Friday, November 04, 2011

My Near Connection To Johnny Appleseed

Some may trace my reverence for trees to Lewis Neeley, a great-great-great grandparent who was just six-turning-seven years old when his father, John, died as a prisoner-of-war during the early months of the War of 1812.

Migrating west after the war with his mother and siblings, Lewis partially traced the same route from his New York birthplace up and over the Alleghenies and down the Ohio River that had been used less than two decades earlier by John Chapman, who, by then was already being mythologized as Johnnie Appleseed.

In fact, they may have even passed Appleseed on the river during one of his frequent returns upriver to restock with seeds at two cider mills just south of Pittsburgh before heading out again into three of the states newly-carved from the “Old” Northwest Territory (north and west of the Ohio River) and in whose settlement he played the role of bellwether.

Lewis didn’t stop long near Cincinnati where his mother remarried and where the population was already quadrupling over that decade to 9,642, just two decades after the entire “Old” Northwest Territory had barely reached the required population of 5,000 free male settlers to warrant a legislature.

Instead he cut up across Indiana to help settle Vermilion County in Illinois, mid-way up the border with the Hoosier state and where he married Elizabeth Miller in 1828.  Reflecting the varied history of that area, Vermilion County, Illinois adopted the English spelling with only one “l” while the Vermillion across the border in Indiana adopted the two-“l” French spelling.

It’s possible Lewis found one of John Chapman’s nurseries waiting for him there.  A new book published seven months ago that separates Chapman, the man, from Johnny Appleseed the myth, demonstrates how, from the early days of the “Old” North West Territory, settlers were required to plant fifty acres of apples trees and twenty acres of peach trees within three years in order to get 100 acres of free land.

As revealed by the book’s author and former journalist Howard Means, a reality about the man affectionately called Johnny Appleseed is that Chapman had the uncanny ability to forecast the direction of new settlement and moving in advance would plant small nurseries protected from deer by brush fences to await the arrival of settlers.

Vermilion County, Illinois, is along the Appleseed-belt stretching through the central counties of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.  After marriage, Lewis and Elizabeth migrated north to help settle Dane County, Wisconsin, several years before Madison was founded.  The Neeleys, however, were driven back to Vermilion, Illinois in 1833 following two early Black Hawk War attacks on Fort Blue Mounds, leaving two children buried there.

Lewis and Elizabeth converted to Mormonism in 1839 just as the then-Church of Christ was renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints and three years before the future-President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Vermilion County to practice law.  Lincoln had already met another Neely, Mary with no “e” before the “y” whose progeny would later unite with those of Lewis and Elizabeth making them each my great-great and great-great-great grandparents.

Lewis Neeley and John Chapman were already abolitionists, each with roots in the Second Great Awakening at a time when the “Great Emancipator's” views were still forming.  Lewis was the same age as Mormon Church-founder Joseph Smith but had left the “Burned-Over District” of New York by the time Smith relocated there from his birthplace in Vermont.

Chapman, aka Appleseed, was a life-long missionary for the Swedenborgian New Church, also one of several formed during the Second Great Awakening.  Resembling “John The Baptist,” in dress and personal hygiene, Chapman’s missionary zeal had already been felt across central Ohio by the time Smith led his fledgling church across that terrain from Kirtland, Ohio, first to Missouri then driven by persecution and threat of “extermination” back across and up the Mississippi River to Commerce, Illinois, which was renamed Nauvoo.

Recently converted, the Neeleys relocated from Vermilion across Illinois to join other Mormons at Nauvoo.  They were moving west again by 1847 when Elizabeth died near Florence (Winter Quarters,) Nebraska just two years before John Chapman would die in Fort Wayne, Indiana, both after sudden illnesses.

Lewis remarried and with his son by Elizabeth, Armenius Miller Neeley, retreated back across the Missouri to Council Bluffs, Iowa where in the summer of 1850 they joined a train of 104 wagons headed for the Rocky Mountains and following a trail blazed three years earlier by another of my great-great-grandparents, Charles Alfred Harper, a Quaker-turned-Mormon from Upper Providence, Pennsylvania.

I was born onto yet another homestead just a hundred years after the soon-to-be widowed Lewis left Nauvoo.  It was settled at the turn of the 19th century in part by the great-granddaughter of Lewis and Elizabeth, Adah Rae Neeley Bowman who, while visiting from her birthplace of Franklin, Idaho, met and then married my grandfather Ernest Melvin Bowman while she was her sister up in that Yellowstone-Teton nook between Montana and Wyoming.00113_n_aaeuyfyqe0552

My grandparents Adah and Mel first lived in what they called a “12’ x 14’ shack,” built on a 160-acre homestead while they “proved up” (a term meaning to live on and cultivate the land) a requirement to homestead in the Pacific Northwest that didn’t specifically involve planting orchards like those required in the “Old” Northwest Territory a hundred years before.

After that, they bought an adjacent 80 acres and moved into the larger log house which was inherited 36 years later by my parents when they began to operate what by then had become more than 1,100 acres of ranch and related-feed cropland and where I spent the formative years of my life.

It is hard to believe it has only been 92 years since the events of that two month period documented in Adah’s personal history occurred and which provide a glimpse into the unpretentious strength of my grandmother:

“During the flu epidemic of 1919-20, all our family was down with the flu. My brother Elmer came and stayed two months with us, cared for stock, feeding, milking, fed and nursed five of us; Mel and I and our three children. Mel’s Mother died in October. In January, I lost my Mother, Brother Parley, Mother’s brother Uncle Jim Shumway, all in two months time.”

Adah was a tall, thin, angular woman who was always reading and I’m certain stimulated my love of reading and learning.  She and Mel boarded a series of school teachers for the nearby one-room school while my father attended in part because she loved the intellectually stimulating conversation.

I vividly remember the frequent Sunday dinners at their house in Saint Anthony, Idaho, where they retired 13 miles south and west of the ranch they had homesteaded as Adah led her four children and their spouses including my parents in a lively and passionate debate of current events while Mel quietly watched and occasionally nodded in agreement or disagreement preferring to be out “breaking in” a horse.

When I was in college, my grandmother’s frequent telephone calls to check on how I was doing always abruptly and humorously began without even a “hello” and ended when she was finished without a goodbye.  That abrupt click of the receiver that terminated each call reminded me of how far technology had come during her lifetime.

I was fortunate to often see and visit with Adah until she passed away near my 28th birthday and just six days before the 1976 Bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence.

I think of her often, especially while researching and writing posts for this blog.

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