Saturday, August 7, 2004

McHENRY, Md. — What Daniel Boone is to Kentucky and Davy Crockett to Tennessee, Meshach Browning is to Western Maryland: an early-American frontiersman mythologized by outsized tales of his rugged exploits.

Browning wrote his legend himself. His 1859 autobiography, “Forty-four Years of the Life of a Hunter,” recounts in grisly detail many of his battles with the nearly 400 bears, 2,000 deer and scores of panthers, wolves, wildcats and rattlesnakes he claims to have killed.

His favorite quarry was black bears — of all sizes, in all seasons. He stalked them with dogs, trapped them in pits, shot them, stabbed them and even boxed with one for sport before dispatching it with a single thrust of his knife.

Then he ate them.

“Bear meat is considered a delicacy by those accustomed to it, and the hunter always deems it a prize worthy of much effort to obtain,” Browning wrote.

Today, the prospect of Maryland’s first regulated bear hunt in 51 years has revived interest in Meshach Browning and his book. Some doubt his stories, but not Garrett County historian Steve Schlosnagle, who impersonated Browning for a historical lecture before a rapt audience last month at Garrett College, not far from Browning’s grave in Hoyes.

“He may have been unusual in the scope of what he did, the number of animals he killed, but I don’t think he was that unique,” Mr. Schlosnagle said. “He was unique in that he wrote it down.”

And wrote and wrote and wrote. Open the 400-page volume anywhere and you’ll soon find Browning confronting a bear in an oak forest or stalking deer through a desolate swamp.

“The guy would leave his pregnant wife for days, weeks, and just go off and hunt,” said David M. Dean, a Frostburg State University history professor who wrote about Browning in the spring 1996 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine.

Yet Browning spent enough time at home to have fathered 11 children by two wives. His numerous descendants include Austin Meshack Browning, 11, of Oakland, Md., whose connection goes back seven generations.

“I know he was a great hunter, and I admire him for what he did,” the boy said.

Other admirers include Daniel Hartzler, a New Windsor funeral director who is something of a modern counterpart to Browning. Mr. Hartzler, 62, has killed a bear on each continent with an old-fashioned flintlock rifle, completing what the Safari Club International calls a “Bears of the World Grand Slam.”

Mr. Hartzler said he has quoted Browning in some of his 18 books on muzzleloading weaponry. “He just has excellent stuff from that early period,” he said.

Paul Peditto, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Heritage Service, said he read Browning’s autobiography in college.

The book captures a hunter’s “innate drive,” making it “a must-read for people who do what we do for a living in Western Maryland,” Mr. Peditto said.

He said he might reread the book this summer as the DNR prepares for a proposed bear hunt this fall in Garrett and Allegany counties. The agency wants hunters to kill 30 bears out of a population Mr. Peditto estimates at 500 statewide. Bear hunting has been banned in Maryland since 1953, after the animals had been nearly wiped out in the state.

Browning, who lived from 1781 to 1859, complained near the end of his book about the disappearance of game he once thought nearly boundless. Although partly responsible for the reduction, he blamed “all other hunters who were not governed by the kind and fair feelings which used to regulate their actions in bygone years.”

Mr. Schlosnagle, who opposes the proposed bear hunt, said there is a lesson in Browning’s story.

“A lot of us today whine and cry about the loss of the environment. We drive these big SUVs, we’ve got two houses, consumption is a national pastime and we shop like there’s no end to anything,” Mr. Schlosnagle said. “We’re Meshach Browning.”

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