Sep 262013


Today is the birthday (1774) of John Chapman, generally known as Johnny Appleseed, Swedenborgian Christian missionary, early conservationist, and folk hero.  Chapman was known as Johnny Appleseed because of his large number of fruit tree plantings. He is regarded informally as the patron saint of orchardists in the U.S.A., and today is commonly celebrated as his day. March 11 is celebrated as Johnny Appleseed Day by some, but it is not widely recognized.

John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, the second child (after his sister, Elizabeth) of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Chapman of Massachusetts. His birthplace has a granite marker, and the street is called Johnny Appleseed Lane. Nathaniel Chapman fought at Concord as a Minuteman as early as April 19, 1775, and later served in the Continental Army with General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. Johnny was born around the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

While Nathaniel was in military service, his wife died (July 18, 1776) shortly after giving birth to a second son, named Nathaniel. The baby died about two weeks after his mother. Nathaniel Chapman Sr ended his military service and returned home in 1780 to Springfield, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1780 he married Lucy Cooley of Springfield, Massachusetts and they had 10 children (one of whom was also named Nathaniel).


From this point on the facts of Chapman’s life are not well attested and are frequently contradictory.  So the following accounts should not be taken as the hard and fast truth. They are mostly drawn from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of November 1871 which can scarcely be counted on as reliable.

Supposedly, Chapman, at the age of eighteen, persuaded his half-brother Nathaniel, then eleven, to go west with him in 1792. The two of them apparently lived a nomadic life until their father, with his large family, went west in 1805 and met up with them in Ohio. Nathaniel the younger, then stopped moving around with John to help his father farm the land. John thereafter traveled alone.


The popular image of Johnny Appleseed spreading apple seeds randomly, everywhere he went is entirely wrong. In fact, he planted nurseries rather than orchards, built fences around them to protect them from livestock, left the nurseries in the care of a neighbor who was encouraged to sell the trees as they grew, and returned every year or two to check on progress. They were likely rather sour apples grown from seed, but they would have been fine for making hard cider and apple jack, as well as for baking. His first nursery was probably planted on the bank of Brokenstraw Creek, South of Warren, Pennsylvania. Next, he seems to have moved to Venango County along the shore of French Creek, but many of his nurseries were located in north-central Ohio including in the towns of Mansfield, Lucas, Perrysville, and Loudonville.

According to Harper’s Magazine, Chapman once heard an itinerant missionary who was exhorting an open-air congregation in Mansfield, Ohio. The sermon was long and severe on the topic of extravagance, because the pioneers were buying such indulgences as calico and imported tea. “Where now is there a man who, like the primitive Christians, is traveling to heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiment?” the preacher repeatedly asked until Johnny Appleseed walked up to the preacher, put his bare foot on the stump that had served as a podium, and said, “Here’s your primitive Christian!”


A woman who knew him as an old man reported that he would tell stories to children, spread the New Church gospel to the adults, and in return was given supper and a floor to sleep on for the night: “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 thrillin—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. His was a strange eloquence at times, and he was undoubtedly a man of genius.”

Chapman cared very deeply about animals, including insects. Henry Howe, who visited all the counties in Ohio in the early 19th century, collected several stories from the 1830s, when Johnny Appleseed was still alive. These tales are taken from his collection:

One cool autumnal night, while lying by his camp-fire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burned. 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 in a snowstorm 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.

When he heard a horse was to be put down, he bought the horse, bought a few grassy acres nearby, and turned the horse out to recover. When it did, he gave the horse to someone needy, exacting a promise to treat the horse humanely.

When Chapman was asked why he never married, his answer was always that two female spirits would be his wives in the after-life if he stayed single on earth. However, it is also said that he had been a frequent visitor to Perrysville, Ohio. He was to propose to Miss Nancy Tannehill there—only to find that he was a day late; she had accepted a prior proposal:

 On one occasion Miss Price’s mother asked Johnny if he would not be a happier man, if he were settled in a home of his own, and had a family to love him. He opened his eyes very wide–they were remarkably keen, penetrating grey eyes, almost black–and replied that all women were not what they professed to be; that some of them were deceivers; and a man might not marry the amiable woman that he thought he was getting, after all.

