John Chapman: Pioneer Nurseryman

John Chapman: Pioneer Nurseryman

September 26, 1774 - March 18, 1845

The legend of Johnny Appleseed has largely obscured the reality of the man John Chapman.  Born in Leominster, Massachusetts just before the Revolutionary War, John lost his mother while he was still a toddler.  His father remarried, moved John and his second wife south to Longmeadow, and subsequently raised a family that included ten more children.  John was reared in a pious Christian home where he grew to have a lifelong devotion to the Bible.  In adulthood he spread the gospel to frontier families as prolifically as he spread apple seeds. 

The stuff of legend has a basis in fact, for true it is that John Chapman was a man of certain eccentricities.  He frequently went barefoot even in winter.  His tattered clothing included a sauce pot worn as a hat and a cape made from an old coffee sack with holes cut out for his arms and head.   A man of medium height, John was slender and wiry, with long light-brown hair and blue eyes.  Well- known for his cheerful generous manner, John cultivated an affinity for the wilderness including the animals of the forest.  He was a strict vegetarian.  Children of his acquaintance enjoyed listening to John’s tall tales of his adventures.  He told exciting Bible stories as well, to young and old alike and encouraged frontier families in their faith.  His wilderness wanderings provided him with a knowledge of medicinal herbs and gave him an intimacy with the local American Indians.

Around 1800, when he was about twenty-five years old, John planted his first orchard near Franklin, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburg.  He collected apple seeds from several cider mills in western Pennsylvania.  Then, after clearing and plowing a couple of acres of wilderness, he planted the seeds in closely spaced rows.   When the seedling trees were about a year old, he transplanted the healthy trees to a seedling orchard.  John Chapman was an experienced, professional nurseryman who owned at his death more than 1,200 acres of cultivated land throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.  Part of the Johnny Appleseed legend grew from John’s generous nature: although he was in the business of selling apple seeds and seedlings, he gave away nearly as many trees as he sold.

In March of 1845, John received word that a fence protecting one of his orchards near Fort Wayne, Indiana, was down allowing cattle into the orchard.  Immediately he set off, walking through a snowstorm to rescue his seedlings.  He stopped for the night at the home of a friend, Mr. Worth, but woke the next morning with pneumonia and was unable to go on.  In spite of Worth’s careful nursing, John Chapman did not recover.  He died on March 18, 1854 at the age of 75.