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Johnny Appleseed’s Grave
By Randy Harter
Fort Wayne Reader
John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774 and by the time of his birth, apples had been growing on the east coast of the United States for over 150 years. Apples evolved not in the Americas, but rather in Kazakhstan in Central Asia over two-million years ago. When Alexander the Great invaded that part of the Persian Empire about 334 BC he “discovered” the apple and took some back to with him to Greece from whence they eventually spread throughout Europe. Moving forward 2,000 years, when the British colonized Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 they also brought with them and planted the first apple tree in the Americas.
As best as can be determined, Chapman planted his first apple tree nursery in 1797, in Warren County, Pennsylvania when he was 22 years of age. He then spent the next 48 years planting a series of nurseries throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. The trees that he raised produced “spitters”, apples that were unfit for nearly anything but making
hard cider, the drink of choice and convenience in the pioneer days. Much easier than making beer, apples merely needed crushed and the juices let sit.
In the “western lands” at that time pioneers could claim a section of land by building a cabin and planting 50 apple trees as a sign that they would be staying and improving the area. Johnny, always moving ahead by a few years of where he thought settlements would eventually rise (generally along rivers and streams), would plant nurseries so that he could then supply the arriving pioneers with their tree starts.
While many myths arose regarding Johnny Appleseed over the years, some are confirmed as being true as they were passed down through family records of the people who knew him and contemporary newspaper accounts of the time. That he occasionally wore his “mush pot” on his head is likely true as was even recorded in his obituary as a firsthand
account by the editor of the Fort Wayne Sentinel. When you are carrying all your worldly possessions with you, that the top of the head would be a convenient resting place for your one cooking pot is not out of the realm of reason.
It is believed that Appleseed first arrived here in Fort Wayne in the late 1820’s to 1830 and was then in and out of the area tending nurseries he had planted nearby, notably in the areas of Portland, Indiana; and Defiance, Lima, Wapakoneta, Findlay and Bellefontaine, Ohio. Here in Allen County he owned a bit over 80 acres split between three townships: Eel River – 40 acres, Maumee – 15 & 18.7 acres and Milan 11 acres. Yet, he owned no home of his own, but rather slept outside or if weather required it, at the cabins of others.
As an example of his prodigious plantings, his estate settlement recorded that his nursery in Eel River township contained 15,000 apple trees, all planted by hand from seed.
John Chapman died at age 70 of the “winter plague” (likely pneumonia) on March 18, 1845 in the cabin of William Worth, at the location of today’s Canterbury Green apartment complex. His body was then taken across the St. Joe River and buried in the immediate vicinity of the knoll that was the Archer family graveyard.
As an expression of recognition for his life’s work, and at a time when the normal obituary was a couple of sentences, his ran for about 300 words in the March 22, 1845 Fort Wayne Sentinel. Additionally, his pallbearers included local notables Thomas Swinney, Henry Rudisill and the gravesite’s owner, David Archer. The wrought iron fence around his ceremonial gravesite was erected at the top of the Archer knoll in 1916 by the Indiana Horticultural Society. (Image Courtesy ACPL)
A tip of the hat to writings by nationally recognized Chapman researchers/authors, Robert Price, Howard Means, Michael Pollan, and former Associate Director of the Allen County Public Library, Steven Fortriede.
Randy Harter is a Fort Wayne historian, author of three books on local history and the history/architecture guide at FortWayneFoodTours.com