It all started with a son’s simple questions: “Have you ever heard of Johnny Appleseed? Was he real, Mom?”
Those questions in June 2014 set Kalamazoo writer Jennifer Clark on a quest to find out who the man behind the Johnny Appleseed mythology really was, and she spent the next 17 months learning and writing about him. The result is Clark’s new poetry collection, Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman (Shabda Press, 2018).
But hold on, those of you who shy away from poetry. Just as John Chapman was more than the mythical Johnny Appleseed, Clark’s book is more than poetry — it’s American history, told through an eight-page prologue, 52 poems and 32 pages of notes, plus maps, photos and illustrations.
Yes, Clark did her research, and as she delved into the life of Chapman — who was born two years before the U.S. declared independence and died 16 years before the start of the Civil War — she also explored that era of American history: an era of slaves and slaveholders, pioneers and displaced Native Americans, passenger pigeons and Pony Express riders, religious revivals and large-scale consumption of hard cider.
“I really had the feeling of going down a river and you see two ways you can go and you ask yourself, ‘Which way?’ I kept seeing new things and wanting to explore,” says Clark.
‘Into the heart’
Clark’s choice of poetry for the book allowed her to take facts about Chapman and his era and wed them to her own imaginings to bring him and others to life.
In her poem “Once John’s Feet Started West, They Didn’t Stop,” Clark writes of the day when Chapman and his half-brother Nathaniel left home: “Easy to imagine—younger siblings wailing, / older ones begging to come along, / parents unable to hide relief / as four feet leave behind the clamor / of fourteen bodies pressed into four / hundred square feet of house.”
“Poetry gets at the emotion, into the heart,” Clark says. “I wanted to get into the soul of who he was as a man.”
So, who was this guy with the tin pot on his head and apple seeds in his hand?
Well, for one, John Chapman was a spiritual man, says Clark. He carried the writings of the Swedish Christian philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, wherever he went and would leave pages from Swedenborg’s pamphlets in the homes of people he met. Chapman saw himself as a gatherer and planter of seeds, and apple seeds were his way to connect with others and share readings from the Bible and Swedenborg. But he wasn’t the teetotaler or vegetarian of myth. He drank brandy and whiskey, ate pork, and purchased gunpowder and tobacco.
He was also a businessman and landowner who was savvy about selling saplings to settlers and generous with his possessions. Clark’s poem “John Meets a Woman,” tells of Chapman giving his cabin, cow and orchard to a widow with four children, then setting off down the Ohio River.
Chapman was born in Massachusetts, but his seed planting took him to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana (he died in Fort Wayne). It was in Ohio, Clark discovered, that Chapman owned land next to Enoch Harris, who later moved to Michigan and planted the first apple orchard in what is now Oshtemo Township. Clark was thrilled to find this Kalamazoo connection. Perhaps the seeds Harris brought from Ohio were obtained from Chapman, says Clark, and perhaps he even tended Chapman’s orchard in Ohio when Chapman was away.
Clark writes about Harris in her poem “Man of Many Firsts,” and his local significance goes far beyond apples. Harris’ mother was a former slave, and his father, according to one source, held the highest office in the land. Harris was well respected by other settlers, and people went to him for help in settling disputes. He also helped escaping slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Many of his and his wife Deborah’s descendants still live in this area, including Angelica Robert, whom Clark talked with for her book.
Not as much is known about Deborah as Enoch, but surely she must have been the person cooking the meals that are mentioned in historical accounts, Clark and Robert agreed, so Clark wrote a poem about Deborah preparing a meal from a bear her husband shot. “I love the fact that she has her own poem now,” says Clark.
Clark was keen to give voice to those whose voices are often left out of historical accounts. Escaping slaves John Little and his wife also have their own poem, “To Keep the Hounds at Bay,” which incorporates words written by Little himself. The poem imagines John Chapman sleeping in the forest as the Littles run.
Clark says she was not able to find direct evidence of Chapman’s beliefs about slavery, but much of what she learned about him suggests to her he would have been a staunch opponent. “Emanuel Swedenborg taught that a life of kindness is the primary meaning of divine worship. That is truly the life John Chapman led,”
Clark says. “He gave the clothes off his back to people.”
After her book was published, Clark found out that one of her ancestors might have known John Chapman.
Joab Squire, Clark’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather born in 1777, lived about 23 miles southeast of Sandusky, Ohio, not far from where Chapman spent his time. In a memoir outline written by Squire’s great-grandson Ira Squire, the section on Joab’s life includes these words: “THE ORCHARD—JOHNNY APPLE SEED (sic).”
That might seem a fitting conclusion to Clark’s quest, but she says she still isn’t done learning about Chapman. “I’m still researching. … I think it will be a lifelong interest.”
The following is a poem is from Clark’s new collection, Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman (Shabda Press) and is an example of the way her work aims to separate the myths about Johnny Appleseed from facts about the real man behind the myths, John Chapman.
Ledgers from dry good stores
lay bare the facts, even
as the brush of myth is busy
painting a saint, a vegetarian,
plunging John Chapman
through the hungry forest
of fables with nary a knife,
emerging a masterpiece—
Johnny Appleseed, a Forrest
Gump of the nineteenth century—
splitting rails with Lincoln,
traveling with Audubon and gazing
over his shoulder as he sketches.
Portraits, even copies
of copies, can bristle with truth.
Maybe John becomes a vegetarian
late in life, maybe he goes without
shoes when he comes upon someone
else more in need.
But, for now, John strides
into the Holland Land Company,
buys three pairs of “mockasins,”
brandy, whiskey, chocolate,
sugar, gunpowder, tobacco,
he is hard on shoes,
has a penchant for snuff.