Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits from Our Leading Historians

Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits from Our Leading Historians


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The pages of the past are full of characters who remind us that history depends upon the great deeds of men and women, whether famous or humble. Where would America be without George Washington, or Daniel Boone, or Sojourner Truth, or Babe Ruth? Where would we be without so many characters who are less well remembered today?

Historians and biographers regularly come across stories of little-known or forgotten heroes, and this book provides a chance to rescue some of the best of them. In Forgotten Heroes, thirty-five of the country's leading historians recount their favorite stories of underappreciated Americans. From Stephen Jay Gould on deaf baseball player Dummy Hoy; to William Leuchtenburg on the truth behind the legendary Johnny Appleseed; to Christine Stansell on Margaret Anderson, who published James Joyce's Ulysses; these portraits can be read equally for delight, instruction, and inspiration.

Taken together, however, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Every culture needs heroes who lead by example and uplift us all in the process. Too often lately, historians have been more intent on picking apart the reputations of previously revered Americans. At times it has seemed as if the academy were on the attack against much of its own culture, denying its past greatness while making heroes only of its dissidents and doubters. Yet as this collection vividly demonstrates, heroes come in many shapes and sizes, and we all gain when we remember and celebrate them.

Forgotten Heroes includes nearly as many women as men, and nearly as many people from before 1900 as after. It expands the traditional definition of hero to encompass not only military figuresand politicians who took risks for great causes, but also educators, religious leaders, reformers, labor leaders, publishers, athletes, and even a man who started a record company. Many of them were heroes of conscience -- men and women who insisted on doing the right thing, no matter how unpopular or risky, commanding respect even from those who disagreed. Some were famous in their day and have since been forgotten, or remembered only in caricature. Others were little-known even when alive -- yet they all deserve to be remembered today, especially at the gifted hands of the authors of this book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684843759
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 09/01/1998
Series: Society of American Historians Bks.
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.14(d)

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John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed)


John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, never reached quite the legendary status that Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett enjoy, but who can help but be charmed by his practice of sowing apple seeds as he roamed the Ohio Valley, seeds that had grown into young saplings by the time settlers arrived? Largely absent today from textbooks and standard historical accounts, Johnny Appleseed lives on as a hero in American literature and folklore.

It may seem odd to call John Chapman a forgotten hero, for almost everyone has heard of him, though most likely by his more familiar name: Johnny Appleseed, the vagabond planter of orchards in the Old Northwest. Few know more than that single fact about him, and much that has been written is altogether wrong. His appearance has been reported in Arkansas and Kansas, even as far west as Oregon, thousands of miles beyond the range of his travels. A book published in 1894 asserted not only that he was present at the Civil War battle of Lookout Mountain, nearly two decades after his death, but also that he was quite likely still alive. So intertwined is his life with legend that he has long seemed, as one historian wrote,"no man born of sperm but of myth." He has come to appear, as his most astute biographer, Robert Price, has stated, more "like a phantom sprung from the moon or from an ancient sycamore along the Muskingum or the Kokosing than someone begotten of the flesh."

What we truly know about John Chapman's beginnings is shrouded in the meadow mists of the first mornings of the American republic. We can say with confidence that he was born inapple harvest time on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts, son of a minuteman who would be sent to Concord the following spring and of a Yankee woman whose first cousin was the fabled Count Rumford, who would be knighted by George III, head the regency in Bavaria, and gain international fame as a scientist. But after John's birth was registered in the local Congregational church, all traces of him disappear. During the next twenty-three years, this apparently well-educated New Englander left nary a mark. Rare in the pantheon of American heroes, he enters our line of sight full grown.

We first see him tramping along the crest of the Allegheny River plateau in far northwestern Pennsylvania in November 1797, on the eve of a hard snowfall. The following spring, he sowed the seeds for his first apple nursery along the Big Brokenstraw, a tributary of the Allegheny. For the next several years, he was to linger in northwestern Pennsylvania -- staking land claims, planting apple seeds gathered from cider presses to create tree stock to be sold to the next wave of settlers, drifting about like many other young men who had gone westering. In Vachel Lindsay's words:

He ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream...In the days of President Washington.

By about 1800, he had moved on to the territory (soon to be a state) that was to be his home for most of the rest of his days: Ohio. In 1801, he hove into view at Licking Creek with a packhorse laden with burlap bags of apple seeds, which he planted in lands that had recently been the hunting grounds of the Delaware. He then vanished into the wilderness of bears and wolves and ferocious wild hogs and was not seen again for another five years. Always, he traveled alone. Some writers have conjured up a love interest, but so far as we know, there was none, and he was celibate. (If we are to believe one tale, two feminine spirits told him that if he did not marry, they would be his brides in the next world.)

In 1806, an early settler spotted him floating past Steubenville on the Ohio River in a strange craft: two canoes lashed together and bearing a cargo of rotting apples from which he procured seeds. He drifted with the current down the Ohio to Marietta, then made his way up the Muskingum to the mouth of White Woman Creek, and still farther up the Mohican into the Black Fork, only forty miles from Lake Erie, planting apple seeds at intervals on his voyage. When he came to a woodland glade along a stream, he would loosen the earth, sow his seeds, and weave a brush barricade to keep out the deer. Not the first to bring orchards to the West, or even the first to gain a livelihood from this activity, he was the first to spend a lifetime planting apple seeds in advance of the moving frontier, and he had an uncanny sense of where the routes of migration would be.

For the next forty years, John Chapman carried out his self-appointed task. By 1810, he had made Ashland County, where he lived at times with his half-sister in a cabin near Mansfield, his main base, but he was never in one place for long. He traversed the watercourses of Ohio, planting new orchards and nurturing old ones. "He sleeps with his head toward the setting sun," a passage in Howard Fast's The Tall Hunter (1942) says. "Westward he goes, and always westward. He walks before the settlers, so that the fruit of the tree will greet them." When the pioneers arrived, they found Johnny's seedlings, now grown into saplings, ready for them to transplant. They treasured the apples, for they provided fruit for the table (even in winter, since they stored well), apple butter preserves, cider (both as a beverage and for vinegar), and brandy. He sowed medicinal herbs too: catnip, mullein, wintergreen, hoarhound, pennyroyal, and, it is said, perhaps unfairly, the foul-smelling dog fennel, a prolific bane, in the mistaken notion that it was a cure for malaria.

Everyone who encountered him remarked on his appearance. Of medium height, spare but sinewy, with a weatherbeaten face and black (later gray) hair down to his shoulders, blue-eyed Johnny wore garb that even rough-hewn frontiersmen found peculiar. In latter-day pageants, he has been depicted clad only in an old coffee sack rent with holes for his arms and his head, with a mushpan as his headgear, giving an impression of a cross between the Scarecrow and the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

In 1939, an Ohio writer observed: "Most of us know better than any schoolchild the story of the gaunt, bearded, long-haired man who wandered alone through the Middle West during its settlement, carrying a Bible, a staff, and a sack, dressed in burlap, with a rope round his waist and his cook-pan for a hat." In truth, there is no evidence he ever topped his head with a mushpan (though that is likely always to be an ineradicable part of Johnny Appleseed lore), but the rest of the characterization is accurate enough. He wore ragged garments, including a long, collarless coat that fell to his knees, and when not barefoot, as he often was, battered shoes with no stockings. Fast's novel got it about right: "His garb was a tunic of the roughest homespun, gathered with a rope at the waist and falling to the knees. From the tunic, his bare arms and legs protruded, and he wore neither shoes nor moccasins....His hair was long and he wore a full beard. His skin was burned...dark...and his eyes"

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