Are You Related to John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate today being National Arbor Day, Mary explores the family tree—and some of the stories—of the legendary Johnny Appleseed.

In honor of today being National Arbor Day, let’s explore the life, legacy and ancestry of John Chapman, who is more widely known by his nickname “Johnny Appleseed” (26 September 1774 – 18 March 1845). Although the famous American arborist never had children of his own, his New England ancestry has several items of interest.

drawing of Johnny Appleseed

Illustration: Johnny Appleseed, from H. S. Knapp’s 1862 book “A History of the Pioneer and Modern Times of Ashland County.” Source: Wikipedia.

Johnny Appleseed’s Family

Born as John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts, Johnny was the son of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (Simonds) Chapman, who married on 8 February 1770. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Appleseed.)

He had one older sister, Elizabeth, and a younger brother named Nathaniel (or Nathanael), both named after their parents. Johnny shares a name with his grandfather John Chapman (1714 – 1761), who passed away about 13 years prior to his birth.

Johnny’s life with his mother was short-lived. She died in 1776 shortly after giving birth to his brother Nathaniel.

Familysearch.org has several references to Johnny Appleseed’s family tree in their databases:

Within the context of history, several events framed the circumstances in the family’s life—most notably the American Revolution and the settling of Ohio.

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Johnny’s father Nathaniel was a Minuteman who fought at the Battle of Concord on 19 April 1775, and later served in a more official capacity.

Four years after his mother died, Johnny’s father remarried. On 24 July 1780 Nathaniel Chapman married his second wife: Lucy Cooley, daughter of George and Martha (Hancock) Cooley. Lucy became the maternal figure in Johnny’s life, but since she bore an additional 10 children, her focus may not have been on Johnny. (See https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FC8R-64G.)

Johnny’s Younger Life & First Plantings

No documents chronicle the facts of Johnny’s younger life, despite much having been written speculating about his passion for apple trees. Some theories are that his father, a farmer, instilled a love of trees in his son—resulting in Johnny becoming the nation’s premier nurseryman/arborist on the frontier.

Johnny lived a life of devout faith and considered himself a missionary of Swedish native Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emanuel_Swedenborg.)

Some accounts report that Johnny used apple seeds from Potomac cider mills for his first plantings, located in the Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania. He may have lived in Pittsburgh around 1794 during the time of the Whiskey Rebellion—a farmers’ uprising against paying taxes on the whiskey they made from grain and corn.

As land opened up the family ventured west to the frontier of Ohio, settling in Monroe Township. Johnny is thought to have joined them by 1805, although he may have gone there earlier, planting apple trees. Some trees he gave away, or bartered to pioneer settlers for useful implements. When he sold trees, it was reportedly for the sum of a “fippenny” or “fip-penny-bit,” the equivalent of about six cents a tree—as explained in this newspaper article.

Money of the Past, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article  27 April 1898

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 27 April 1898, page 8

Fact or Fiction: Was Johnny Appleseed Truly an Eccentric?

After his death, newspapers described Johnny as an eccentric with shabby dress. Some accounts report that he used a tin pot as a hat, and these descriptions are colorful, if somewhat exaggerated. For example, this 1891 newspaper article states:

One of the quaintest, queerest and most original characters that ever trod the trackless wastes of the western wilderness was Jonathan Chapman, known as old Johnny Appleseed…His pinched and grizzled features were covered by a growth of very shaggy beard. His hair was quite long and very much faded by constant exposure to wind and weather…But old Johnny’s crowning glory was an old tin mush pot that had a long handle. This battered old culinary utensil he wore for a hat.

article about Johnny Appleseed, People newspaper article 23 August 1891

People (New York, New York), 23 August 1891, page 6

This 1857 newspaper article describes how Johnny purchased his seeds in large quantities from nurseries near the Ohio River.

article about Johnny Appleseed, Sandusky Register newspaper article 17 September 1857

Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio), 17 September 1857, page 1

Johnny’s Death

Johnny Appleseed died on 18 March 1845, at the age of 70. A transcription of his obituary from the Fort Wayne Sentinel of 22 March 1845 was located at the Obit of the day website. It seems to confirm that the old adage from Benjamin Franklin was really true: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!”

Appleseed’s obituary states:

In the most inclement weather he might be seen barefooted and almost naked except when he chanced to pick up articles of old clothing. Notwithstanding the privations and exposure he endured, he lived to an extreme old age, not less than 80 [70] years at the time of his death—though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was 60.

Are You Related to Johnny Appleseed?

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If you’re a plant lover or self-described arborist, I’d like to plant some seeds about kinship to Johnny Appleseed. He has ancestral connections to many early American settlers of the Northeast. According to numerous online family trees, the surnames in Johnny’s extended family include:

  • Barker
  • Blodgett
  • Carter
  • Chandler
  • Chapman
  • Davis
  • Dresser
  • Eggleton
  • Fowle
  • Green
  • Jasper
  • King
  • Lawrence
  • Morse
  • Perley
  • Phippen or Phipping
  • Richardson
  • Simonds or Symonds
  • Smith
  • Stearns
  • Stone
  • Tarbell
  • Thorley
  • Trumbull
  • Walter

And if you explore reports of his famous cousins, Johnny Appleseed is connected to many former residents of our nation’s White House, including: First Lady Abigail (Smith) Adams, John Quincy Adams, Barbara (Pierce) Bush, George H. W. Bush, George Bush, Calvin Coolidge, Lucretia (Randolph) Garfield, Richard Nixon and William Howard Taft.

