Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1871

Johnny Appleseed




I SAID to father yesterday: "I wonder why when I was a very little girl that I called fennel, or May-weed, 'Johnny-weed?' I never did only when I was very small, and none of us do so now."


"Have you forgotten?" he asked. "Don't you remember that it was called 'Johnny-weed' because poor old Johnny Appleseed introduced it into the then-called Western country?"


Really, I had forgotten it; but it all came back to me, and I remembered it well. Johnny-weed! And what a pest it is to the farmer! Well, that was all the evil the poor man left behind him, while the good he did will never die.


Then we began to talk about Johnny, and father became enthusiastic, and I did wish a reporter was sitting in an adjoining room with the door open, because Johnny Appleseed's name is familiar to many old people who would be glad to hear all about him.


He was born in Boston in the year 1775, and his name was John Chapman — not Jonathan, as it is generally called. He was an earnest disciple of the faith taught by Emanuel Swedenborg, and claimed that he had conversations with spirits and angels. In the bosom of his shirt he always carried a Testament and one or two

old volumes of Swedenborg's works. These he read daily. He was a man rather above middle stature, wore his hair and beard long, and dressed oddly. He generally wore old clothes that he had taken in exchange for the one commodity in which he dealt — apple-trees. He was known in Ohio among the pioneers as early as 1811. An old uncle of ours, a pioneer in Jefferson county, Ohio, said the first time he ever saw Johnny he was going down the river, 1806, with two canoes lashed together, and well laden with apple-seeds, which he had obtained at the cider-presses of Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes he carried a bag or two of seeds on an old horse; but more frequently he bore them on his back, going from place to place on the wild frontier, clearing a little patch, surrounding it with a rude enclosure, and planting seeds therein. He had little nurseries all through Ohio and Indiana. If a man wanted trees and was not able to pay for them, Johnny took his note, and if the man ever became able, and was willing to pay the debt, he took the money thankfully; but if not, it was well. Sometimes he took a coat, one of which we remember having seen. It was a sky-blue, light, very fine and firm and soft, made in the prevailing Quaker style, with bright silvery-looking buttons on it, two rows, as large at least as silver dollars. Some way the buttonholes were out of sight, hidden by a fold, perhaps. The coat was a choice wedding garment of a wealthy young Quaker, and in time prosperity and its attendant blessings made the young man grow rotund in stature, and the coat did not fit. Then he had loops put on it; and finally he traded it to Johnny for trees ; and Johnny's home was at my grandfather's, and by that means the coat came into our family, and hung by the year on a peg up-stairs.


We little Rices used to wear it at our private theatricals. It was good to wear during every performance we had. A pair of deer-skin pantaloons, a bell-crowned hat, the "Johnny coat," an Indian coat trimmed with something strange and always smelling of wigwam smoke, and our mother's camlet cloak, completed our stock of costume. We have made the tails of the Johnny coat flutter like flags in Gilpin's ride and the witch on the broom. Our regret now is that we had not seen the great Centennial year in the dim distance, and saved the rare old coat for the occasion.


I can remember how Johnny looked in his queer clothing-combination suit, the girls of nowdays would call it. He was such a good, kind, generous man, that he thought it was wrong to expend money on clothes to be worn just for the fine appearance; he thought if he was comfortably clad, and in attire that suited the weather, it was sufficient. His head covering was generally a pasteboard hat of his own making, with one broad side to it that he wore next the sunshine to protect his face. He wore it with the wide side of the rim toward the sun. It was a very unsightly object, to be sure, and yet never one of us children ventured to laugh at it. We held Johnny in tender regard. His pantaloons were old, and scant, and short, with some sort of a substitute for " gallows" or suspenders. He never wore a coat except in the winter-time; and his feet were knobby and horny, and frequently bare. Sometimes he wore old shoes; but if he had none, and the rough roads hurt his feet, he substituted sandals instead —rude soles with thong fastenings. The bosom of his shirt was always pulled out loosely, so as to make a kind of pocket or pouch, in which he carried his books. We have seen Johnny frequently wearing an old coffee-sack for a coat, with holes cut in it for his arms.


