Johnny Appleseed, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1871 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So who said that? Pat Robertson? Max Lucado? Rick Warren?
That quote comes from a Mr. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. That also happens to be the name of the book I’ve been reading the last week or so. “Better Known As Johnny Appleseed,” by Mabel Leigh Hunt (J.B. Lippincott Company, 1950) is a charming little book that I picked up many years ago and am finally getting around to reading.
For as long as I can remember, American folklore has always captured my imagination. I couldn’t swear to it, but it may have been Walt Disney Studios’ marvelous animated features of these great tales that started my life-long interest in them.
These folk stories, or “tall tales” as they’re sometimes called, are more than fanciful yarns made up to kill time or establish bragging rights around a frontier campfire. They can tell us much about the spirit and character of our nation and its people when both were young. If you doubt that, consider what the television programs streaming into American living rooms each night can tell us about our current culture. A people’s stories are windows into their hearts.
The tales of Johnny Appleseed are among my very favorites. Perhaps this is because Johnny was a living, breathing human being who was born about the same time as our country and wandered unhindered through the land at a time when the national imagination was limitless. As Mabel Leigh Hunt beautifully states in the preface to her book:
The panorama of Johnny Appleseed’s life and legend is like a delicate old tapestry, its fabric worn with age and much handling, its fabulous leaves and flowers and fruits, its beasts and men ofttimes undiscernible, its fantastic story not quite clear. It is rich and humorous and lovely. It could never be anything but American.
Cleverly arranging historical sketches and a collection of tales, “Better Known As Johnny Appleseed” is divided into three sections: The Seeds, The Fruit and The Harvest. The first and third parts give us the facts of John Chapman’s life and bookend the tales by which we have come to know him.
He was born on September 26th, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. His father, Nathanael, was a “Continentaler” and fought in the Revolutionary War. His mother, Elizabeth, died when he was but two. Closed to history but open to conjecture is the origin of Johnny’s love of apples and nature. He was also very religious, a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. As did many in the young country, Johnny caught the “western fever” and in 1792, along with his half-brother Nathanael, he headed west.
Of course “west” back then didn’t mean Texas or Arizona:
The West was the Wyoming and Lebanon valleys and a web of streams that led to the great westward-flowing highway of the Ohio. . . The West was aching farewell and perilous adventure, hardship and hope and faith. It was a great dream. And the heart of it was a freedom such as men had never known before.
It was in the West that John Chapman became Appleseed John and ultimately Johnny Appleseed. The nine tales that make up “The Fruit” of the book are, as Mabel Leigh Hunt tells us, “based upon both truth and tradition.” They not only show us a young man becoming a legend, but a country becoming a nation.
There’s the story of Andrew McIlvain, 13 years old and carrying the United States mail between Franklinton and Chillicothe in Ohio. Johnny meets him on the lonely road and shares tales and news. Or Zack Miller, 18 years old and the youngest of four government scouts during the War of 1812. They run across Johnny in northern Ohio and he warns them not to hunt game because “the report of a gun will bring the Indians a-swarming out of their hidings.” They ignore him and barely escape the peril that comes.
What shines through in these stories isn’t the amazing feats that Johnny performed; he wasn’t Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. What he was, however, was a true American character. He wandered alone through the American wilderness wearing old worn clothing or burlap bags, mismatched shoes, a cooking pot on his head (yes, really) and absolutely no gun. The pioneers and farmers who came to know him relied on him sometimes for news, sometimes for preaching and always for a sampling from his “bag of stories.” His kindness and generosity to people and animals alike were well-known on the frontier. As Hunt notes, “Johnny was legendary in the minds of men while he still moved among them.”
On March 18, 1845, in an old Indian hut near Fort Wayne, Indiana, John Chapman passed away. A few days later the Fort Wayne Sentinel ran a notice:
Dies . . . in this neighborhood, at an advanced age, Mr. John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed). The deceased was well-known throughout this region by his eccentricity, and (his) strange garb . . . He submitted to every privation with cheerfulness and content, believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter . . .
Johnny Appleseed lived a life almost perfectly suited to a new country born for freedom. Reading the stories of his comings and goings, one gets a small sense of the overwhelming experience of freedom the people of this new nation must have had.
I pray that some tiny part of that experience still flows through the American bloodstream.