True Tales from the First Grade

This week I have had the pleasure of learning a great deal about one of the most beloved figures in the history of American pioneering days. I refer to Johnny Appleseed, who, frankly, I didn’t know for sure even existed. I thought I would pass some of this wealth of knowledge to you, dear reader, because I’m guessing that like me, you may have a somewhat muddled image of this legend.

First of all, he did exist. His real name was John Chapman and (not surprisingly) he had a thing for apple seeds. In the first part of the 18th century, just as settlers were headed out to tame the wilderness of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, John Chapman set out ahead of them. He travelled most often on bare foot, scattering apple seeds willy-nilly as he went, pausing only to participate in the occasional flash mob.

Polski: Salsa flash mob w Złotych Tarasach, 29...
If you look closely you can just see the top of Appleseed’s head in the very back. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Johnny Appleseed was a loving man, whose compassion for the poor was as famous as was his dancing. He delighted in defending the helpless from bears with his trusty rifle. And he travelled extensively through Europe and into the volcanoes of Hawaii to scatter apple seeds.

Okay, so it turns out, my source may not be all that reliable (imagine!). It is, in fact, my six-year-old son who came home from his first grade class full of lore and a new found love for everything apple.

So it seemed like a good idea to take the boys to a nearby U-pick orchard, and to check a few facts. It turns out it is true that the legend of Johnny Appleseed developed from a real man named John Chapman and he was famous for his compassion. He really did travel almost exclusively on foot (and rarely wore shoes) from Pennsylvania, most likely as far as Illinois for the purpose of planting apple seeds.

Where the legend gets a little fuzzy is with his motivation for all this extreme farming. Some historians have suggested that he was one of the most successful businessmen and landowners in the early days of the settled Midwestern US. I can see their point. Apples were an extremely important crop in the early pioneering days, and not only because apple crisp is super delicious.

With water sources so often contaminated, apple cider was a safe way to get water (and, if allowed to ferment, a buzz). Apples themselves are a long-lasting, easily stored food source. And perhaps most importantly, vinegar can be made from apples, which allowed pioneers to preserve food. That is, if they didn’t use all of their harvest to make apple crisp.

This was AWESOME
Who needs clean drinking water when you could have this? Yum!(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether or not he was a strong tenor or a graceful dancer, Chapman was certainly a sound businessman. He didn’t scatter his seeds willy-nilly. Instead, he planted them very deliberately near water ways where settlers were likely to end up and where the trees were likely to thrive. He fenced them in, enlisted help at times to care for them, and visited his far-flung orchards whenever he could to make sure they were doing well and to distribute trees to new settlers.

Like any good capitalist, Chapman found a market demand and supplied it. But even though he was highly successful, that’s not what made him a legend.

Business boomed, and Chapman could have been a very wealthy man. Possibly he even was at times. He didn’t exactly hesitate to sell his trees for a profit, but he also didn’t deny trees to any of the pioneers who couldn’t afford to pay for them. For payment, he often accepted the scraps of cast-off clothing that were all he ever wore, or sometimes even just an IOU that he never bothered to collect on.

You see, Johnny Appleseed was never in the business of making money, but rather the business of evangelism. He was a devout follower of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg whose accounts of his prophetic visions revised and to some extent replaced Christian teachings in the minds of his followers. Chapman shared his apples, and Swedenborg’s writings until his dying day.

“Prophets” were more common than apples in the back woods of the United States in those early days, and Swedenborg’s teaching never gained much momentum there. But Chapman’s apples certainly took root and his compassionate nature and simplistic lifestyle became the stuff of legend.

As for my son’s other claims, Chapman was a strict vegetarian who once extinguished his campfire in order to spare the mosquitoes that might accidentally fly too close to the flames. According to most accounts, he travelled with little more than a book, a cooking pot hat, and his apple seeds, so I think it unlikely that he shot very many bears. And though there are stories that probably originated in the few years following Chapman’s death that he planted apple trees as far away as California, there’s absolutely no evidence he ever travelled to Europe or Hawaii. There are also rumors that he and Elvis have been running a successful used car dealership in Boise. I hear they sell excellent apple crisp on the side.

And, sure, I somehow doubt that I’m getting a perfect account of first grade curriculum. My son (and I have no idea where he gets this trait) has the tendency to fill in the occasional imaginative detail. But I think that might be in keeping with the Johnny Appleseed legend anyway. From the painfully simple life of this one devout, apple-obsessed little man has emerged a great spirit of ecology, adventure, and love.

Of the real man behind the legend, we may only know two things for certain: flash mobs are awesome and apple crisp is delicious.

English: Drawing of Jonathan Chapman, aka John...
I’d probably buy a car from this man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9 thoughts on “True Tales from the First Grade

  1. Wonderful accounting. I like your version and will be looking for Granny Smith’s growing alongside the volcanoes when (and if) I ever visit Hawaii. Well done! 🙂

    1. I think I will make apple crisp this weekend. So far we’ve made apple muffins and have eaten a lot of apple slices with “chunky monkey apple dip.” We left the orchard with almost 40 pounds of apples (they’re just so fun to pick!) and left about half with Grandma. We still have some work to do.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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