On a raw March evening in 1845, an old man knocked at the door of a cabin in the Indiana wilderness. His name was John Chapman.
Most nights, Chapman slept outside under the stars. But that day he had walked 15 miles through snow and rain, and for once he wanted shelter.
Inside, Chapman curled up by the fire with a bowl of bread and milk. Some stories say he read the Beatitudes to his hosts. Others just say he preached. But all accounts agree: by morning, the old man was burning with fever. Within days, he was dead.
That ragged wanderer is better known today as Johnny Appleseed, the mythic frontiersman who planted apple orchards all over the Midwest.
Historian Howard Means follows the linked stories of Chapman and the legend he became in his new book, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, and the American Story.
Means tells All Things Considered host Noah Adams that the real Johnny Appleseed wasn't much like the slight and sluggish Disney cartoon version.
"He was a man of enormous stamina," Means says. "A man who walked across the Pennsylvania mountains in winter, who lived outdoors for 50 years, who was always afoot, who lived without any protection from either the elements or his fellow man, or Indians or bears or rattlesnakes."
Chapman is remembered, of course, for propagating apple trees. But he also helped spread a new religion: the Church of the New Jerusalem, based on the mystical teachings of scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg.
"It's a very unique take on Christianity," Means says. Swedenborg "thought he was being talked to by God through angels," who delivered to him the secret truths of the Bible. "For whatever reason, it resonated with Chapman and became the animating force of his life."
On his travels along the frontier, Chapman often carried scraps of Swedenborg's writings tucked into his hat, which he would leave with the farm families who gave him shelter.
But how did John Chapman the man become Johnny Appleseed the folk hero? Means says Chapman may have helped his own legend grow.
"I think at some point in his life, he set out to become Johnny Appleseed," Means says. "He told a lot of stories about his adventures. It's funny, isn't it —when you think of Davy Crockett 'following his legend, riding west,' Johnny Appleseed was creating his legend, walking west."