Guest post by William Kerrigan
March 11th is National Johnny Appleseed Day, the 170th anniversary of the death of John Chapman, the real life Johnny Appleseed. By the time of Chapman’s death in March 1845, he had already earned a reputation as an eccentric in the central Ohio and Northeastern Indiana communities where he spent most of his adult life. But even those who knew him best knew little about his origins, and some of the basic facts of his life—and even the precise day and location of his death and burial—remained in dispute for a full century. It was only in the years after his death that locally preserved oral traditions began to coalesce into the Johnny Appleseed legend. His debut before a national audience came only in November, 1871, when an essay in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine spread his story to the nation. In subsequent years more stories emerged, some from people who knew him, others invented from whole cloth. The piece below is an excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, recounting the first newspaper report of his death:
In March 1845, John Chapman passed away. The Fort Wayne Sentinel noted that “his death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.” But other accounts tell of him falling ill and finding shelter at the home of William Worth, who cared for him in his last days. According to a witness, he was wearing at the time of his death “a coarse coffee-sack, with a hole cut through the centre through which he passed his head. He had on the waists of four pairs of pants. These were cut off at the forks, ripped up at the sides and fronts thrown away, saving the waistband attached to the hinder part. These hinder parts were buttoned around him, lapping like shingles so as to cover the whole lower part of his body, and over all these were drawn a pair of what was once pantaloons.” This erratic collection of scraps was not enough to protect him from the cold winds that whip across the plains of northeast Indiana. His death was attributed to “the winter plague.”
Chapman’s death warranted more ink in the local Fort Wayne newspaper than that of an immigrant laborer who died the same day. “Dies— In this city on Tuesday last, Mr. Thomas McJanet, a stone-cutter, age 34 years, a native of Ayrshire, Scotland” was the full obituary for Mr. McJanet. Chapman’s notoriety made him worthy of several paragraphs. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that John Chapman “was well known through this region by his eccentricity and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman and has been a regular visitor here upwards of twenty years.” The obituary also indicated that he was a follower of Swedenborg and “he is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself the most common necessities of life.” The paper credited his religious beliefs for this contradiction.
As to other details of his life, the Sentinel could only repeat local speculation and rumor. To read more, click here.
William Kerrigan is the author of Johnny Appleseed and The American Orchard: A Cultural History. Kerrigan is Arthur G. and Eloise Barnes Cole Distinguished Professor of American History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.