Meshach Browning: Maryland’s most celebrated hunter
Kentucky has Daniel Boone. Davy Crockett was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee. Thanks to the literary ability of Meshach (pronounced MEE-shak) Browning, Maryland has its own early-American frontier legend, whose tales have captivated audiences for 158 years. Today, the famous rifle of our state’s most celebrated hunter is among early American items displayed in the Smithsonian Institution.
Lay of the land
Meshach Browning, often called the “Father of Garrett County,” spent most of his life near the confluence of Sang Run and the Big Youghiogheny. With less than three months of formal education, he spent his last few years writing in grisly detail about his close-up encounters with the nearly 400 bears, 2,000 deer, and scores of panthers, rattlesnakes, wildcats and wolves he hunted in the hardwood ridges of the Appalachian Plateaus, and the laurel thickets and chestnut glades of the valleys between in what is now known as Garrett County, Maryland.
He began to hunt in 1795 and claimed his last game in 1839, giving title to his book, Forty-Four Years of the Life of a Hunter. Written with quill pens made from feathers collected by his grandchildren, the first edition was published just before his death in 1859. It is still in print today.
Richard Fairall, Browning’s neighbor and friend from Accident, commented: “This work is the narration of facts as they occurred; and having spent a great portion of his life in camps erected in the wilderness for the purpose of hunting, many things may appear strange, and almost miraculous, to those who are not acquainted with a hunter’s life; yet they are nevertheless true, and can be vouched for. Mr. Browning was among the first settlers here, and is one of Nature’s noblest works.”
In 1953, the Baltimore Sun’s James H. Bready wrote that Browning’s account of his exploits have become “a classic in the national literature of rod and gun, and an outstanding item on any collector’s shelf of Marylandia.”
Browning’s life story, while largely devoted to vivid accounts of his hunting and trapping tales and the lore of the woods, is also the story of a man carving out a life in the wilderness that would, during his lifetime, be replaced by lumber mills, farms and free-ranging cattle. In his later years, he wrote of the Glades where he once hunted as bereft of its original beauty. Gone were the tall grasses “rolling in beautiful waves with every breeze which passed over its smooth surface” that delighted young Meshach. His memoir is also a commentary on love and marriage, raising children, lasting friendships, courage, death and grief.
The making of a legacy
Meshach was born in Frederick County in 1781 to Joshua and Nancy Browning. His father, a soldier in the Revolutionary War, died when he was just two months old. His mother later moved to Allegany County to be closer to family. Meshach, who lived with relatives for several years, made his way to Western Maryland when he was 18 years old. Fifty years before Oakland was founded, he married Mary McMullen in 1799 after a six-year courtship. Together they raised eleven children.
Mary died in 1839, three years after a horse riding accident confined her to her bed. Meshach, heart-broken, penned a 12-stanza poem which began:
“I’ve heard that first and early love
Outlives all after dreams;
But memory of my first great grief
To me more lasting seems.”
He married his second wife, the widow Mary M. Smith, in 1841. They lived together at Sang Run until she passed away in 1857, two years before Meshach himself died of pneumonia at the age of 78. He is buried at Hoyes Catholic Cemetery, not far from the junction with U.S. Route 219 between Friendsville and McHenry. There, a monument marks his grave and that of his two wives, among headstones of many Browning children and grandchildren.
Browning had taken his sons on his well-known hunts, teaching them not only how to survive but to thrive in the wilderness, instilling a deep love and respect for wildlife and the land that sustained them.
At the time of his death in 1859, Browning had 122 descendants, many of whom continued his legacy.
Browning’s youngest son Jerry, born in 1819, gained a wide reputation as a guide for hunting parties. In 1880, the story of a trek from Maryland south to Blackwater in West Virginia appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Novelist Rebecca Harding Davis related in vivid detail the 25-mile journey into the wilderness in an article titled “By-Paths in the Mountains.”
Grandson Richard T. Browning, a Civil War veteran, served in both the Maryland House and Senate for 13 years. Appointed Fish Commissioner, he oversaw the construction of Lake Brown on Deep Creek in 1893—very likely the first publicly funded state project for the sole purpose of providing public access for fishing and outdoor recreation.
Among the original eight Maryland State Game Wardens, Richard S. Browning, a great grandson, was charged with enforcing the first Statewide Game Law in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties in July 1918.
Great grandson R. Getty Browning gained fame for walking 253 miles to survey and map the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Browning Peak in the Great Balsam range is named after him.
Tom Thayer, another direct descendant, spent his childhood fishing and hunting in Meshach’s woodland haunts. As Assistant District Forester in Garrett County for the Maryland Department of Forest and Parks in the early 1950s, he succeeded in getting 500,000 trees planted on private lands, and helped establish the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers Association.
George F. Browning, yet another successor, served on the committee advising Thayer’s efforts. At that time, Maryland was the only state giving free tree seedlings away to landowners.
Article by Linda Wiley and Champ Zumbrun—webmaster and retired manager of Green Ridge State Forest, respectively. Both are members of the Maryland Conservation History Committee. Appears in Vol. 21, No. 1 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, winter 2018.