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The Elusive Johnny Appleseed... of Longmeadow

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Harper's Magazine, 1871 This article is widely believed to be the source of much of the myth of Johnny Appleseed.

Is it true? Was he really from here? Or is it just part of local folklore? It is often mentioned that Johnny Appleseed lived in Longmeadow. His story is frequently included in 3rd grade curriculum in the Longmeadow schools. But … really? After combing through our boxes, shelves, folders and files in the archives of The Longmeadow Historical Society at the Storrs House Museum, it is fair to say …

Yes! he has been found - in a shopkeeper’s daybook as a young boy receiving a delivery of rum and sugar for his father in 1781. At the time of this daybook entry by a town shopkeeper, Johnny Chapman would have been approximately 7 years old. As Capt. Nathaniel Chapman's only boy at that time, this must indeed be little Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman.

1781: "Capt. Nat. Chapman (debit) to 1 pint Rum/ 1 Sugar/ delivered your boy" Hale Daybooks/ Longmeadow Historical Society

In brief, Johnny Appleseed was born John Chapman in Leominster, MA in September, 1774 - just months before the famous “shot heard round the world” formally began the American Revolution. His father was a minuteman. Young Johnny’s mother died two years later from complications due to childbirth. That baby died as well. Capt. Nathaniel Chapman began service at the new Springfield Arsenal soon after, presumably leaving his young son and an older daughter behind to be cared for by his deceased wife’s family.

In July of 1780, Capt Chapman took a Longmeadow bride, 18 year old Lucy Cooley. Soon after, Capt. Chapman was relieved of his duties at the Springfield Arsenal and settled into life in this town. A big question has always been whether his son, Johnny, ever joined him out here in Longmeadow. The above daybook entry appears to confirm he did. The scant records available indicate that the Chapmans were never wealthy, and what they lacked in quantity of land or money, they made up for in quantity of children - 10 were born between 1781 and 1803. Certainly this made lean times even leaner for young Johnny Appleseed’s family. Recently uncovered Longmeadow records seem to indicate that Capt. Chapman served time in a debtor’s prison as well in 1785.

Account Books from Col. Jonathan Hale, Esq., a Longmeadow selectman and shopkeeper, record many visits to his store from Capt. Nathaniel Chapman where he purchased items like rum (no, not cider), sugar, molasses, coffee, tobacco, turnips, salt and nails . Chapman generally appeared to pay for these goods through bartered labor. Tax records indicate that Capt. Chapman was a man of so few means that there was almost nothing to tax for him. He owned no property and the house the family reportedly occupied was an old, old house on Cooley land owned by his wife’s family.

Capt. Nath Chapman's purchases from Hale Ledger, Longmeadow Historical Society

Capt. Nath. Chapman's Credits Hale Ledger, Longmeadow Historical Society

Regarding a stint in debtor’s prison, that evidence comes from these same account books. One particularly telling entry from 1785 indicates that Capt. Chapman solicited help from the same Col. Hale who sold him rum, sugar and various other “sundries” by asking him for his services for “Drawing & aproving [sic] Bond for Liberty of the yard." This special privilege of fresh air and time outside came at a cost, placing him further in debt to his neighbors. Johnny Chapman would have been about 11 years old at the time. What would this have meant for him as the oldest child in a small house with a growing number of little siblings? Surely these experiences in his formative years impacted him as he grew.