mid 1790s and moved west. Local historians have good evidence that John Chapman established orchards near present-day Warren and Franklin PA. A Judge Lansing Wetmore gave a lecture in 1853 about an interesting character in early Warren PA history. His name was John Chapman. This “tall, stalwart, Yankee” ventured west across the Allegheny Mountains to Warren in 1796 or 97. Chapman started his trek westward in November. As he approached the summit of the range, it began to snow heavily. He was stuck for three days in a crude shelter. Several feet of snow piled up. He grimly assessed his dire situation. His provisions were running out, he had inadequate clothing for winter, and was walking barefoot. Should he press on or pull back. Either way, he was 100 miles from the nearest settlement. Apparently undaunted, he pressed on, fashioning crude snowshoes from beech saplings to navigate the deep snow. He arrived in Warren in early December and planted his first orchard on Brokenstraw Creek the next spring. Quite a story - likely told by John himself. How much was true? There would be many more stories from him.

He stayed in the Warren and Franklin area for several years, tending his orchards. His half-brother Nathaniel Jr.  joined him in 1798. Author William Kerrigan discovered a note signed by a John Chapman for supplies including “brandy, whiskey, sugar, chocolate, tobacco, three pairs of ‘mockasins,’ gunpowder, and pork.” Assuming this was our John Chapman, it varies from later descriptions of a vegetarian who drank little and did not carry a firearm. 

“The areas where Johnny Appleseed traveled,” from, according to the author. This includes most of the area where he started orchards. It does not include southern Ohio and Marietta where his travel has been documented.

Washington County connections
John Chapman had probably heard of Marietta and the new Northwest Territory from his stepmother’s cousins, the Cooleys. The Ohio Country attracted many people like the Cooleys and Chapmans looking for a fresh start. The Cooleys had moved to the area in the 1790's on “Donation Land” - 100 acre lots made available for free by the Ohio Company of Associates. There were some conditions. These lands were on the fringe of settled areas. To be eligible, owners agreed to act as sentries and if necessary help defend against Indian attacks. They also had to build a dwelling, plant crops, and set out apple and peach trees on the land within five years. It was a win-win deal: incentive to attract new settlers; more protection and growing population for the new territory.

The future Johnny Appleseed (this moniker is not attached to him until decades later) visited Marietta in 1796, or 1797, or 1798 depending on the source. Author C. Burr Dawes cites 1796 based on notes from Carl Wier Ellenwood, who lectured about Johnny Appleseed based in part on knowledge passed down from Ellenwood’s relatives in Southeast Ohio. 

John’s father Nathaniel Sr., stepmother Lucy, and his ten half brothers and sisters moved to Washington County in 1805, leaving their native Massachusetts for a better life in Ohio. They settled on land near present day Dexter City, Ohio, then part of Washington County. There is no evidence that Nathaniel Sr. ever owned property there. He may have lived on unclaimed land or on property owned by the Cooley family . 

Though John Chapman never lived here, he passed through this area on the way to and from central Ohio where he conducted his orchard activities. Author Kerrigan says: “He visited his Marietta (area) family regularly and maintained close ties to some of them for the rest of his life.”  Much evidence of this comes from relatives:
  • Author Howard Means says that a tavern owner in Lowell kept a diary which noted that John passed through annually on trips to and from Pennsylvania.
  • Minnie E. Stalling of Dexter City, Ohio, quoted by C. Burr Dawes, said, “John made trips up and down Duck Creek Valley on his way from Marietta…” 
  • He visited his brother Nathaniel Jr., though his wife Ammorillah was not a fan and made John wash up in the creek before entering their house. 
  • John spent time with Davis Chapman (youngest son of Lucy and Nathaniel) and his wife in Lowell almost every year.
  • Two local historic sites, Henderson Hall, and Blennerhassett Island State Park both claim that John Chapman visited or planted at their sites.

W. M. Glines recollections
One account by W. M. Glines, a Marietta resident, in an 1870’s booklet titled Johnny Appleseed by One Who Knew Him, gives a first hand glimpse into Chapmans’ life in the Marietta area. Quotes are from his book. The narrative is fascinating, though not always accurate. Glines cited his sources: “Much that I have said about him I have gathered from his relatives who are a very respectable lot of people, and are perfectly reliable. Other incidents related are from published reports.” 

