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Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History

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Most people forget about the legend of Johnny Appleseed after childhood—but the man behind the myth was a significant figure in the agricultural development of early America. In Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, William Kerrigan illuminates John Chapman’s life and reveals the environmental and cultural significance of the plant he propagated. Drawing on oral histories and material from archives and historical societies, he dissects the Appleseed myth, creating an eye-opening new portrait of the eccentric apple tree planter.

Known for his gentleness and self sacrifice, Johnny Appleseed stands apart from quintessentially masculine frontier heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. His apple trees, nonetheless, were a central part of the transformation of the West. Chapman, who planted trees from seed rather than grafting, came under assault from those who promoted commercial fruit stock and were determined to extend national markets into the West. He had taken a side in a culture war that ultimately transformed him into a curious relic of a pre-market era.

Tracing Chapman’s life from seedling planter to national legend, Kerrigan casts new light on the landscape of early America.

248 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2012

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About the author

William Kerrigan

2 books21 followers
William Kerrigan spent his earliest years in the midwest, where he tasted bitter disappointment when he lost the role of "Johnny Appleseed" in the first grade pageant to a boy named Hal. After spending decades in the wilderness of the American West and South, he returned to Ohio to take a position as a professor of History at a small liberal arts college. That relocation renewed his interest in the legendary apple tree planter, and his book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), is the culmination of fifteen years of research in libraries and local historical societies from Massachusetts to Indiana. At times he followed Chapman's path across the landscape by foot, bike, and kayak.

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard is more than a biography of John Chapman and the story of the Johnny Appleseed legend. It is also a history of the Old World apple in the New World, from the Puritans to the present.

When he is not writing and thinking about apples, he teaches American History and directs his students in local history projects. The results of those efforts have included several museum quality exhibitions, an archive of oral histories, and three student-authored local pictorial histories.

He also likes to plant apple trees and explore the hills of southeastern Ohio by foot, bike, and kayak.To learn more about the story of the apple tree in America, and its most legendary propagator, check out my blog:


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5 stars
7 (16%)
4 stars
22 (51%)
3 stars
11 (25%)
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2 (4%)
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1 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews
Profile Image for michaelben.
59 reviews5 followers
January 25, 2018
One reviewer has criticized the "academic flavor" of this book and dismissed it as a "giant term paper." I recently read Howard Means' _Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story_. Means' is certainly an enjoyable (and easier) read, written in a more popular style. However, Kerrigan does a much better job putting John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed in to geographic, social, and political context. Many assumptions have to be made about Chapman/Appleseed given the few first or second-hand sources available, never mind the task of untangling man from myth. Kerrigan's "what ifs," "could bes" and other conjectures about Chapman/Appleseed carry more weight given how he ties the man/myth into the larger story of what was going on in America at the time. His style scholarly, but it is not dry.
Profile Image for Naomi.
1,383 reviews272 followers
July 24, 2013
Kerrigan's exploration of John Chapman's life and the mythology surrounding him is insightful. His defense of Chapman's choice for seeds over grafted trees makes good sense. Some more recent work on indigenous horticultural practices challenges his characterization, but Kerrigan also shares information on the more obvious European-model orchards adopted by some of the Iroquois relatively early in colonial history. Good conversations to be had from and around this book.
Profile Image for Emmett.
87 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2013
A highly readable account of the life Johnny Appleseed. William Kerrigan explores the legand and the man as a nurseryman, pacifist, missionary, businessman, conservationalist, and minimalist. I recommend it with five stars!

Profile Image for Gregg Sapp.
Author 19 books19 followers
July 23, 2013
Before mass media and the Internet, there was folklore. (Whether folklore, in the sense of conveying a traditional cultural narrative, is facilitated, transformed, superseded or destroyed by the Internet is an argument for another day.) Stories about folkloric characters usually say more about the cultures that produce them than they do about the individuals themselves. That’s why the standard mythology about Johnny Appleseed is so unique. A pacifist, vegetarian, uneducated, impoverished, altruistic Jesus-freak who opened up a vast frontier by promoting peace through fruit stands dramatically apart from the crude, violent, hell-raising folk heroes like Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, or Mike Fink. Appleseed was a lover, not a fighter. He may be the original counter-cultural hero.

Of course, as Kerrigan’s history on the life and times of Johnny Appleseed demonstrates, the real man was not as pristine and benevolent as he was made out to be. Mostly, he was motivated by the desire to improve his own material condition, same as anybody else. Nor was he even necessarily all that eccentric, compared to the common rabble that one would find on the Ohio frontier in the early 1800s. What Kerrigan suggests, instead, is that the appeal of the Appleseed “brand” comes from how well he represented a traditional work ethic and a naturalistic form of American enterprise at a time when the frontiers were rapidly shrinking and technology was altering old world value systems. For example, as much as he railed against how it was unnatural to graft fruit trees, his arguments were unpersuasive to a generation of more well-off orchardists who could see clearly that grafting improved the quality of the yield. Johnny identified with older and he believed more virtuous ways of doing things – doomed though they were. Viewed that way, his famous eccentricity might be nothing more than righteous backwardness. To this day, there is plenty of popular sympathy for characters who refuse to change with the times.

Kerrigan sees Johnny as a bit daft, but hardly insane, and outside of the mainstream, but not alone in his beliefs. I wonder how the man, John Chapman, would have regarded the mythology that developed around him. Personally, I don’t think that he’d have liked all of the attention, and the idea of a scholarly work based upon his life would probably make him deeply suspicious. He might call it unnatural.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,698 reviews1 follower
February 9, 2016
I was turned off, immediately, but the statement in the Preface that highlighted "domestication of a continent and North America". I am one of those who disagree with the notion of Manifest Destiny. You'd think I'd agree with the Johnny Appleseed notion on non-violence. I was raised in another country so Johnny Appleseed barely touched the map of my education. If they're throwing it down the children's throats, . . . well, I'm taking it at face value.

I was disgusted with the academic flavor of this tenured professor / turned author who elevated Chapman to a deity status and almost compared him to Jesus. puh leese

The only reason I don't qualify this as a one-star is because of the obvious research (extensive Bibliography) purportedly used to create this self-published creation. A giant term paper.
2 reviews1 follower
September 8, 2015
I thought this book was a great book for people who don't have parents. This book can almost teach you how to survive if you don't have loving to help you get through life parents. Something I wish was different about the book is that I wish that it had pictures about all of johnny's great achievments. I would recommend this book to people like adventure. This book has a lot of adventures stuff in it. I am pretty sure a little kid would enjoy all the adventure. This book may also change peoples perspective of there life and show them that they can do any thing in life if they try.
1 review
January 31, 2013
A thoughtful and innovative reexamination of the life of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) and the later creation of the Johnny Appleseed myth. Kerrigan grounds his book in extensive and dogged research but also weaves a subtle and highly readable account of Chapman's story and the place of the American orchard and the Appleseed story in the saga of the taming and transformation of the American frontier.
Profile Image for John.
455 reviews4 followers
September 6, 2016
I'm not much of a history buff, but this was a decent read. It's more an early history of Ohio, combined with a biography of John (Johnny Appleseed) Chapman. Extensively researched. Very comprehensive.
43 reviews
October 14, 2015
I will use this story in my classroom to teach sequencing of events, we will make a timeline of johnny Appleseed adventures throughout the story.
Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews

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