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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Big Game Hunting with Dogs in Frontier Maryland and Pennsylvania

John Jeanneney © 1997, Full Cry

Speculation and debate about cur dogs and hounds of the American frontier has been going on for a long time. Sometimes new pieces of the complicated puzzle show up and add to our understanding of the big picture. Two autobiographies by hunters of the early 1800s describe dogs and how they were used on deer, elk and bear in the frontiers of western Maryland and north-central Pennsylvania. This style of hunting had little in common with modern bear hunting with hounds or with the hunting of deer with hounds as it continues in the south.

The man who tells us most is Meshach Browning (1781-1859) who was born on a small, poor farm in Frederick County, Maryland in the year that the American Revolution ended. Browning's father died shortly after his son's birth and by the time he was ten Meshach's mother took the boy over the mountains to western Maryland. Meshach stayed and hunted in this area for the rest of his life. Deer and bear were plentiful and mountain lions were still present.

Young Meshach spent several years on pioneer farms belonging to his uncle. Here he "hunted coons and wildcats and sold the fur which was in brisk demand." For this he used his dog Gunner, a jack of all trades dog who also hunted rabbits. Before he was 16 (B.25) he was on his own. By this time he also began to hunt deer accompanied by Gunner.

Browning hunted deer and bear with the dog in close, not ranging out. The dog was kept at a loose "heel", or if not so well-trained, was restrained by some sort of a cord. The hunter "still hunted" moving slowly through the timber looking for deer and watching his dog who would wind scent the deer and indicate its presence through body language but without barking. The dog acted as nose and ears for the hunter and could also follow the game after the shot. This hunting method is still used today in Scandinavia by moose hunters who use Norwegian Elkhounds and related breeds.

In reading Browning's narrative it is obvious that these needs to follow wounded deer were frequent. The flintlock rifles that were generally used on big game threw a .45 caliber ball. The quality of the powder available was also not the best. By modern standards the energy delivered would be considered marginal, and these flintlock hunters had difficulties if placement of the ball was not ideal. Under the circumstances putting a dog on the hot line of the wounded deer was a time-saver and often a game saver as well.

Meshach became best known as a bear hunter and at the end of his hunting career he estimated that he had killed 300 to 400 bears. It was an old bear hunter, Mr. John Caldwell of Wheeling, who introduced him to the use of dogs in bear hunting. Meshach obtained his first great bear dog, Watch, out of John Caldwell's stock. Watch was what Meshach wanted, a large, powerful dog up to the task of pulling down wounded deer and baying bears that would not tree.

Bears were more numerous and much less wary in those days than they are today. Sometimes Meshach hunted bears with his dog on their feeding grounds as he did deer. He would use a dog to locate denned bears, to roust them out, bay them and follow after the shot. He would also cold track bears on snow by sight, and after jumping them turn his dogs loose on the hot line.

Browning described his preferences for deer and bear dogs in some detail. From the start he wanted big dogs that were strong and fast like Watch. At the end of his career Meshach seemed to have a pretty clear idea of how to breed what would be useful to him. He worked with variations of the bulldog/greyhound cross. "Take a half-blooded pup," he advised, "a cross between the bulldog and the greyhound...." He did not stick to a rigid formula and "bulldog" and greyhound were generic terms for kinds of dogs less extreme in type than the breeds of today.

Clearly Meshach liked jaw power in his bloodlines. "I had lost my old hunting dog and had with me the slut from which I raised my good dogs...."When (the buck) found her so close, he turned to fight her off. Being partly of the bulldog breed, she seized him by the nose, and held on until she mashed his nose up to his eyes, and crushed both eyes entirely shut." Browning liked to work with variations of the bulldog greyhound cross, but he did not stick to a strict formula. "I have had some very fine dogs which were a cross between the bulldog, the greyhound, and the fox hound; but the only objection to them is that they are so noisy that you can never steal on the game, but keep it always on the look-out."

Meshach's preferred dog was fairly tight-mouthed and apparently more a windscenter than a specialist for old, cold ground scent.

