Meshach Browning: Maryland’s Mountain Man

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Meshach Browning with a couple of his hunting dogs in mid-life.

The start of every fall reminds me to get reacquainted with an old friend. Reaching for the familiar, dog-eared book it brings comfort, as it has the past 30+ years I’ve read and re-read it. The book, titled Forty-Four Years, The Life of a Hunter, is the autobiography of Meshach Browning.

Born in Damascus, Maryland, which is about 20 miles from me, in the very county where I’ve resided since age two, I automatically feel a connection, although 200 years later. Due to family hardships, Browning was separated from his mother and younger siblings and forced to migrate to the panhandle of western Maryland, where he resided with extended family.

This part of Maryland dips down into present-day West Virginia. It’s as rugged today as it was back in Browning’s time. Known for having annual snowfalls of over 100 inches and temperature swings of 70 degrees on some days, it is still inhabited by proud, hearty people.

Even today, western Maryland enjoys a wild, rugged reputation, much different than the central part of the state. Imagine what it was like back in the 1800s. A perfect place for a youngster to grow up, it was here Browning hunted, made a life, and flourished. Reading about Browning’s exploits was the perfect precursor to my own hunting seasons, always getting me excited and in a “hunter’s” frame of mind for adventures in the field.

A drawing depicting Browning clubbing a bear with nothing more than a tree limb.

Picture of Browning on a more traditional bear hunt.

Depiction of Browning wrestling his buck in the Youghiogheny River.

What one of Browning’s homemade bear traps looked like.

Browning’s cabin in Sang Run as it looked in 1919.

History

Born in 1791, Browning hunted with a black powder rifle, shooting patched roundballs while always accompanied by his loyal dog, Gunner. His feats are legendary in the game-rich mountains he hunted, and his love and appreciation for the area are evident in his writing.

Browning states, “My mind cannot imagine a more beautiful sight than could be obtained from the highest grounds of the Hoop-Pole Ridge, which commanded a view of the valley between that and the great Back-Bone … It was a grand sight to watch the tall grass, rolling in beautiful waves with every breeze which passed over its smooth surface, as well as the herds of deer skipping and playing with each other. It was not a strange thing to see a great lubberly-looking bear forcing his way through the grass, when every deer which got a sight or scent of him would bound off, with tail erect, toward the nearest thicket.”

Browning penned these words for his book, describing much of the area that would become Deep Creek Lake, a popular summer resort area today. As one the earliest settlers of Western Maryland, he’s considered the most prolific hunter of the day, killing over 2,000 deer, 500 bears, and numerous panthers, wolves and rattlesnakes in his role as a market hunter. He’d sell his meat as far away as Baltimore.

When faced with multiple deer or bears, Browning popped his lead round balls in his mouth and gave chase, so reloading his muzzleloader was faster. He was innovative, bending his muzzleloader barrel between two trees to make his rifle shoot to sights. It was not uncommon for Meshach to crawl into occupied bear dens during hibernation with nothing but a knife and successfully take them. In another feat, he wrestled a wounded deer in the mighty Youghiogheny River with his bare hands.

Writing his book by candlelight, using a turkey quill pen, he described his hunts in detail, as well as providing a glimpse of what it was like living a pioneer life in western Maryland during the early 1800s. His hunts would last for weeks at a time, on foot, traveling in excess of 20 miles a day. Most nights, he slept in the open, exposed to the elements, sometimes waking with his hair frozen to the ground or tree he slept against. He was indeed a tough man.

Browning’s hunting grounds ranged countywide — from the Youghiogheny River to Meadow Mountain, where it is easy to imagine the bear dens he describes along the trails of today’s State Park.

When Browning wasn’t hunting, he was growing corn, hay and other crops to support his family. He speaks of eating sweet, fresh churned butter, venison and bear meat and drinking cool, fresh milk with freshly baked bread. To combat his sweet tooth, he’d follow bees back to their hive, making a beeline to it to collect the honey. Hard work was rewarded with good food.

Meshach’s .45 caliber muzzleloader buttstock.
The rifle resides in the Smithsonian Museum.

Close-up of ornamental brass on buttstock.

Moon sliver on left side of buttstock.

Close-up of left side of lock area.

Present Day

Today, when standing on Hoop-Pole Ridge and looking north or east, most of what you’d see would be of Deep Creek Lake, not the grassy meadows described by Browning. Indeed, the majority of southern Garrett County was mostly unoccupied during his time.

Browning describes the “head of the North Branch of the Potomac … was the greatest wilderness we were acquainted with.” I’ve hunted this area for years and can attest to his description, having taken my largest buck to date in this very area.

The B&O Railroad segment to Oakland was not completed until 1851, making the only access to the area by the National Road in the northeastern part of the county. It’s not surprising the southern end of the county had no population of note.

Browning had several homesteads during the period his book talks about, generally located in The Glades and Sang Run. His Sang Run cabin stood until about 1919, when it was photographed by Leo Beachy. It has since been torn down. His mention of Deep Creek as, “… water being so clear and cold, that it will make a man’s arm pain him to the elbow, if he holds his hand in it a few minutes…” and “where success was certain” when fishing for fresh trout, a favorite of his first wife, Mary.

Full Life

Although life was hard in the pioneer days of western Maryland, it’s clear Browning appreciated its natural beauty, appreciating the wildlife he hunted and enjoying the simple pleasures of pioneer life. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to live in the Eastern mountains of western Maryland, Meshach Browning’s Forty-Four Years, The Life of a Hunter is a great read about that era. It’s still a favorite of mine and highly recommended.

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