The Man Behind Johnny Appleseed

By
Fred Kight

Dateline
Updated Sat, Nov 3, 2012 12:16 pm

Who is John Chapman?

Most people would struggle to answer that question.

He's the man who introduced apple trees to large parts of Ohio, West Virginia and several other states and is otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed.  

And he's the subject of a new book by Professor William Kerrigan of Muskingum University.

Kerrigan encountered Johnny Appleseed in elementary school, but found out the local meaning of it when he moved back to Ohio to work as a liberal arts college professor. 

"I've always been interested in the intersection between myth and histories," said Kerrigan. "Johnny Appleseed was a natural subject for that."

After arriving at Muskingum University in 1997, he began to do research on John Chapman at local county historical societies and archives around the state. 

Kerrigan then began to look into John Chapman's birth state of Massachusetts for more information.

"Johnny Appleseed is part of our national origin story," said Kerrigan. 

His book is called Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard; A Cultural History.

Kerrigan says Johnny Appleseed is like many other frontier superheroes such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, except that they all had a different focus than Johnny Appleseed did.

In the book, Kerrigan creates what has been described as "a startling new portrait" of John Chapman.

"He was from a poor family and he was one of a class of immigrants who migrated out of the east to try to find a new life, but came with very few resources," said Kerrigan. "He represented a traveling rural underclass that was very important in the settlement of Ohio."

Kerrigan says Chapman was for nonviolence and wanted to transform a continent through planting and sewing, not destroying.

As a result, Johnny Appleseed became a legend and was described as kind and generous.

Kerrigan says another adjective that applies is eccentric.

"He wore the most primitive clothing," said Kerrigan. 

Kerrigan says he also went barefoot when most people wouldn't especially in cold weather. 

"He had a love of nature and the natural world," said Kerrigan. 

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard is published by The John Hopkins University Press and is now available at bookstores.

Kerrigan began working on research for the book in 1997, along with other projects.

After 12 years of research, the book was published. 

Kerrigan teaches a variety of courses in American history at Muskingum University.

His research interests are in the antebellum and civil war eras, as well as in American cultural and environmental history.

This book is the first academic book on John Chapman that Kerrigan has written. 

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