When our country was still in its infancy, in the 1790s, John Chapman began an apprenticeship in Ohio as an orchardist, a grower of fruit trees. John was born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. He was the second of three children. John’s mother died in 1778 shortly after giving birth to John’s younger brother. Two years later, John’s father remarried and had several more children. Little more is known about John until he was an adult, and even then, the details are sketchy.
During his apprenticeship, John learned to grow and care for a wide variety of fruit trees, but he preferred apple trees. Once his apprenticeship was complete, John set up his own apple tree nursery. He planted a large tract of land in apple trees, all from seeds, and built a fence around the plot to protect the seedlings from wildlife. Once the trees were established, John turned the nursery over to a neighbor. The neighbor watched over the nursery, sold the young trees, and he and John divided the money. Most of the trees were sold to settlers as they arrived in the area. The neighbor saved John’s portion for his eventual return.
John moved on, sometimes to another state, to start another apple tree nursery. He usually moved west to stay just ahead of the arriving settlers. Again, once the trees were established, he turned the nursery over to a neighbor. He repeated the process over and over. By the end of his life, John owned or had long-term leases on about 1200 acres of land in Ohio and Indiana. John planted orchards in Ohio, Indiana, and several other states. It is impossible to know just how many apple trees John planted in his lifetime.
When heading to a new area to set up a new orchard, John often visited his sister, Elizabeth, who lived in Savannah, Ohio. Based on newspaper and magazine articles written about him during his lifetime, John became wealthy from selling young apple trees, yet he almost always traveled on foot so as not to misuse or abuse horses or other animals. Always preferring to travel light and practical, John wore a hat made of metal, probably tin, and liked to walk barefooted to feel the earth on his feet. The metal hat kept his head dry during rainstorms, and he used the hat to fetch drinking water and to cook food over an open fire. While visiting his sister, John refused to sleep in her or anyone else’s home. John usually slept on the floor of a small outbuilding at a nearby farm owned by a Mr. Harvey. On one such trek to his sister’s, John showed his gratitude to Mr. Harvey by establishing an apple orchard on his farm.
Most of the trees that John planted died many decades ago. If you visit a certain picturesque 19th century farmhouse just outside of Savannah, Ohio, you can see an ancient tree which is little more than a large stump with sparse and random sprouts. This tree, on what was the Harvey farm, is believed to be the last surviving apple tree planted by John, a Males Pumila.
The ancient apple tree on the old Harvey farm is just one reminder of John’s love and appreciation of apple trees. 70-year-old John Chapman died in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1845 after contracting pneumonia. Following his death, one newspaper reported, “This man had imbibed so remarkable a passion for the rearing and cultivation of apple trees from the seed, and pursued it with so much zeal and perseverance, as to cause him to be regarded by the few settlers, just then beginning to make their appearance in the country, with a degree of almost superstitious admiration.” Although the exact location of John’s final resting place has been debated for decades, many historians believe his grave is located on a small hill in a park in Fort Wayne which bears his nickname. It is known as Johnny Appleseed Park.
1. The Wilkes-Barre Advocate, June 3, 1846, p.1.
2. “The Man – the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum.” Accessed October 15, 2023. https://johnnyappleseedmuseum.