Johnny Appleseed: An Autumn Remembrance of an American Legend With Hoosier Ties

Writer / Jeff Kenney
Photography Provided

September in Lakes Magazine country brings with it the impending promise of autumn: the glories of fall colors, migrating geese on the wing, football season underway, cool days and nights, and, of course, apples and many things apple related. One apple-related figure, one of mythic proportions in American folklore, readers may be surprised to learn has significant regional connections.Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed occupies a place in the American lexicon similar to figures like Paul Bunyan or Rip Van Winkle, but Appleseed – born John Chapman in September 1774 in Massachusetts – was a very real person who lived his latter years, died, and was buried in nearby Fort Wayne. Further, his well-marked grave, residing in an honored spot in that city today, was “rediscovered” by a man with local Lakes-area connections. More on that later.

John Chapman’s legendary apple planting was also a matter of fact, not fiction, though there are some inaccuracies in the details of some stories told of his activities.

During the years of the infancy of the U.S. as a country, 18-year-old Chapman shared the itch many in the east had to go west, taking along with him his 11-year-old half brother, Nathanial Cooley Chapman. Many accounts say the two wandered far and wide before their father (also Nathanial Chapman) purchased a farm in Ohio in 1805, where Nathanial Jr. opted to stay.

Details of just when and where John Chapman’s “Appleseed” exploits began are sketchy, with some accounts suggesting he began gathering seeds in various parts of Pennsylvania in the 1790s and others suggesting his apple-related endeavors began in earnest after apprenticing under an orchardist named Crawford around 1805.

And contrary to some stories of Johnny Appleseed randomly planting trees and orchards wherever he journeyed, Chapman tended instead to plant nurseries – collections of apple tree seedlings intended for care and curation until ready to be moved to orchards proper. These nurseries he often left in the care of a nearby resident who sold apple trees on shares, with Chapman returning from time to time to tend the trees.

Another lesser-known attribute of Johnny Appleseed’s focus and efforts was his self-identified role as a Christian missionary. Specifically, Chapman was passionate in spreading the ideas and writings of the New Church, which adhered to the teachings of Swedish mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. In fact, the earliest written accounts of Chapman’s exploits hail not from the U.S., but in a Church of New Jerusalem newsletter published in England in 1817, which described an itinerant missionary who traveled about, spreading the church’s word and planting apple seeds. An 1822 letter from a New Church member, in fact, was the first to dub Chapman “John Appleseed.”

What seems not to have been exaggerated about Johnny Appleseed are many of the particulars of his eclectic dress and lifestyle. Firsthand accounts of his appearance tell of the oft-depicted longish hair and rather unkempt beard, and the tendency to travel barefoot, carrying a Bible and wearing a tin “mush pot” on his head, which served simultaneously as hat and cooking utensil. Such accounts also tell of his frequently sleeping in the woods and seeking meals in exchange for apple seeds, or for his regaling his hosts with his animated style of storytelling or Christian preaching.

By all accounts, however, his work as a nurseryman and the land he accrued in his endeavors were such that Chapman was actually quite well off, financially (he left more than 1,200 acres of valuable nursery land to his sister at his death, in fact), but he made the choice to live his simple lifestyle as he did.

Johnny AppleseedSimilarly eclectic at the time were Chapman’s views and practices with regards to nature and the natural world. Not only did he make it his mission to spread the growth of apple trees, enthralled with the versatility and pleasures of apples as helpful to American pioneers and citizens in general, but many accounts point to his going far out of his way to protect wild animals or nurse them when injured. Stories abounded of his having a pet wolf as a traveling companion, and later in life his views of all living things as needing protection due to their status as God’s creatures undergirded his vegetarianism.

John Chapman owned land, including one nursery with more than 15,000 trees, in Allen County, Indiana, home of the city of Fort Wayne, the site of his death in 1845. While some dispute exists about his exact death date, the most credible accounts, derived from newspapers of the day, place it at March 18.

The Goshen Democrat newspaper at the time wrote of the death of “John Chapman, commonly known by the name of Johnny Appleseed, about 70 years of age. Many of our citizens will remember this eccentric individual, as he sauntered through town eating his dry rusk and cold meat, and freely conversing on the mysteries of his religious faith.”

Johnny Appleseed’s legend only grew in the years following his death. From the 19th century to today, countless songs, poems and books have been written about him, and he has become the subject of everything from memorials to museums, and even an animated Disney short.

Fort Wayne’s minor league baseball team of today takes its name, the Tincaps, from the pot Appleseed wore on his head, and in 1974 that city held the first of its annual Johnny Appleseed Festivals (which still take place during the third full weekend in September) in, among other locales, Johnny Appleseed Park.

The park takes its name for its proximity to Chapman’s grave, whose location has been the source of some debate. Some claim his grave resides elsewhere in the city, at the site of the cabin where he died, though strong evidence supports Chapman having been buried in the Archer Cemetery, which would have been in proximity to today’s “official” site of the Johnny Appleseed grave.

The grave also connects Johnny Appleseed’s story to a closer-to-home Lakes-area tale, that of the late Dr. Joseph Hafert. Hafert, who lived in Logansport much of his adult life and headed a successful dental practice until 1969 in the Lakes-area town of Fulton, grew up in the Fort Wayne area. As a Boy Scout patrol leader in 1924, Hafert and fellow Scouts were digging for sassafras roots while on a hike in what was then wilderness in the Fort Wayne area.

“About five or six of us found the gravestone hidden under all the growth and brush,” Hafert, whose family had a summer cottage on Lake Maxinkuckee for many years, told the Culver Citizen newspaper in 1976. “The grave was on a sandy, grassy knoll overlooking the river just a few hundred feet away…surrounded by an iron fence.”

Chapman’s name and death date were still readable on the gravestone, said Hafert, who added that he “knew the legend [of Chapman’s grave in Fort Wayne], and the following week made my discovery known.”

Once the word got out, considerable effort was made to restore the gravesite, eventually resulting in the well-kept memorial not far off busy Coliseum Boulevard in Fort Wayne today.

Hafert’s contribution to Appleseed’s legacy had been forgotten over the years until, after reading an article on Appleseed and the American Bicentennial in 1976 in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette newspaper, Hafert wrote the paper to give an eyewitness account of his rediscovery of the grave.

That same year, the committee behind the Johnny Appleseed Festival awarded Hafert the first John Chapman Pioneer Spirit Award pewter bucket for his contributions to Chapman’s legacy more than 50 years earlier.Johnny Appleseed

And so, as you’re taking a bite of that autumn apple or a sip of cider this fall, take a moment to appreciate the contributions of that American legend who became a Hoosier legend, still celebrated and memorialized these many years hence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Welcome Back!

Login to your account below

Retrieve your password

Please enter your username or email address to reset your password.

Send me your media kit!

hbspt.forms.create({ portalId: "6486003", formId: "5ee2abaf-81d9-48a9-a10d-de06becaa6db" });