In America, most school children know the legend of the folk hero called ‘Johnny Appleseed’, who wandered all over the Midwestern states planting apple seeds. But, I bet you don’t know the real story.
Johnny Appleseed was actually John Chapman who was born in 1774 in Massachusetts. Even as a young man, he dreamed of planting so many apple trees that no one ever had to go hungry again. He also believed that people ought to live together in peace and tried to help the American Indians and the white settlers to get along. The Indians thought he was a medicine man, he learned many Indian languages and they welcomed him into their homes. The settlers also were very fond of him. He was a very religious man and preached the Bible to people he met, he never carried a weapon, and as a vegetarian, lived off the food provided by Mother Nature.
The legend has it that he was ‘funny looking’ and rather naive, wearing clothes made from coffee bean sacks and a cooking pot on his head. But in reality, he was an astute businessman who collected free apple seeds from cider mills, then planted them in open areas of forests, along streams and roadways throughout what was to become Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
For nearly half a century from 1792, he bought and sold plots of land, creating nurseries, planting and managing thousands of apple trees.
He’d fence off his planting areas with fallen trees, bushes, vines and logs and returned regularly to tend and to sell the trees. Thus, he became known as the ‘apple seed man’ and then just simply ‘Johnny Appleseed’.
He may have appeared to be a poor man but he made money selling tracts of land and his apple trees. Instead of depending on banks he preferred to bury his money and batter or trade for what he needed. It was always more important to him that people planted a tree than he got paid for that tree.
Because he cared about people, especially those who had even less than he did, he would give them what he had and wear the cast-off clothing he’d traded for apple trees. It is said that he seldom wore shoes, even in winter and that even a rattlesnake couldn’t bite through the thick skin of his feet.
The part of the legend about him wearing a cooking pot is highly unlikely as the pots in those days were made of iron or copper and would have been way too heavy.
Although he rarely slept in houses, in 1842, after 50 years of walking all over the countryside and at the age of 71 (or 80 as other versions would have us believe), he came to stay in the home of his half-brother, Nathaniel. On the 18th of March 1845, while visiting a friend near Fort Worth, Indiana, he died of pneumonia and is buried in an unmarked grave, although other versions of his history tell different tales.
Johnny Appleseed understood the value that his trees held for the settlers and the Indians. They provided food, wood for fuel, furniture, tools and houses, as well as medicine. His life was about planting and taking care of his trees and of the people he met along the way.