"The extraordinary success which I had in bear-hunting requires some explanation which I will endeavor to give. I always kept two good dogs; one of which walked before me and the other behind. The one in front would wind the bear, and lead me up to him on that side on which he could not smell me, and I would come on him unexpectedly. If, by chance, he found us coming on him and ran, the dogs would overtake him before he would be out of sight. The moment I would see one run, I would send the dogs after him; and as I could run almost as fast as any bear could, when the fight began I was close up and a shot was certain death."

Sometimes we have to take a small grain of salt with Meshach's statements and realize that he was describing his ideal of dog work rather than what took place most of the time.

None of the adventures which he recounts in his book required much cold nose work by modern big game hound standards. Cold trailing ability would not have been very important in this style of hunting.

There is no basis for assuming that Meshach's dogs were ancestors of any modern cur breed although clearly they resembled curs much more than hounds. We have no sure way of knowing what they looked like. Engravings and etchings provided by Browning's editor Edward Stabler show dogs which have the outline of a rather rangy southern black mouth cur of the Ladner or Nolan strains. The plates from Meshach Browning's book do not prove how the dogs actually looked. Edward Stabler, the artist/editor who produced them, knew Meshach personally after his hunting days were over, but we can't be sure whether his illustrations in the book depict specific dogs or just showed generic big game dogs of the 1850's. An engraving identified as a "bear dog" looks like a modern pitbull.

What we do know is that Meshach's dogs acted like curs and were useful in the ways that a cur-dog is useful. They were used by Browning to wind game. They worked very close to him until a deer was encountered. There are hounds that will do this, but it is more typical of cur work. Browning's dogs also formed close associations with individuals and were more protective than is characteristic of hounds."I asked Mary if she would stay in the house by herself while I went out to shoot a deer for she had been a long time wishing for some fresh venison; and I told her that her brother wanted to go with me. She said yes, if I would leave Watch (her favorite dog), which would not suffer man or beast to touch her in a rough way; for, if I was playing with her, and she called Watch, he would jump at me, and would bite too, if I persisted."

We will never know if these dogs ever became part of the great gene pool from which modern curs derive. Meshach does describe what canine traits he found useful for his frontier hunting. These traits could be bred for when needed by combining certain types of dogs, as has been done with the deliberate greyhound collie crosses that produce "lurchers" for taking hares and rabbits in England.

Browning also took great pains to train his dogs to handle well:

"Take a half-blooded pup, a cross between the bull dog and the grey hound, FEED HIM WELL - FOR A STARVED PUPS WILL SURELY BE A THIEF, - and when he is able to follow you to the field, make him lie down at your feet and do not allow him to rise until he is told. When he gets a rod or two from you, either make him return, or wait till you come up with him, and then make him lie down again. In all cases where he does his duty caress him and he will soon learn to love his master; after which he will not be afraid and run away to avoid correction. Whip but lightly, until you have so trained the dog that you can depend on his obedience to your command to stop, or to return at your order. When you have taught him this, you may venture a little more severity, according to the offense; and when he is taken into the woods he must be first taught to trail his game; for if a deer is wounded he should trail it carefully, going but a step or two before his master, until the game is killed. When the master can see the deer which he has killed, he should let the pup go toward the carcass, and then call him back; then, advancing a little nearer, he should let him go to the deer a second time, and call him back again; then let the master accompany him to the deer and flatter him as much as possible. By this means, when he is sufficiently instructed, and is sent to catch a wounded deer, he will kill it, return to his master and guide him to the spot where it is lying. And he must never leave his master more than two or three steps, lest a deer bound off, and he run after it and be spoiled.

When in the woods, and your dog seems to desire to run after deer, pretend you see some, and take the gun in your hand as you would if you were creeping toward a deer; when if the dog misbehaves, you can chastise him. By treating a dog this way every time he becomes unruly, he may be entirely cured of his faults."

