15 July 2011

Johnny Appleseed

Long, long after,
When settlers put up beam and rafter,
They asked of the birds: "Who gave this fruit?
Who watched this fence till the seeds took root?
Who gave these boughs?" They asked the sky,
And there was no reply.
But the robin might have said,
"To the farthest West he has followed the sun,
His life and his empire just begun."
Vachel Lindsey, "In Praise of Johnny Appleseed" (1923)
In my pre-teen and early teen years, I read every book presenting American folktales and legends that was available in our little Air Force base library. Some of my favorites included stories of deforestation (Paul Bunyan), the futile battle against mechanization (John Henry), and the introduction of alien plant species (Johnny Appleseed). The books that pulled me into these stories were fanciful and aimed at young readers. The stories were uprooted from their origins as descriptions of actual lives, exaggerated the known facts, and worked into the realm of myth.

The real Johnny Appleseed died in Indiana in 1845, according to an obituary printed in the Fort Wayne Sentinel (22 March 1845). He was tall, a preacher taken with Emanuel Swedenborg's writings, and planted nurseries rather than spreading seeds willy-nilly. A recent book delves into the myth and known history, making a strong effort to separate the two. Howard Means, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story (2011) offers a detailed biography of the life, activities, and beliefs of John Chapman, the real Johnny Appleseed.

As I remember the stories, I was free to imagine that his seed sowing enterprise took him further west, and that he might have ended his days near present-day Wenatchee. My memory is almost certainly faulty and found its freedom in confusion between the Northwest of early American history--the Ohio Country--and the far Northwest, or Pacific Northwest--a term created by railroad publicists in the late nineteenth century. Even the Disney short, Johnny Appleseed (1948), which I almost certainly watched sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s, places Johnny Appleseed in the Ohio country.

The heart of the Disney film pits cultivation of orchards and promotion of religion against a vast wilderness of dangerous animals. Indians appear on the margins, part of the crowd singing and dancing during the harvest festival. The wary animals first believed the human who moved into a clearing and began to plant seeds was a curious intruder who needed to leave. But, none could tell him so. Finally a skunk went out to investigate and was on the verge of attacking, when Johnny began to stroke its fur. The hero of the story wins over the animals. The narrator emphasizes that he is the first human they had seen without knife or gun. Johnny Appleseed thus fits into the mythic structure of humanity's shift from hunting to cultivation, a reflection of the Neolithic revolution and the rise of civilization. The human story of the beginnings of civilization as long ago as ten millennia ago gets repeated in the New Eden, the American wilderness. See "Neolithic Revolution and American Indians" for another episode in this mythic story.

Apples and Cherries in the Pacific Northwest

Today, Washington state leads the United States in apple production. New York City might be the "big apple," but the apple is more a symbol of the far Northwest than of anywhere else. The apple has become as much a symbol of Pacific Northwest regional culture as the salmon and the seemingly endless evergreen forests. But, while salmon have all but disappeared from every region outside Alaska (and even there the proposed Pebble Mine threatens the last watersheds in full health), and while timber jobs in Washington have become scarce, the apple thrives.

John Chapman never made it this far west. The origins of apples in the Pacific Northwest begin in the Willamette Valley and just over the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver. In the 1820s, the Hudson's Bay Company cultivated many food growing plants from seeds. From these plants, Joseph Garvais cultivated the first substantial apple orchards. Contemporaneous with John Chapman in the Ohio Country, Garvais and other retired Hudson Bay Company employees developed agriculture in Oregon Country.

But it was the introduction of grafted fruit trees that caused the region's agriculture to blossom. These first arrived via wagon along the Oregon Trail courtesy of an Iowa farmer who headed west. In 1847, Henderson Lewelling crossed the country with his family and three wagons. Two of the wagons transported some seven hundred small trees. Once in Oregon, Lewelling went into the nursery business with William Meek. When the gold rush lured Lewelling and Meek to California, where they saw opportunity for more profits developing agriculture, they sold their nursery in Milwaukie, Oregon to Henderson's younger brother, Seth. According to Ronald Irvine, The Wine Project (1997), Meek won an award for wine at the California State Fair in 1859.

Seth Lewelling thrived in the nursery business. His foreman for the orchards, Ah Bing, has been immortalized in the name of a popular fruit that he helped originate. Today, Washington state not only leads the nation in sweet cherry production, but accounts for more than half of the nation's total production.

In the world of legend and myth, everyone knows of Johnny Appleseed. The story of agriculture in the far Northwest, however, offers many less well-known, but every bit as compelling stories of such men as Joseph Garvais, Henderson Lewelling, and Ah Bing.


Mark D. said...

A fascinating post! Thanks for the history lesson. The original name for the Pacific Northwest was the Columbia Country. Hence, the Canadian province to the north of Washington and Idaho is called British Columbia. American Columbia was the Oregon Territory. Once Oregon became a state, the area consisting of Oregon and then Washington Territory (which originally included what is now Idaho and chunks of Montana and Wyoming) needed a new moniker -- Oregon Country wouldn't work anymore (because of the need to distinguish the state from the rest of the region). That's how Pacific Northwest stuck. The reason the term "American Columbia" didn't take off is that there was a push to name Washington State Columbia but that failed, and we kept the name we had had as a territory -- Washington.

Personally, I would rather see the area called Columbia rather than the Pacific Northwest. The great unitary feature of this area is the Columbia River, not the Pacific Ocean.


James Stripes said...

Thanks for the comment, Mark. The many names assigned to our region as outsiders became aware of its existence, defined its boundaries, and moved in to become the dominant population could make for a small book. The oldest maps are rather indistinct in geographic specifics (due to lack of accurate knowledge, and due to the then unsolved problem of accurately measuring longitude), but include such names as Fousang, Quivira, Anian, New Albion, Brobdingnag. Oregon began as the name of a river, and was initially spelled Origan by Jonathan Carver for a place possibly west of his actual travels and yet still far to the east of the region that we now know by that name. The spelling Oregon appeared for the first time in print in a poem as the name of a river flowing through the place of the dead (William Cullen Bryant, "Thantopsis"). Even so, the name stuck, as did the name of Captain Robert Gray's ship, Columbia.

You are correct that the name Columbia has a long history. That was term the Hudson's Bay Company used when the held sway over the non-Indians in the region. Our portion east of the Cascades has long been called the Columbia Plateau, portions are well-known as the Columbia Basin, and this Columbia feeds the nation.

Some of my students in Pacific Northwest history have assured me that the term Pacific Northwest applies only to the coast, while here in the east we occupy the Inland Empire. My next group of students will be exploring this concept through Katherine Morrissey's Mental Territories: Mapping the Inland Empire.

Mark D. said...

Sounds fascinating. I've linked to this post on my own blog. When I grew up on the coast, the common usage of the term "Pacific NW" referred to the area west of the Cascades in Wash., Oregon and BC. East of the mountains was out...

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the shout out.

Indeed, Mark. That's exactly what some of my students suggested. Of course, there are many people on this side of the mountains who sense that west siders rarely contemplate the existence of any place east of the ski resorts in the Cascades.

The sense of a broader Pacific Northwest encompassing the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho (or even all of Washington and Oregon) may be unusual in the minds of people who are not academic regional historians. But, the concept, expressed as "Great Northwest," goes back at least to the 1940s. Oscar Osburn Winther, The Great Northwest: A History (1947) begins, "This book is a historical survey of the Pacific or--as I have entitled it--Great Northwest" (vii).

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