He states that John Chapman and the rest of the family arrived in Marietta from Massachusetts on April 7, 1798, having floated down from Pittsburgh in a large dugout canoe made from a poplar tree. That date, Glines points out correctly, was the tenth anniversary of Marietta’s founding. “It being the anniversary of the first landing of the Ohio Company (at Marietta)…., the citizens young and old, were engaged in a game of foot ball, an exercise they very much delighted in.” Glines does not describe this game, perhaps an early version of soccer. John himself may have visited in 1798, but the family did not arrive until 1805.

Glines mentions many of John Chapman’s traits and experiences. There was one that I had not heard from any other sources and am not able to verify its accuracy. He states that John at age 21 “received a kick from a horse that fractured his skull, which was trepaned* at the time. From that time forth he manifested that particular character attributed to him.” Glines implies that the injury changed his behavior to the eccentric, unkempt, hermit-like popular image we associate with Johnny Appleseed.

* Trepaned (or Trepanned) is an archaic phrase describing early medical procedures for cranial injuries which may have involved drilling a hole in the skull.

His first hand account of John Chapman’s final visit to see southeast Ohio relatives in 1842 is considered to be true. John stayed in his brother Nathaniel Jr.’s home. Their sister Sally who married John Whitney lived nearby. Lightning had broken apart a large tree on the Whitney property, blasting it into strangely uniform pieces. The Whitneys used those pieces to make fence rails. John Chapman was curious when he heard this story. He wanted to see this tree and the fence rails. Off they went.

Glines, who accompanied Nathaniel and Mr. Whitney, wanted to take his gun to hunt squirrel or rabbit along the way. John objected strongly, “…he read me a severe lecture upon the subject of taking life from any living creature” because of God’s sovereignty over life. They came to a creek; Glines, Whitney, and Nathaniel rock-hopped across it. John removed his shoes and waded through it, walking barefoot the rest of the way. 

He examined the fence rails, measured them, and viewed the nearby tree where the lightning generated rails came from. He then turned to Mr. Whitney and launched into “a sermon upon the wonderful Providence of God to man.” He stated that God had provided the fence rails by striking the tree at the spot where they were needed, thereby saving the family some hard work. Emphatically, he concluded, “…can’t you see it?” Whitney thought about it and wasn’t so sure. He recalled that John had once barely survived being trapped in a snow storm and asked him why God had allowed that to happen. John replied that he was foolish to put himself in such a dangerous situation, but God was merciful to provide enough snow to dig a shelter and avoid freezing.

Glines recollections were decades old when he wrote them down. Other traditions about Johnny Appleseed were often from recollections far in the past. The illustrates one challenge for researchers: those memories that seem so vivid may become less reliable over time. And stories passed down often change in the telling and retelling. 

Story teller
Stories of John Chapman’s overcoming life threatening situations abound. He often told them to rapt children eager to hear a tall tale.  One of the oft repeated stories was set in Pennsylvania. He was traveling by canoe in late winter on a river choked with ice floes. He noticed that the ice was moving as fast as he could paddle, so he dragged his canoe on to one of the floes and floated paddle-free. He fell asleep and ended up 100 miles past his intended destination. That’s a tall tale, for sure. At a brisk current of 5 miles per hour, that would have required more than 20 hours of sleep. In another adventure, he claimed to have escaped hostile Indians by submerging himself in a marsh and breathing through a reed. In this story he again fell asleep and awoke hours later, still submerged. The Indians were gone.

Dedicated Missionary
He was a missionary of the New Church which followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, distributing literature bought with money from the sale of apple trees. He preached to anyone who would listen, regaling them with “Good news fresh from heaven.” One account says he founded a church. There are many stories about his care in not harming animals or any of God’s creatures in keeping with that faith. He put out a campfire when he noticed that mosquitoes were being burned by the fire. Once a rattlesnake bit him. He reflexively killed it but soon regretted his “ungodly” action. He eschewed planting trees with grafted sections because cutting harmed the trees.