All the orchards in the white settlements came from the nurseries of Johnny's planting.. Even now, after all these years, and though this region of country is densely populated, I can count from my window no less than five orchards, or remains of orchards, that were once trees taken from his nurseries.


Long ago, if he was going a great distance, and carrying a sack of seeds on his back, he had to provide himself with a leather sack, for the dense underbrush, brambles And thorny thickets would have made it unsafe for a coffee-sack.

I remember very distinctly of falling over one of Johnny's well-filled sacks one early morning, immediately after rising. It was not light in the room at the head of the stairs, and it was not there when I went to bed the night before. It seems that he arrived in the night, and for safe-keeping the sack was put up-stairs while he lay beside the kitchen fire. I never saw him sleep in a bed; he preferred to lie on the floor, with his poor old horny feet near the fire. I have often wondered how he carried that sack of seeds. I should think there was at least a bushel and a half in it, and it was so full that instead of being tied and leaving something for a hand-hold, it was sewed up snugly, and one end was as smooth and tight as the other. It must have been as hard to carry as a box of the same size. I have heard my father say, however, that Johnny always carried a forestick, or any big stick for the fire-place, on his hip, so it may be that it was the way he carried that ungainly burden.


In 1806 he planted sixteen bushels of seeds on an old farm on the Walhonding River, and he planted nurseries in Licking county, Ohio, and Richland county, and had other nurseries farther west. One of his nurseries is near us, and I often go to the secluded spot on the quiet banks of the creek, shut in by sycamore trees, with the sod never broken since the poor old man did it; and when I look up and see the wide, outreaching branches over the place, like outspread arms in loving benediction, I say in a reverent whisper: "Oh, the angels did commune with the good old man whose loving heart prompted him to go about doing good!"


A silent awe steals over me when I stand there, and I involuntarily step softly and speak low. I seem to see the old man breaking the rich, black soil, and laying aside the green sod, where only the violets have grown for many, many years, and as he drops the tiny seeds into the virgin soil, his good will to the poor pioneer goes with every seed, and God's blessing is with the homeless, wifeless, childless, but beloved and venerated wanderer. He was singularly pure and good. I know that now, after all these years, when I recall how the mothers in the neighborhood loved him. When he came to us after a long absence, the wives and mothers would shake hands, and inquire about his health and his affairs, and talk so kindly and affectionately to him, and tell him about the births and deaths, and the baby cutting teeth, or beginning to toddle and talk at nine months; and though he was singular, and his ways not our ways, and his manner of speech not ours, and his thoughts spiritualized and exalted above ours, yet he manifested such a warm and cordial sympathy that he united himself to us in tender, loving, beautiful ties.


I remember once my sick mother was bathing her feet in warm water, and we cried out: "O mamma! mamma! hurry! a man's coming!"


She started to get up, but seeing through the window who it was, she sat still, saying, " Why it's dear old Johnny!" in a voice that showed how glad she was to have him come—as satisfied as if he had been a good woman.

He prescribed for her headache, and his very voice was full of pity and comfort.


Though my mother was very kind, she liked fun — liked to tease big, overgrown boys and make them say funny things, and writhe and twist rather than confess or make a fair answer. I often recall one time that she so far transgressed as to tease Johnny. He was holding the baby on his lap, chirruping to the little fellow, when my mother asked him if he would not be a happier man if he were settled in a home of his own and had a family to love him. He opened his eyes very wide—they were remarkably keen, penetrating, gray eyes, almost black—and replied in a manner, the words of which I cannot repeat, but the moaning was that all women were not what they profess to be, that some of them were deceivers, and a man might not marry the amiable woman that he thought he was getting, after all.


