FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) The image of Johnny Appleseed is usually bare-feet, ragged pants, and suspenders. Not to mention the sack of seeds he carried around and the pan he wore as a hat. For as much that’s known about his life, wandering the Midwest planting apples everywhere he went, there’s a much more interesting, controversial story in his death.
The controversy involves years of picking sides- east or west to be exact.
At the Johnny Appleseed Festival in Fort Wayne, there is a stone that marks the grave site for John Chapman. That’s to the west of the St. Joseph River. However, many say he was actually buried on the river’s east side. The circumstances of Chapman’s death are something historians and storytellers continue to disagree on to this day, writes former director of the Allen County Public Library Steven Fortriede in ‘Johnny Appleseed: The man behind the myth.’
Records show Chapman bought seventy-four acres in various townships in and around Allen County.
The story goes, according to Fortriede’s book:
“John was working at a nursery 20 miles from Fort Wayne when word was brought that cattle had broken into a nursery in Allen County. Johnny immediately set off to protect his trees, walking the entire distance in one day. On reaching Fort Wayne, John applied for lodging at the home of a Mr. Worth, but overcome by his exertions, he died during the night, or, as some say, after a short illness.”
After that, details get a bit fuzzy. For starters, for a long time, there wasn’t even an agreement on when John Chapman passed away. The book on Chapman states “with reasonable certainty” he passed away March 18, 1845. It wasn’t until 1934, when an obituary notice was re-discovered in a March 22, 1845 edition of the Fort Wayne Sentinel that there was enough to determine when he died.
The exact location of where Chapman was buried has been contested for years. There are two main schools of thought:
The west side, Archer Cemetery. The east side, Roebuck Farm.
A commemorative marker is displayed on a hill at what is now known as Johnny Appleseed Park. Before that, Fortriede said it was known as Archer Cemetery, which was recognized in 1916 by the Indiana Horticulture Society.
In 1934, as discussions on improving the memorial began, Wesley S. Roebuck stepped forward with a disputing claim of the grave site’s location. He believed he had evidence that the cabin where Chapman passed away and was buried was actually on the east side of the river, on a farm later owned by Roebuck, Fortriede wrote.
In 1934, The Johnny Appleseed Commission reviewed both sides and claims and decided to stick with the Archer site as the place where Johnny was buried. However, in 1942 the American Pomological Society reviewed both sides and accepted the Roebuck site.
Both sides of the argument included testimonies from relatives of early pioneers, but even those claims were conflicting, as Fortriede detailed.
In defense of the Roebuck site, the daughter of a man who helped build Chapman’s coffin said her father had told her he was buried there. In defense of the Archer site, the son of the man who was paid for building the coffin claimed his father said he personally buried Chapman at the Archer site.
There are dozens of details for and against each side. Each one is detailed in Fortriede’s book, which can be found at the Allen County Public Library. The library has dozens of artifacts about Johnny Appleseed, including newspaper clippings of Chapman’s obituary.
In the end though, an account for the Roebuck site from a descendant of Chapman’s brother, Andrew, was discredited when a librarian produced a list of his ancestors. Chapman never had a brother named Andrew. Fortriede wrote the Pomological Society Report was largely ignored and the Roebuck site has been left out of a number of books and articles that have been used in the folklore.