Johnny Appleseed: A Pioneer Hero

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"Johnny Appleseed: A Pioneer Hero"

Magazine article

By: W. D. Haley

Date: November 1871

Source: Haley, W. D. "Johnny Appleseed: A Pioneer Hero." Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1871).

About the Author: Little is known about author W. D. Haley. Harper's is an American journal of literature, politics, culture, and the arts. It is one of the oldest American magazines in existence, and has been published continually since 1850.


While few Americans would recognize the name of John Chapman, many know him by his popular nickname: "Johnny Appleseed." Chapman was born in Massachusetts in 1774. Little is known about his early life, however in 1791 he began traveling through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois planting trees, including thousands of apple trees.

Chapman's usual practice was to find a suitable piece of land, clear it, and plant an orchard. Then, over the course of two to three years he would return to tend the orchard until the trees were ready to be sold. By locating his orchards in the path of advancing settlements, Chapman ensured himself a steady supply of ready buyers for his apple saplings, which he sold for about six cents apiece. Estimates place his total plantings at approximately 1,200 acres (486 hectares) of orchards.

The story of Johnny Appleseed is difficult to reconstruct accurately, as time has blurred the distinction between fact and legend. Chapman was apparently a bit eccentric. His clothing consisted of a coffee sack with armholes cut in it for a shirt and bare feet. The most famous images of Chapman portray him with dark shoulder-length hair and a tin kettle for a cap, though this final item may be more legend than fact. By 1806 he had been given his new nickname, and his fame began to spread.

Chapman appeared to be part agronomist, part naturalist, and part philosopher. He was a popular guest in frontier homes, welcomed not just for his gifts of apple seeds, but also for his ready wit and his tall tales. He never married, and often wove spiritual messages into his entertaining stories. In 1871, Harper's New Monthly Magazine published an extensive account of his real and imaginary adventures.


The "far West" is rapidly becoming only a traditional designation: railroads have destroyed the romance of frontier life, or have surrounded it with so many appliances of civilization that the pioneer character is rapidly becoming mythical. The men and women who obtain their groceries and dry-foods from New York by rail in a few hours have nothing in common with those who, fifty years ago, "packed" salt a hundred miles to make their mush palatable, and could only exchange corn and wheat for molasses and calico by making long and perilous voyages in flat-boats down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. Two generations of frontier lives have accumulated stores of narrative which, like the small but beautiful tributaries of great rivers, are forgotten in the broad sweep of the larger current of history. The march of Titans sometimes tramples out the memory of smaller but more useful lives, and sensational glare often eclipses more modest but purer lights. This has been the case in the popular demand for the dime novel dilutions of Fenimore Cooper's romances of border life, which have preserved the records of Indians rapine and atrocity as the only memorials of pioneer history. But the early days of Western settlement witnessed sublimer heroisms than those of human torture, and nobler victories than those of the tomahawk and scalping-knife.

Among the heroes of endurance that was voluntary, and of action that was creative and not sanguinary, there was one man whose name, seldom mentioned now save by some of the few surviving pioneers, deserves to be perpetuated.

The first reliable trace of our modest hero finds him in the Territory of Ohio, in 1801, with a horse-load of apple seeds, which he planted in various places on and about the borders of Licking Creek, the first orchard thus originated by him being on the farm of Isaac Stadden, in what is now known as Licking County, in the State of Ohio. During the five succeeding years, although he was undoubtedly following the same strange occupation, we have no authentic account of his movements until we reach a pleasant spring day in 1806, when a pioneer settler in Jefferson County, Ohio, noticed a peculiar craft, with a remarkable occupant and a curious cargo, slowly dropping down with the current of the Ohio River. It was "Johnny Appleseed," by which name Jonathan Chapman was afterward known in every log cabin from the Ohio River to the Northern Lakes, and westward to the prairies of what is now the State of Indiana. With two canoes lashed together he was transporting a load of apple seeds to the Western frontier, for the purpose of creating orchards on the farthest verge of white settlements. With his canoes he passed down the Ohio to Marietta, where he entered the Muskingum, ascending the stream of that river until he reached the mouth of the Walbonding, or White Woman Creek, and still onward, up the Mohican, into the Black Fork, to the head of navigation, in the region now known as Ashland and Richland counties, on the line of the Pittsburg and Fort Wayne Railroad, in Ohio. A long and toilsome voyage it was, as a glance at the map will show, and must havex occupied a great deal of time, as the lonely traveler stopped at every inviting spot to plant the seeds and make his infant nurseries. These are the first well-authenticated facts in the history of Jonathan Chapman, whose birth, there is good reason for believing, occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1775.


Johnny Appleseed spent forty-nine years wandering the American frontier alone. While tales of a shaggy man scattering seeds wildly about are more fiction than fact, the impact of Johnny Appleseed is undeniable. By spreading apple trees across the frontier, he helped ease the lives of pioneers, and his efforts were responsible for some of the large orchards dotting the Midwest today. More than a century after his death, some of the trees he planted are still bearing fruit.

Like most legends, the man behind the story was probably less exciting than the tall tales about him, but Johnny Appleseed played a unique role in American frontier life. In 1966, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Johnny Appleseed and his accomplishments.



Hodges, Margaret. The True Tale of Johnny Appleseed. New York: Holiday House, 1999.

Johnny Appleseed: A Voice in the Wilderness, edited by William Ellery Jones. New York: Chrysalis Books, 2000.

Price, Robert. Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth. New York: Peter Smith Publishing, Inc., 1954.

Web sites

The Johnny Appleseed Festival. 〈〉 (accessed January 26, 2006).

Urbana University. "Johnny Appleseed Society." 〈〉 ( January 26, 2006).