Monday, October 27, 2008

Chapbook Legends: Johnny Appleseed

The following is from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1871, by W.D. Haley, and reprinted in B.A. Botkin's Treasury of American Folklore, Crown Publishers, 1944. pp. 261-270. It has been greatly modified to fit your screen.

Among the heroes of endurance that was voluntary, and of action that was creative and not sanguinary, there was one man whose name, seldom mentioned now save by some few surviving pioneers, deserves to be perpetuated. Jonathan Chapman arrived in Jefferson County, Ohio in the Spring of 1806, transporting a load of apple seeds to the Western Frontier. There is good reason to believe he was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1775. Whether impelled in his eccentricities by some absolute misery of the heart which could only find relief in incessant motion, or governed by a benevolent monomania, his whole life after age 26 was devoted to the work of planting apple seeds in remote places. He used the old Indian trail that led from Fort Duquesne to Detroit, by way of Fort Sandusky, or what is styled the 'second route through the wilderness of Ohio.' With bare feet he would penetrate to some remote spot that combined picturesqueness and fertility of soil, and there he would plant his seeds, place a slight enclosure around the place, and leave them to grow until the trees were large enough to be transplanted by the settlers. In later years, his principal garment was made of a coffee sack, and a hat of pasteboard with an immense peak in front. He was always treated with the greatest respect by the rudest frontiersman, and he was regarded as a great medicine man by the Indians on account of the fortitude with which he could endure pain. Even during the war of 1812, Johnny Appleseed continued his wanderings and was never harmed by the roving bands of hostiles, he traversed the border day and night warning every settler of any approaching peril. He believed it to be a sin to kill any creature for food, and thought all that was necessary for human sustenance was produced by the soil. He entertained a profound reverence for the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg, and always carried a few volumes with him. He was probably not only the first colporteur in the wilderness of Ohio, but as he had no tract society to furnish him supplies, he divided his books into several pieces, leaving a portion at a log-cabin, and on a subsequent visit furnishing another fragment, and continuing this process as diligently as though the work had been published in serial numbers. By this plan he was enabled to furnish reading for several people at the same time, and out of one book. It was his custom, when he had been welcomed to some hospitable house after a weary day of journeying, to lie down on the puncheon floor, produce his few tattered books, and read and expound until his uncultivated hearers would catch the spirit and glow of his enthusiasm, while they scarcely comprehended his language. A lady who knew him in later years writes: 'We can hear him read now, just as he did that summer day, when we were busy quilting upstairs, and he lay near the door, his voice rising denunciatory and thrilling--strong and loud as the roar of wind and waves, then soft and soothing as the balmy airs that quivered the morning-glory leaves about his gray beard."
In autumn Johnny would make a diligent search for lame or broken-down horses, and gathering them up, he would bargain for their food and shelter until next spring, when he would lead them away to some good pasture for the summer. No Brahmin could be more concerned for the preservation of insect life, and the only occasion on which he destroyed a venomous reptile was a source of long regret, to which he could never refer without manifesting sadness. On one occasion when Johnny built a fire near where he intended to pass the night, he noticed that the blaze attracted large numbers of mosquitoes, many of whom flew too near his fire and were burned. He immediately brought water and quenched the fire, accounting for his conduct afterward by saying, "God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort which should be the means of destroying any of his creatures!" His expenses for food and clothing were so very limited that, not withstanding his freedom from the auri sacra fames, he was frequently in possession of more money than he cared to keep, and it was quickly disposed of for wintering infirm horses, or given to some poor family whom the ague had prostrated or the accidents of border life impoverished. In a single instance only is he known to have invested his surplus means in the purchase of land, having received a deed from Alexander Finley, of Mohican Township, Ashland County, Ohio, for a part of the southwest quarter of section twenty-six; but with his customary indifference to matters of value, Johnny failed to record the deed, and lost it. He procured some seeds of dog-fennel, or May-weed, in Pennsylvania, and sowed them in the vicinity of every house in the region of his travels. He believed that this offensively-odored weed possessed valuable antimalarial virtues. The consequence was that successive flourishing crops of the weed spread over the whole country, and caused almost as much trouble as the disease it was intended to ward off. At seventy-two years of age, forty-six of which had been devoted to his self-imposed mission, he ripened into death as naturally and beautifully as the seeds of his own planting had grown into fibre and bud and blossom and the matured fruit. Thus died one of the memorable men of pioneer times, who never inflicted pain or knew an enemy--a man of strange habits, in whom there dwelt a comprehensive love that reached with one hand downward to the lowest forms of life, and with the other upward to the very throne of heaven. A laboring, self-denying benefactor of his race, homeless, solitary, and ragged, he trod the thorny earth with bare and bleeding feet, intent only upon making the wilderness fruitful. His deeds will live in the fragrance of the apple blossoms he loved so well, and the story of his life will be a perpetual proof that virtues may be found under meanest apparel, far from the gilded halls and towering spires.


  1. That's terrific. I may steal it. Thanks for planting that seed.

  2. Don't mess with my seed-bag! Oh, okay. I can't wait to read woodchuck having a smoke with the barefoot colporteur. Don't forget to read Haley's full essay--some meaty parts were left out of my web "reductio"

  3. Oh, and Robert Creeley says in a 1968 interview (the "drugs" interview) that he wanted to live like Johnny Appleseed.