In 1829, as a wave of revivals swept America, a preacher addressed a crowd in Mansfield, Ohio. He challenged them: “Where now is your barefooted pilgrim on his way to heaven?”

“Here he is.” A man stepped forward, barefoot and wearing a coffee sack for a shirt. He was John Chapman (1774–1845), a man who lived on the American frontier, planting apple orchards and bearing “good news fresh from heaven” and a name that would become American folk legend: Johnny Appleseed.

Chapman was an apple nurseryman, starting orchards in plots of land that could then be settled and cultivated. Although his business was apparently successful – he owned 1,200 acres at his death – he never left his rough and solitary way of life. Chapman’s diet of honey, wild berries, milk, and cornmeal was reminiscent of John the Baptist’s. He had his namesake’s zeal as well; once when he came across a woman throwing out food he admonished her, telling her that “it was a violation of the gifts of a merciful God.”

Jason Landsel, Johnny Appleseed

But Chapman is most remembered for his kindness. He gave apple seedlings to people too poor to purchase them, and one winter he gave his only pair of shoes to a family travelling west. Chapman extended this kindness to all creatures, even snakes and insects, and earned the respect of the Native American tribes he encountered. His reverence for nature went further than many of his contemporaries thought was sensible. He felt that grafting – the preferred method of propagating fruit trees, in which scions from good varieties are grafted onto a hardy rootstock – was a trespass of the Creator’s work. The apples from the trees he planted were therefore unsuitable for eating; their primary use was hard cider and apple jack.

Chapman carried a Bible at all times, as well as the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish religious writer who influenced thinkers from William Blake to Ralph Waldo Emerson. He spent many nights sleeping by strangers’ hearths, and on such occasions Chapman often read the Sermon on the Mount to his hosts. His selfless kindness showed how earnestly he sought to live by its precepts.

Today Chapman would probably be institutionalized as insane, but the wilderness and the rough times he lived in had room for his idiosyncrasies. While adults called him crazy, citing a story that he had been kicked in the head by a horse as a young man, children looked forward to his visits. Chapman enjoyed their company, bringing ribbons for the girls and reportedly entertaining the boys by walking barefooted over burning coals.

He was a man seen in glimpses, leaving only a scattering of reliable records. This was fertile ground for legend, and the Johnny ­Appleseed we know today has far outgrown the original John Chapman. In this case, the truth may be more marvelous than the myth. As N. N. Hill, an Ohio historian, wrote in 1881, “Not once in a century is such a life of self-sacrifice for the good of others known.”

To get to know the real John Chapman, see Howard B. Means’s fascinating Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story (Simon and Schuster, 2011). This article draws on Means’s research.