John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed, Market revolution
You all remember the Johnny Appleseed prayer, right?
The Lord’s been good to me And so I thank the Lord For giving me the things I need The sun and rain and the apple seed Yes he’s been good to me.
Turns out it is bogus, ginned up by Walt Disney in the 1940s. The bare feet, the flour-sack shirt, the up-turned cooking pot on the head—all lies and fabrications. It’s not even true that John Chapman planted all the [End Page 795] orchards between Wheeling and St. Louis. (Makes you wonder about Walt Disney as a source for educational videos!)
William Kerrigan’s new study of John Chapman and the mythic Johnny Appleseed is a patient and exhaustive labor of love. A professor at Muskingum University in east-central Ohio, Kerrigan has spent much of the past twenty years scouring the landscape and combing the archives searching for the historical Chapman and trying to situate both man and myth in some meaningful context. This brief and readable book is the fruit of that effort.
Kerrigan appears not to have set out to debunk the Appleseed myth, and he takes no evident pleasure in finding little congruence between the stories and the historical record. Claims that Chapman refused to eat meat appear unverifiable. That he would not possess or use firearms also fails scrutiny. That his behavior sprang from some deep religious commitment survives as possible but unproved. He embraced the Swedenborgians, but little about that persuasion explains Chapman’s personal life choices. That he strode barefoot across the Ohio and Indiana frontier is most likely untrue, although his lifestyle surely was spartan and his appearance shabby.
He lived seventy-one years unencumbered by personal possessions or a settled home, and he raised apple seedlings in frontier nurseries, selling thousands of them to westering pioneers. Far from being the only source of fruit stock in frontier Ohio, Chapman encountered stiff competition from grafted varieties that showed up almost immediately in settled communities. He eschewed these higher quality trees for reasons he never made clear, insisting on selling sexually propagated stock that was cheaper but yielded generic apples fit mostly for cider-making. A temperate man himself, John peddled seedlings that ironically put him at odds late in life with a temperance campaign against hard cider and low-end fruits that were good only for liquor production. In all, his life was spent in self-imposed exile on the margins of antebellum American society for reasons he took to his grave.
All this is reported in matter-of-fact prose as Kerrigan takes up one claim after another and compares it to the meager documentary record. And, of course, here is the source of a persistent frustration with the enterprise: John Chapman lived a life almost perfectly designed to escape capture by the documentary record. He never married and left no offspring of record. He wandered in frontier communities where notoriously underdeveloped institutions rarely captured evidence of ordinary [End Page 796] people’s lives beyond birth, death, decadal censuses, criminal prosecutions, and (if they indulged in property ownership) land records. Indeed Chapman bought and sold many more parcels of land than we might expect of a barefoot apple-planting hermit, but Kerrigan is unable to tease out of this evidence a good story of what he was up to or why. Over the years he made a surprising amount of money selling apple seedlings, yet he died in 1845 with a mixture of debts and assets that, as with so many of his generation, pretty much cancelled each other out. He lived in poverty apparently by choice in a world of opportunity where he might have prospered. Some people thought him lazy, some mad, but “most simply described him as peculiar” (127).
Kerrigan makes a worthy effort to contextualize Chapman’s choices as dissenting from the materialism and market orientation that overwhelmed his generation of Americans. This...