Now we had always heard that Johnny had loved once upon a time, and that his lady love had proven false to him. Then he said one time he saw a poor, friendless little girl who had no one to care for her, and he found a home for her, and sent her to school, and meant to bring her up to suit himself, and when she was old enough he intended to marry her. He clothed her and watched over her; but when she was fifteen years old, he called to see her once unexpectedly, and found her sitting beside a young man, with her hand in his, listening to his silly twaddle.

I peeped over at Johnny while he was telling this, and, young as I was, I saw his eyes grow dark as violets, and the pupils enlarge, and his voice rise up in denunciation, while his nostrils dilated and his thin lips worked with emotion. How angry he grew! He thought the girl was basely ungrateful. After that time she was no protege of his.


He was very fond of little girls, and I think he liked women better than men. He seemed feminine in many of his attributes, and in his likes and dislikes he was decidedly womanly. I often felt badly — indeed they must have been the pangs of jealousy — when I would hear little playmates say: "He asked mother to give me to him to bring up like a lady;" or, "Johnny said if he could get me for his wife he'd bring me up the  right kind of a way."

Now he never asked my mother for the listening, admiring, curious little lady in the bib apron, who stood back out of sight watching the wild play of his impressive features, and wondering how the poor old man came to use such big words, and rejoicing in his rare eloquence.


And yet he must have noticed the homely child, for often he would read to her out of his old books, prefacing the entertainment with: "Don't you want some fresh news right from Heaven?" That was what he always called it.

On the subject of apples he was very charmingly enthusiastic. One would be astonished at his beautiful description of excellent fruit. I saw him once at the table, when I was very small, telling about some apples that were new to us. His description was poetical, the language remarkably well-chosen; it could have been no finer had the whole of Webster's Unabridged, with all its royal vocabulary, been fresh upon his ready tongue. I stood back of my mother's chair, amazed, delighted, bewildered, and vaguely realizing the wonderful powers of true oratory. I felt more than I understood.


He was scrupulously honest. I recall the last time we ever saw his sister, a very ordinary woman, the wife of an easy old gentleman, and the mother of a family of handsome girls. They had started to move West in the winter season, but could move no farther after they reached our house. To help them along and to get rid of them, my father made a queer little one-horse vehicle on runners, hitched their poor caricature of a beast to it, helped them pack and stow therein their bedding and few movables, gave them a stock of provisions and five dollars, and sent the whole kit on their way rejoicing.


And that was the last we ever saw of our poor neighbors — the pretty little girls with their sunny hair and their laughing brown eyes, the easygoing old man, and the only sister of Johnny's, the spry little woman who always called me "honey."


The next time Johnny came to our house he very promptly laid a two-dollar bill on my lather's knee, and shook his head very decidedly when it was handed back; neither would he be prevailed upon to take it again.


He was never known to hurt any animal or to give any living thing pain — not even a snake. One time, when overtaken by night while travelling, he crawled into a hollow log and slept till morning. In the other end of the log was a bear and her cubs. Johnny said he knew the bear would not hurt him and that there was room enough for all.


The Indians all liked him and treated him very kindly. They regarded him, from his habits, as a man above his follows. He could endure pain like an Indian warrior; could thrust pins into his flesh without a tremor. Indeed, so insensible was he to acute pain that his treatment of a wound or sore was to sear it with a hot iron, and then treat it as a burn.

He ascribed great medicinal virtues to the fennel, which he found, probably, in Pennsylvania. The overwhelming desire to do good and benefit and bless others, induced him to gather a quantity of the seed, which he carried in his pockets, and occasionally scattered along his path in his journeys, especially at the wayside near dwellings. Poor old man! He inflicted upon the farming population a positive evil, when he sought to do good, for the rank fennel, with its pretty but pungent blossom, lines our roadsides, and borders our lanes, and steals into our door-yards, and is a pest only second to the daisy.


