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History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Appleseed Was Man of Spirit—And Spirits
Will Bagley
Published: 01/06/2002 Edition: Final  Section: Utah Page: B1

John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was born at Leominster, Mass., in 1774. His father after the death of his wife started the family moving west when John was 6 years old.      

As a young man, Chapman set out for Pennsylvania to find land. According to legend, he carried a bag of apple seeds and peach pits to establish orchards wherever he journeyed. Eventually, this pioneer pomologist planted fruit trees from Virginia to Indiana, allegedly walking more miles than any other wanderer of his footloose generation.      

Utah's third territorial governor, John W. Dawson, helped make Johnny Appleseed part of America's folklore. An 1871 essay by W. D. Haley first told Chapman's story to a national audience, but Indiana historian Ray Potter concluded it had "little content other than that lifted from John W. Dawson's article."      

As a young man, Dawson met Chapman and later helped sort the history from his growing legend. Johnny Appleseed arrived at Wayne's Fort one autumn day in 1830 in a "section of a hollow tree which he improvised for a boat laden with apple seed fresh from the cider presses of a more eastern part of the country."      

When Dawson moved to Indiana in 1838, he saw 15,000 trees in one of Chapman's orchards. Dawson recalled Johnny Appleseed had a sharp voice and was noted for his "rough garb, untidy appearance and eccentric habits." Chapman was "exceedingly penurious" and "very rarely ate at table with others, and never slept in a bed."      

Chapman had only the clothes on his back and that wardrobe "was so scanty he appeared as a beggar." He favored a variety of hats, including "sometimes a tin vessel worn on his head, which he used to cook his frugal meals." Believing that living things had "Divine Essence and mustn't be hurt," Appleseed was a vegetarian.

Dawson thought Chapman was "a religious monomaniac," so strong was his belief in the teachings of Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg's Church of the New Jerusalem. Chapman brought his pioneer neighbors "news right fresh from Heaven."      

Chapman felt he had "a mission in the wilderness to preach the gospel of love and [to] plant apple-seeds that shall produce orchards for the benefit of men and women and little children whom he has never seen."   

Until prohibition, most American apples were pressed into cider which, before refrigeration, quickly became hard cider. Michael Pollan's recent book, The Botany of Desire, notes Johnny Appleseed was welcomed in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana because he "was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus."   

Dawson established that Johnny Appleseed died on March 11, 1845, in Allen County, Indiana, of "winter plague" -- pneumonia. When he died, Chapman had a coarse coffee-sack pulled over his head for a shirt and "had on the waists of four pairs of pants," their legs "lapping like shingles so as to cover the lower part of his body."       

Today his grave is a national monument.

Candy Bosselmann of Arcola, Indiana, provided Utah historian Will Bagley with Dawson's articles about John Chapman.

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