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|For immediate use||Nov. 18, 1998 No. 861|
UNC-CH historian Leuchtenburg profiles Johnny Appleseed as his forgotten hero
By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services
CHAPEL HILL Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest, and in the United States no fruit better reflects a bountiful harvest than the humble apple.
And in this country, no one has been linked more closely to apples than the self-effacing John Chapman, an early back-to-the-earth kind of guy better known as Johnny Appleseed.
Pioneers turned the treasured, easily stored pome fruit into pies, preserves, cider, sauce, juice, vinegar and a host of other foodstuffs. Clad in little more than rags, Chapman roamed the young nations frontier from western Pennsylvania throughout Ohio and parts of Indiana unafraid of wild beasts and Indians. He salvaged seeds from rotten apples and cider presses to create tree stock that he sold cheaply to thousands of settlers and often just gave away.
Now increasingly left out of school history books and rarely mentioned in the mass media, Johnny is the subject of a new profile by Dr. William Leuchtenburg, one of this countrys leading historians. The portrait appears in "Forgotten Heroes," just published by Simon & Schusters Free Press.
"What we truly know about John Chapmans beginnings is shrouded in the meadow mists of the first mornings of the American republic," Leuchtenburg wrote. "We can say with confidence that he was born in apple harvest time on Sept. 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts, son of a minuteman who would be sent to Concord the following spring and of a Yankee woman whose first cousin was the fabled Count Rumford."
Although no records survive about him for the next 23 years, Johnny surfaced in 1797 in northwestern Pennsylvania and the next year sowed seeds for his first apple nursery along the Big Brokenstraw, a tributary of the Allegheny River.
For the next almost half century, he traveled alone and unarmed, mostly in Ohio. Eventually he wore little beyond the roughest homespun or a burlap sack with holes cut for his head and arms, battered shoes with no socks when he wasnt barefoot -- and, legend says, a mush pan for a hat.
"Not the first to bring orchards to the West, or even the first to gain a livelihood from this activity, he was the first to spend a lifetime planting apple seeds in advance of the moving frontier, and he had an uncanny sense of where the routes of migration would be," Leuchtenburg wrote.
Although he cared little about money and often slept outside in lean-tos and hollow logs, Chapman earned enough to buy more than 1,000 acres. A devout follower of the Swedish mystic Christian Emanuel Swedenborg, he proselytized to settlers who welcomed him into their homes.
In 1817, a Philadelphian called him "a very extraordinary missionary of the New Jerusalem . . . who seems to be almost independent of corporal wants and sufferings. He goes barefooted, can sleep anywhere . . . and can live on the coarsest and most scanty fare. He has actually thawed the ice with his bare feet."
Chapman became regarded as "a lay saint, a St. Francis of the frontier," Leuchtenburg said. Frowning on hunting, he bought maltreated horses and put them out to pasture. Indians, who admired his stoicism, left him alone. He blamed "Indian troubles" on white settlers.
In 1845, "Johnny Appleseed" died of pneumonia in a rude cabin on a snowy March day in northern Indiana, where he had gone to resurrect a failing orchard. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported, "The deceased was well known through this region by his eccentricity, and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of nursery-man." Not long later, an Indiana diarist recorded, "First apple blossoms."
When word of his death reached the U.S. Senate floor, San Houston said, "Farewell, dear old eccentric heart. Your labor has been a labor of love, and generations yet unborn will rise up and call you blessed."
"John Chapman left America a distinguished legacy," Leuchtenburg wrote. "Unlike Daniel Boone or Wyatt Earp, he carried no gun, and unlike the mythical Paul Bunyan, he won renown not by felling trees but by planting them."
A past president of the American Historical Association, Leuchtenburg is among the nations top experts on the U.S. presidency, and many consider him the leading authority on Franklin Roosevelt. Widely known for his writing and teaching, he is author of numerous successful books and articles. He also has received top awards for teaching and scholarship, most recently a prize presented by Chief Justice William Rehnquist in May for the best article on the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
Thirty-four other distinguished U.S. scholars wrote profiles for "Forgotten Heroes," including UNC-CH historians Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Joel Williamson and UNC-CH graduate Tom Wicker, a retired New York Times columnist; Arthur Schlesinger Jr., former assistant to President John Kennedy and emeritus City University of New York professor; and Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard zoologist.
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Note: Now travelling in Europe, Leuchtenburg can be reached at (919) 967-1257 when he returns Tuesday evening, Nov. 24.
Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596.