The Elusive Johnny Appleseed... of Longmeadow- Part II
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Illustration by George Richards from "Johnny Appleseed and Other Poems" by Vachel Lindsay, NY, 1929
Last week’s History Note article provided strong evidence that the man who grew up to be known as Johnny Appleseed spent his boyhood here in Longmeadow as John Chapman. He likely joined his father, Capt. Nathaniel Chapman, and his new step-mother, Lucy Cooley, here in 1780 at the age of six. No one knows for sure when John Chapman set off on his journey West, but most theories have him leaving sometime in the early 1790’s when he would have been about 18 years old. What was this period of time like for the would-be orchardist? What was his childhood like in the town of Longmeadow?
Ever travel up and down Longmeadow Street and notice houses with red stars and signs depicting three cornered hats? Well, those are houses that Johnny Chapman would have known. Today, approximately 20 homes still stand that were built before or during Johnny’s time here. For example, the Storrs House at 697 Longmeadow Street was built in 1786. The First Church was completed in 1767, and likely the rooster weathervane that sits atop the steeple today would have been a familiar site to him. And he would have surely known the “Old Red House” two doors down from today’s Center School at 787 Longmeadow Street. It was a perfect stopping off point as a tavern for travelers during Johnny Chapman’s days here.
As a matter of fact the Revolutionary War would have been an important part of Chapman’s life in town as a boy. The minister at the time was 86 year old Rev. Stephen Williams whose diary is filled with mentions of travelers passing through Longmeadow towards Boston, Vermont, Connecticut and beyond bringing news of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal, foiled plans to blow up a magazine in West Point, and skirmishes between French and British fleets in Chesapeake Bay. Surely this must have had the whole town talking, especially in the home of a Captain who fought in the earliest battles in and around Boston.
The elderly minister was a prominent figure in town life when Johnny was young. Rev. Williams describes an active and social town life in his diaries. He shares news of marriages, illnesses, deaths, births and even Thanksgiving preparations and gatherings among this small community that the Chapmans had settled in. He also mentions weather events that were crucial to the success of this farming community. Prayers for rain when it was too dry, and sun when it was too wet fill the pages of his diary. Williams records over a period of several days in May, 1781, “the water in ye River rises - very Fast and there is allready a Great Flood-. ...This day, I got up into ye Belfry in ye meeting house to view ye waters in ye River - ye flood is apprehended to be greater than has been for many years -- I apprehend much damage may be done to our fields…” It is believed that the house that Johnny Chapman and his family lived in was located downhill from the green towards the Connecticut River. Surely Johnny would have experienced the rising and falling of this important river's waters, and not even have had to climb into the belfry to notice it. Later he carried West with him his knowledge of the power of waterways, and the trees, plants, and wildlife that were sustained by this environment in the Connecticut River Valley.
From Rev. Stephen Williams Diary May, 1781: "This day I got up into ye Belfry in ye meeting house to view ye waters in ye River"
We know the Chapman family participated in church life during Johnny’s life in Longmeadow. Rev. Williams notes in his diary the marriage of Capt. Chapman and Lucy Cooley in 1780, as well as the baptism of their first son together, Johnny’s half-sibling. As Rev. Williams’ health and strength faded it was not unusual to see him carried into and out of services in a chair by faithful congregants. We know that seating arrangements reserved an area in the upper level of the meeting house for the younger boys and older boys adjacent to the “negro seating area,” but far from the younger girls and older girls. Surely Johnny spent time in the upper seating area. The early 1780’s was a period of transition away from slavery in the state of Massachusetts. Sitting in that upper seating area with the boys, Johnny would have been sharing space with formerly enslaved and free Black people listening to the word of God. Later, as a wandering man and itinerant arborist, Johnny Appleseed carried his religion with him as interpreted through the lens of Emanuel Swedenbourg, a Swedish theologian.
Public school was available to young Johnny in Longmeadow. In 1780 Massachusetts adopted its State Constitution that called for education through town funded schools. In Longmeadow, district schools were open to children ages four to fourteen. Teachers often boarded with town families and the host family would be paid accordingly for this service. It is hard to know what the curriculum would have been like, but surely it included reading, writing, basic math and religion. During Johnny’s school years, a significant contribution to education was published by Noah Webster: Webster’s American Spelling Book (1783), Webster’s Grammar (1784), and Webster’s Reader (1785). It is exciting to imagine that Johnny Chapman and his classmates might have had access to these new books that sought to create a unified system of spelling and language and inspire young readers in the new republic.
Chapman Home as it looked in 1916 on Bliss Road - its 2nd location Today it sits on Fairfield Terrace. Emerson Photo Collection at The Longmeadow Historical Society
Much was changing in local government as well. In 1783 Longmeadow became a town separate from Springfield. Such a buzz this must have created as the town began to establish its own government. Early town business required the voting men to gather and appoint positions very familiar to us today: town moderator, selectmen, treasurer, and school committee. Other business seems quaint: hiring bulls for the town’s use and voting whether or not to give swine freedom to “run at large” (they did). In 1784 the town sought to fill the following positions: 2 Wardens, 1 Constable, 3 Assessors, 3 Surveyors of Highways, 1 Tything Man, 3 Fence Viewers, 1 Deer Reeve, 1 Sealer of Leather, 1 Hog Reeve, and 1 Surveyor of Shingles and Clapboards. Capt. Nathaniel Chapman never filled any of these roles, but they give a sense of what was going on in the community in the 1780’s and 90’s. Deer and Hog Reeves? Surveyor of Shingles and Clapboards? Interesting.
Despite the end of the Revolutionary War, all was not settled for many of its veterans, including Capt. Chapman. Shays' Rebellion was a series of actions taken by groups of frustrated war veterans in Western MA who had returned to their lives in small towns and found themselves struggling financially in the years after the war ended. In January 1787, a major event in Shays Rebellion occurred at the Springfield Arsenal, the very armory where Capt. Chapman was stationed from 1777-1780. Five men, including one from Longmeadow, were sentenced to hang for their role in the uprising. It is easy to imagine that conversations about this event, the subsequent trial and sentencing, and the eventual pardon of their Longmeadow neighbor must have been exciting to overhear for a twelve year old Johnny Chapman.