 Now we had always heard that Johnny had loved once upon a time, and that his lady love had proven false to him. Then he said one time he saw a poor, friendless little girl, who had no one to care for her, and sent her to school, and meant to bring her up to suit himself, and when she was old enough he intended to marry her. He clothed her and watched over her; but when she was fifteen years old, he called to see her once unexpectedly, and found her sitting beside a young man, with her hand in his, listening to his silly twaddle. I peeped over at Johnny while he was telling this, and, young as I was, I saw his eyes grow dark as violets, and the pupils enlarge, and his voice rise up in denunciation, while his nostrils dilated and his thin lips worked with emotion. How angry he grew! He thought the girl was basely ungrateful. After that time she was no protegé of his.

There is some controversy and vagueness concerning the date of his death and his burial. Harper’s Magazine of November, 1871 says he died in the summer of 1847. The Fort Wayne Sentinel, however, printed his obituary on March 22, 1845, saying that he died on March 18:

On the same day in this neighborhood, at an advanced age, Mr. John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed).  He died of testicular cancer. The deceased was well known through this region by his eccentricity, and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman, and has been a regular visitor here upwards of 10 years. He was a native of Pennsylvania we understand but his home—if home he had—for some years past was in the neighborhood of Cleveland, where he has relatives living. He is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself almost the common necessities of life—not so much perhaps for avarice as from his peculiar notions on religious subjects. He was a follower of Swedenborg and devoutly believed that the more he endured in this world the less he would have to suffer and the greater would be his happiness hereafter—he submitted to every privation with cheerfulness and content, believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter.

In the most inclement weather he might be seen barefooted and almost naked except when he chanced to pick up articles of old clothing. Notwithstanding the privations and exposure he endured, he lived to an extreme old age, not less than 80 years at the time of his death—though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was 60. “He always carried with him some work on the doctrines of Swedenborg with which he was perfectly familiar, and would readily converse and argue on his tenets, using much shrewdness and penetration.

His death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.

The actual site of his grave is disputed as well. Developers of Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Canterbury Green apartment complex and golf course claim his grave is there, marked by a rock. That is where the Worth cabin in which he died sat. However, Steven Fortriede, director of the Allen County Public Library  and author of the 1978 Johnny Appleseed, believes another putative gravesite, located in Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne, is the correct site. Johnny Appleseed Park is a city park which adjoins Archer Park, an Allen County park. Archer Park is the site of John Chapman’s grave marker and formerly was a part of the Archer family farm.

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When planning this post I had no doubt that the recipe I would use would be my sister’s apple pie recipe which has gained quite a reputation.  She, Jane Mendola, used to be the owner/operator of a bakery, “The English Tart,” on Staten Island, NY.  Her productions, mostly her own recipes, were legendary. It’s not just brotherly loyalty that makes me claim that her baked goods are among the best I have had anywhere in the world.  She’s giving me her recipes – slowly – from memory, or from butter stained index cards, so that we can compile a book. Stay tuned. This pie will be a great favorite when you make it.

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© The English Tart’s Apple Pie


Pie Base

9 in pie crust.
3 lbs of apples, mixture of granny smith and Macintosh
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ cup flour
½ cup sugar


½  cup flour
½ cup sugar
4 oz butter (1 stick) room temp
½ tsp cinnamon


Preheat the oven to 375°F

Peel, core and slice the apples.  Place them in a mixing bowl.

Add the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, and mix well. Pile the mixture into the pie crust. It will mound quite high.

Place the ingredients for the topping in a mixing bowl, and roughly squeeze and mix them with your hands, leaving large pieces of butter.

Sprinkle this over the apples, trying to cover the whole pie, being careful not to allow any of it to fall off.

Put the pie on a cookie sheet and bake at 375°F for 45 minutes.  Turn the pie after 30 minutes to ensure even baking.  Check after 45 minutes and bake a bit longer if not completely golden.

  2 Responses to “Johnny Appleseed”

  1. The topping is called Streusel in the Barossa Valley, South Australia. It is a common topping for sweet dishes of German origin. The local baker makes little apple and Streusel pies. I must try one from Jane’s recipe tomorrow. They look marvellous from the photos.

  2. It’s sometimes called Streusel in the U.S. too. As you will see from the photos, these pies are LOADED with apples. They bake down a bit, of course. The preponderance of apples is one of the things that makes them special.

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