The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Gentle Frontiersman

By Mel Tharp © 1987

Issue: August, 1987

With as many problems as we face today, it seems only natural that people want superhuman heroes. People are searching for heroes with the power to do something about crime, corruption and unfairness.

We have a succession of Superman films. The public has been fed a steady diet of the fantasy man from the planet Krypton.

Hero worship is certainly not a new facet of our culture. During the golden days of radio, Americans set by the brown box in their living rooms, and were regaled by the stirring adventures of such heroes as the Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, the All–American boy, and Gang Busters.

History has also provided its share of real–life heroes. Legends like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bridger are prototypes of the rough–and–ready frontiersman.

Johnny Appleseed, on the other hand, was a different kind of hero. Johnny never fought in battle, nor was noted for his hunting prowess. Yet he was an American hero in the true sense of the term. This kind, solitary man had amazing physical strength, a great knowledge for woodcraft and a natural talent for charming wild beasts and healing the sick in lonely places.

Johnny [Jonathan Chapman (September 26, 1774 – March 18, 1845)], was born in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774. His legend continues to live although most people think of him as a folk hero rather than a man of character and purpose who carried seeds into the wilderness. For example, Kentuckians still tell tales of Johnny Appleseed giving a bag of seeds and a brightly polished apple to a gangling youngster named Abe Lincoln who was on his way home from borrowing a book from his neighbor. Struggling with stubborn soil and faced with endless lonely lamp–lit hours, the pioneer settlers welcomed this benevolent wanderer who planted not only apple seeds, but also spiritual ones.

For Johnny was a deeply religious man. In addition to studying the Bible, he became interested in the books of 18th–century philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. He obtained these books from a Philadelphia importer, Mr. William Schlater. Johnny acted as a traveling library to the settlers, leaving chapters from Swedenborg's book, "Heaven and Hell," and exchanging them for others on his return trip. He called these pages "Good News Fresh from Heaven."

Johnny never neglected a needy family nor shunned the faithless. He possessed an unusual eloquence and could hold a group spellbound with a discourse on the merits, beauty, importance, and delights of an apple. Like Christ, he used these occasions to speak in parable. It is easy to hear Johnny comparing a tree to love and use: "roots, seeds, branches, leaves, flowers and fruit all work together for the good of the whole – cooperating, creating something round and strong – a good deed from love and faith."

His profound love of nature won the respect of the Indians, and in the course of this relationship, he frequently acted as an intermediary between them and the settlers. This trusted friendship resulted in his channeling many of the Indian medicinal remedies and herbal knowledge to the early pioneers. It was said that the Indians thought that Johnny was touched by the Great Spirit. They invited him to witness their religious ceremonies and he found their convictions and respect for life and nature in harmony with his own.

Although Johnny had a deep, abiding respect for all living things, he showed no fear of any man or the most ferocious beast. Many of the pioneers were distrustful and even hostile toward anyone with "book learning." Yet, Johnny's knowledge of frontier ways allowed him to gain their confidence.

By horse, canoe, or on foot, Johnny visited many states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and once walked to attend a Swedenborgian church convention, all the way to Iowa. In the process of roaming the wilderness, he gained renown as an authority on frontier culture. In 1817, Harper's New Monthly published illustrated biography entitled "Johnny Appleseed, A National Hero." This brought him nation–wide attention. As Harper's put it, he was a frontier hero "of endurance that was voluntary, and of action that was creative and not sanguinary."

During the years many honors have been bestowed upon one of the country's true heroes. Plays, books, songs and poems have been written about him. Two famous apple species, the "Jonathon" and the "Chapman" were named for him.

Of all the tributes written about him, however, perhaps the most revealing description was by author Ophia D. Smith. "In field and meadow and forest he walked, concerned with the spacious thoughts of God. In his earthly life, he was a one–man humane society, a one–man clinic, a one–man missionary band, and a one–man emigrant–aid society. Johnny Appleseed did not need to die to find Heaven, for Heaven was in his heart."