In addition, Famouskin.com reports a kinship relationship with suffragette Susan B. Anthony, nurse Clara Barton, Wild Bill Hickok, actress Raquel Welch, and Walt Disney, among others.

For more information on John Chapman’s life, see:

Johnny Appleseed’s Last Surviving Tree

Since Johnny had no progeny of his own, it seems appropriate to commemorate his last surviving tree. This 1961 newspaper article has a long feature on Johnny which I recommend reading, including a picture of “the last surviving apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed.”

a photo of the last surviving apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed, Plain Dealer newspaper article 30 May 1961

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 May 1961, page 1

I hope you’ll celebrate National Arbor Day by eating an apple or drinking cider. Who knows—the fruit may be a descendant from one of Johnny Appleseed’s famous trees!

If you’re related to John Chapman, please tell us how your family is connected in the comments section.

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Did Your Ancestor Live to 100? Centenarians in the Newspaper

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about ancestors who lived to be 100—and how newspaper articles about them can help your family history research.

How old was your oldest ancestor? A 2011 Huffington Post article reported that the “Number of Centenarians Is Booming in U.S.” It went on to comment that the number of people who celebrate a triple digit birthday has doubled in the last 20 years and today numbers approximately 72,000 people. It is predicted that in the future the number of centenarians will likely at least double again.*

It’s no wonder that the number of people reaching 100 years of age is increasing; decreases in infant mortality, combined with better medical and preventative health care, have enhanced life expectancy. While there’s a greater chance of someone today knowing or being related to a centenarian, in an earlier time—lacking these modern improvements—living to be 100 years of age would have been something short of a miracle.

When one of our ancestors did reach the age of 100 it was a newsworthy event, most likely reported in the local newspaper. Searching through an online newspaper collection like GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives is a good way to find these centenarian articles—and they can be very helpful with your family history research.

Newspaper articles reporting these birthday milestones largely concentrated on the birthday celebration, often interviewing the honoree about historical events witnessed and their recommendations for longevity. Along with being interesting news stories, the added benefit to these articles is that they often include genealogically relevant information—including the date and place where the centenarian was born, their parents’ names, and other family information.

100 Years of History

One of the benefits of living a long life is the history that you witness. I like this article about Jabez Chapman, whose life was written up during his 99th year in 1895. This interview has him reminiscing about the War of 1812, the death of President George Washington, and his interactions with James Fenimore Cooper, the author of the classic novel Last of the Mohicans.

Near the 100 Mark: Jabez Chapman Ninety-nine Years Old, Idaho Register newspaper article 20 December 1895

Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho), 20 December 1895, page 3

If you want to know more about Chapman’s life, check out the timeline following him through federal and state censuses in the blog post titled Point of View: State Censuses Fill the Gaps, by Jean Chapman Snow. So you may be wondering: did Chapman make it to his 100th birthday? After finding his death certificate, Snow confirms that Jabez Chapman died at 100 years, 3 months and 16 days.

The Oldest Living Spinster

While some newspaper articles about those who are 100+ center around what history they’ve lived through or what famous people they met, in some cases it’s what the centenarians can still accomplish that is the biggest news. Consider this article from a 1905 Nebraska newspaper about Miss Eliza Williams. The article points out that she is in such good shape for her age that she is the first person up in the household and is able to dress herself. Once ready for the day she reads a hymn and a chapter from the Bible. The article gives the impression that she would do much more including sewing (which she gave up at 98 years of age), but her family persuaded her to “save her strength.”

Oldest Old Maid [Eliza Williams]: She Is Over 100 Years Old and Not Ashamed of It, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 23 August 1905

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 23 August 1905, page 7

Of course no discussion of those who have reached such a momentous milestone would be complete without getting some advice about what the centenarian’s secret is. Miss Eliza Williams replies to this question: “obedience to her parents, and not meddling with other people’s business when it could do her no good.”

What’s a Birthday without a Stiff Drink?

The great thing about being older is the ability to say what you want and not worry what people will think. That’s also what makes reading these articles about 100th birthdays so much fun. Consider this short but sweet newspaper article, including a photo, of the birthday “boy” John H. Whitmore, a former prison warden. Unfortunately, due to prohibition, he didn’t get the alcoholic beverage he would have preferred to celebrate with—but instead tried his first ice cream soda. Judging from his comments, ice cream sodas are not the preferred beverage of 100-year-old men.

First Soda on 100th Birthday, Miami District Daily News newspaper article 12 August 1919

Miami District Daily News (Miami, Oklahoma), 12 August 1919, page 5

Check Your Family Tree

Do you have someone in your family tree that lived to be 100 years old? It wasn’t too long ago that such a feat was rewarded with recognition in the newspaper. Just as we should research newspapers for milestone celebrations such as a 50th wedding anniversary, don’t forget to search for mentions of an ancestor who lived a long life or celebrated a milestone birthday.

Be sure to read our related Blog article: Find the Oldest People to Ever Live, as Reported in Newspapers and please share the names and ages of your centenarian ancestors in the comments.

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* Number of Centenarians Is Booming in U.S. by Matt Sedensky. April 26, 2011. Accessed 29 December 2013.