When Amy Cook counts back five generations, the adjunct English professor can connect her ancestry to Jonathan Chapman, a settler whose unusual and eccentric lifestyle became legendary among the pioneer families of Ohio and Indiana.
Chapman was better known among the frontier folks as Johnny Appleseed, a name evolving from stories of him scattering apple seeds across the fertile landscape while wearing rags, a mush pot for a hat and nothing on his feet. But Cook and other devotees are discovering there’s much more to the story of her distant relative, which they hope to push out of the realm of children’s tales and onto the pages of serious history texts.
“He was actually not unique,” Cook says. “People coming to Ohio from the East were going to need fruit trees, and it was required as a condition of sale for many land grants that they planted trees. He was just a savvy businessman. He planted orchards and sold trees to settlers.”
Through her research and conversations with Ohio historians, Cook learned that Chapman was one of Ohio’s earliest accomplished citizens who was way ahead of his time on social issues. He was an environmentalist, an herbalist, a philanthropist and a self-imposed itinerant missionary who was enthralled by the spiritual writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and gave away his belongings to needy settlers.
He believed in conservation of all living things, animal protection, recycling and considered it sinful to kill a tree unnecessarily. He sympathized with the plight of the American Indian, living and socializing with them at times.
Born in Massachusetts in 1775, Chapman came by flatboat to Ohio around 1801, bringing bags of apple seeds from the cider presses back home. He anticipated the needs of settlers by planting orchards and selling them the seedlings as they came through.
He amassed more than 1,200 acres that ranged from north-central Ohio to Indiana, where he died at age 70.
Bill Jones, a lifelong Johnny Appleseed historian and husband of WVXU radio director Vickie Jones, says a tree in northern Ohio on what was a Chapman farm is still alive and growing. Though there is no documentation proving it’s an Appleseed original, Jones believes its age, size—11 feet in circumference—and local lore leave little doubt about its authenticity.
As he readies to open the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center and Outdoor Drama near Mansfield, Ohio, next summer, Jones—as well as Cook—believes there is much young people can learn about American and Ohio history by studying Johnny Appleseed—the man and the legend.
“Sometimes people whose lives of service still impact us today can be found in the history of our very own back yard,” says Jones. “In this case, John went about his life of service by design, and we can learn from the sacrifices he made and improve our quality of life today. How could such an unassuming man impact the lives of so many merely by going about doing good?”