The last time we saw Johnny was one summer day when we were quilting up-stairs. A door opened out upon the ground, and he stood his little bundle on the sill and lay down upon the floor, resting his head on the parcel. Then he drew out of his bosom one of his old dingy books and read aloud to us.


That is one of the pictures which will always "hang on memory's wall." We can see the old man lying with his head on the sill, his gray hair falling away from his placid face, his simple attire, his finely-cut features and the little book in his toil-worn hands, while the wreathing morning glory vines, stirred by the summer wind, framed the picture. His voice had the same old charm, and the same fascination held the maiden spellbound that had awed the little child in the years agone. His voice would rise and fall musically and with a fervid and a strange eloquence that was very singular. Something about it reminded me of the music of winds, and waves, and the murmur among the leafy boughs; a something indefinable and very peculiar.


He felt that God had appointed him this mission of love—this hard, rough toil in the wilderness— that this life and this work was His Gospel to preach daily, that to plant apple-trees which would produce orchards for the benefit of generations yet to come, was his appointed work. What a beautiful faith was Johnny's!


In 1838, he resolved to go further on. Civilization was making the wilderness to blossom like the rose, villages were springing up, stage-coaches laden with travellers were common, schools were everywhere, mail facilities were very good, frame and brick houses were taking the places of the humble cabins; and so poor Johnny went around among all his friends and bade them farewell. The little girls he had dandled upon his knees, and presented with beads and gay ribbons, were now mothers and the heads of families. This must have been a sad task for the old man, who was then well stricken in years, and one would have thought that he would have preferred to die among his friends.

He came back two or three times to see us all, in the intervening nine years that he lived; the last time was in the year that he died, 1847. (Actually 1845)


In the summer of that year, one day, after travelling twenty miles, he entered the house of an acquaintance in Allen County, Indiana, and was, as usual, cordially received. He declined to eat anything except some bread and milk, which he ate sitting on the door-step, occasionally looking out toward the setting sun.


Before bed-time, he read from his little books "fresh news right from Heaven," and at the usual hour for retiring, he lay down upon the floor, as was his invariable custom. In the morning the beautiful light supernal was upon his countenance, the death angel had touched him in the silence and the darkness, and though the dear old man essayed to speak, he was so nearly dead that his tongue refused its office.


The physician came and pronounced him dying, but remarked that he never saw a man so perfectly calm and placid, and he inquired particularly concerning Johnny's religion.


Poor Johnny! I often fear that "no man knoweth of his sepulchre." I was travelling in a coach a few years ago in the county in which he died, and to all my eager inquiries the reply invariably was: "Well, he's buried some place about here, but I'm not certain just where it is." My heart ached with sorrow and anxiety; I was grieved to think the dear old man, to whom we are all indebted, slept in a nameless grave.


The lumbering coach halted at one time, the horses were reined up at the shady roadside, and the driver hailed down respectfully to " the leddy" that there in that wayside nook was once one of Johnny's nurseries. It was a spot we shall never forget. Tall trees environed it, a brook warbled below it, the winding highway beside it was picturesque and lay through an immense reach of wildwood, and the toot of the stage-horn daily broke the silence. All the rows of trees had been removed from the woodland nursery, and it was now only the delightful haunt of bird and bee and squirrel, while the climbing vines ran riot, and the long grass looked as though it draped the sacred graves of beloved ones.

How I did wish that memorable man of pioneer times, that homeless wanderer whose heart was warm with a love so comprehensive, could have his grave there in the beautiful silence in which he wrought his self-denying work so many, many years of his life! Poor Johnny!


His bruised and bleeding feet now walk the gold-paved streets of the New Jerusalem, while we so brokenly and crudely narrate the sketch of his life. A life full of labor, and pain, and unselfishness, humble unto self-abnegation, his memory glowing in our hearts, while his deeds live anew every spring-time in the fragrance of the apple-blossoms he loved so well.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon.                                                                               Contact at marwelmer@aol.com