Power of oratory
John could be surprisingly eloquent for someone with such an unkempt appearance. Rosella Rice, who knew Chapman: 
On the subject of apples he was very charmingly enthusiastic. One would be astonished at his beautiful description of excellent fruit. I saw him once at the table, when I was very small, telling about some apples that were new to us. His description was poetical, the language remarkably well-chosen; it could have been no finer had the whole of Webster's "Unabridged," with all its royal vocabulary, been fresh upon his ready tongue. I stood back of my mother's chair, amazed, delighted, bewildered, and vaguely realizing the wonderful powers of true oratory. I felt more than I understood.
His oratory could be just as impressive when he talked about his faith.

Orchards were a business, Chapman a business man
I always thought of Johnny Appleseed as a haphazard planter of apple trees for other people. Wrong: Orchards were a serious business for John Chapman. His work was systematic. He planted in areas of future settlement - before settlers arrived. He found good locations, planted seeds, built fencing (often using tree branches or existing briar patches) to protect the seedlings, periodically tended them, then sold the land or trees years later when settlers arrived. Some of his later orchards contained thousands of trees. Johnny Appleseed owned or leased several hundred acres of land during his life. Author Kerrigan:  “John Chapman did not die a wealthy man, but neither was he impoverished…..”

Imagined sketch of Johnny tending his trees from the 1871 article in Harpers New Monthly Magazine which first popularized John Chapman as Johnny Appleseed.

Apples were vital for early settlers article: “At the time, apples were more than just a sweet, healthy treat. Rather, they were a versatile fruit that helped people survive and their farms thrive.” Orchards were a community asset. Apples were used to make apple cider, apple butter, and vinegar. Dried apples were stored for eating during winter. They were also fed to pigs. Apples grown from seeds were not the sweet eating kind. According to Henry David Thoreau, an apple grown from seed tastes "sour enough to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream."

Johnny Appleseed Memorial in Noble County:
There is a monument to Johnny Appleseed near Dexter City, OH at 38345 Marietta Road (State Route 821) near the homestead where his family settled in 1805.  Parley Chapman, his half-brother and his family are buried nearby in a family cemetery on the hill above this monument. The memorial is made from small rocks donated from people all along the routes over which Johnny passed. It includes this message: “Without a hope of recompense, without a thought of pride, John Chapman planted apple trees and preached, and lived and died.”

American Forests Magazine, author not disclosed, “From businessman to folk legend: Johnny Appleseed,” 9/26/2014
Dawes, C. Burr, “Johnny Appleseed in Marietta and Muskingum Valley,” Tallow Light, Vol 15. No. 1, 1984
Gabriel, Angeli, “How Johnny Appleseed helped establish the American frontier,” fox, 12/8/2021
Geiling, Natasha, “The Real Johnny Apppleseed Brought Apples - and Booze- to the American Frontier,” Smithsonian Magazine, 11/10/2014.
Glines, W. M., Johnny Appleseed by One Who Knew Him, The F. J. Heer Printing Co, 1922.
Howe, Henry, Historical Collection of Ohio, Vol II, C. J. Krehbiel & Co., 1904
Kelly, Kate, “Johnny Appleseed Debunked,”
Kerrigan, William, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Means, Howard, Johnny Appleseed The Man, The Myth, the American Story, Simon and Schuster, 2011
Smith, Brady, “The Real Johnny Appleseed,”, 6/6/2017
Thompson, Jim, “Tribute to Johnny Appleseed The Tree Planter (Part I)”, Linworth Historical Newsletter, June, 2007,
Williams, Gary S. Gliding to a Better PlaceProfiles from Ohio’s Territorial Era, Buckeye Books, 2000


  1. This is a wonderful article about John Chapman. Thank you for publishing this. My wife and I will be visiting the Parley Chapman Cemetery in April. He married one of her ancestor's relation.

  2. Enjoyed reading your blog. Fascinating read; learned much. Appearently JA enjoyred a good hike as well.

    Andy, Hamilton OH