Great Men You’ve Never Heard Of: John Chapman

Throughout history, for every great man in public knowledge, there is at least one more, of equal importance, forgotten. While you've likely heard the legend of Johnny Appleseed, you may not know much about the real man, John Chapman.

Can you think of any iconography  more American than apple pie or the frontier? Growing up in America, I heard the tall tales. The story of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumber jack, and his companion Babe, the blue ox. The story of John Henry, a railroad worker. You might even remember a story about a man who is often depicted wearing a pot on his head and scattering apple seeds where ever he went. You have heard the legend of Johnny Appleseed. This is about the man, John Chapman.

Born the second child to Nathaniel Chapman and Elizabeth Simonds on September 26, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. John started out on a career as an orchardist when his father apprenticed him to a Mr. John Crawford, a man who ran apple orchards.

Exactly how Chapman headed out west is still up for debate. But land records show that he owned land in what is now Licking County, Ohio in 1800. He obtained his apple seeds for free from local cider mills. Instead of just randomly scattering them, he used them to plant nurseries. Once planted, he left the nurseries in the care of neighbors, with instructions to sell the trees on credit if at all possible. He also accepted corn meal, used clothing, or cash in barter. The notes of credit did not specify an exact maturity date, because it might not be convenient for the borrower. If it did not get paid on time, or if at all, Chapman did not press for payment. He would return every year or two to tend to the nurseries.

Johnny Appleseed led the subsistence life of a missionary. He traveled house to house on the frontier spreading the Swedenborgian gospel, this is derived from the writings of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. He believed that the more that you suffered on Earth, the less you suffered in the afterlife. He also cared for animals.

Some of these stories were collected by Henry Howe in the early 1800s.

One cool autumnal night, while lying by his camp-fire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burnt. Johnny, who wore on his head a tin utensil which answered both as a cap and a mush pot, filled it with water and quenched the fire, and afterwards remarked, “God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort, that should be the means of destroying any of His creatures.”

Another time he made a camp-fire at the end of a hollow log in which he intended to pass the night, but finding it occupied by a bear and cubs, he removed his fire to the other end, and slept on the snow in the open air, rather than disturb the bear.

He often cared for animals and was also a vegetarian.

Chapman did not marry, when asked about it he answered that two female spirits would be his wives in the afterlife if he remained single on Earth. However, Henry Howe reported that he was a frequent visitor to Perrysville, Ohio, where he was to propose to a Miss Nancy Tennehill only to find out that she had already accepted a prior proposal.

There is some controversy and vagueness concerning the date of his death and his burial. Harper's New Monthly Magazine of November, 1871 (which is taken by many as the primary source of information about John Chapman) says he died in the summer of 1847. However, the Fort Wayne Sentinel printed his obituary on March 22, 1845, saying that he died on March 18. It is believed that he is buried in what is now Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

So the next time you are at the pub, in the cafeteria, or even by yourself, call for some quiet, and raise a glass of your preferred beverage to John Chapman, the man, the myth, the legend.

Andy Luscombe

Andy calls Boston home. He spends his working days with kids and his evenings on the town. Fun fact: he has a very hardcore Boston accent.