While Meshach Browning was thinning the deer and bear population in western Maryland another hunter Philip Tome (1782-1855) was hunting with his dogs along the same Appalachian ridges some 250 miles to the Northeast along the Pennsylvania-New York Boundary. By his own account, Tome's parents were of "German extraction." He was born a year after Meshach Browning near what is today Harrisburg and his family later migrated north up the west branch of the Susquehannah. Tome's methods of hunting big game with dogs were a little different from Browning's, but the techniques overlapped in some respects. In northern Pennsylvania Tome hunted deer and bear, but his specialty was elk which very uncommon down in Browning's country.

Tome credits John Mills, an old hunter who lived near his father for giving him his best instruction, although later Tome certainly expanded upon the art of his master. Before moving to Canada Mills sold his farm to Tome's father and then made another deal with the son. Meshach reported that he offered "to sell me his dog, and to teach me all he knew about hunting for fifteen dollars which I accepted. I had already hunted for several years, but his instructions were of greater value than all my previous experience."

Tome seemed to want a "houndier" dog than Browning:

"The best kind of dog for hunting deer is a large variety, half bloodhound, a quarter cur and the other quarter greyhound. I have had two dogs of this kind, for one of which I paid ten dollars and the other six. They were of more practical value than four small dogs would have been. When they were one in a chase on a deer they would not lose one in ten. So famous did they become for their prowess, that if any of the neighbors saw them running, they would exclaim, "there are Tome's dogs; the deer cannot be far off." The deer could never baffle them by any of their usual stratagems, and they often ran them down before they reached the water. Those wishing to hunt successfully should always procure at any cost, the largest and best dogs to be found."

The bloodhound genes in these cross-bred dogs should have produced strong aptitudes for working ground scent. When we compare Tome's hunting stories to those of Browning, we see that Tome places much less emphasis on wind scenting, and his runs on deer tend to be longer. Tome did not work his dogs in close as much as Meshach, but he definitely expected them to be obedient and handle well. "We owned three well-trained dogs. If we put them on a track they would not leave it for any other; they would come when called, and never go until we gave the word." They were hounds but they were very well-trained.

A posed, not very clear photograph of Tome which is in the collection of the Warren County Historical Society shows him with a rifle and dog. This dog seems to have more the features of a cur than a hound, but he may not have been typical of Tome's elk and deer dogs.

According to Tome:

"The most favorable time for hunting elk is in the month of August, when they herd together and the bucks are very fat. I have sometimes seen as many as sixty in one herd. At this season they utter a peculiar hollow roar, which can be heard at a great distance, and are constantly fighting with each other. The hunter approached them cautiously with dogs, and when near enough he let the dogs loose, and the elk, instead of running, would face the dogs. The hunter now crept nearer, and shot them, keeping himself concealed. They would gather around their fallen companions, making a great noise."

In the winter, snow cover made it practical to scout for elk tracks. He would follow these tracks for many miles before jumping the elk and releasing the dogs. In heavy snow the dogs had a good chance of running down and baying the elk.

It was Philip's father, Jacob Tome, who had created a sensation in January of 1800 by using dogs and ropes to capture a large bull elk and bring it out of the woods alive. In his own career Philip repeated the feat a number of times.

Tome hunted deer with dogs in a number of different ways. Especially in the fall when the deer were fat he cast his dogs like hounds; hunters were posted along the steams to ambush the deer as they picked their way along through the water and rocks in an effort to lose the dogs.

Tome also jacked deer at night from a canoe or at natural or man-made salt licks. Close to salt licks he would build a "scaffold" (this sounds like the German Hochsitz); when the deer came he would lower a burning torch to give himself shooting light. "I generally had a companion and a dog, and one of us remained at a distance with the dog, while the other watched from the scaffold. In the morning, if any were wounded, we set the dog on the track, if we could not track it by blood without difficulty."

Both Meshach Browning and Philip Tome hunted primarily for the market. Meshach estimated that he killed, in total, 1800 to 2000 deer. Philip Tome, as well as his brother, about whom we get little detail, took a lot of game. "My brother killed from twenty-five to thirty-five elk and twenty to twenty-five bears each year. I did not kill as many.... During one season, my brother killed of bears, elk and deer nearly two hundred.. The greatest number that I killed, in any one season, of the same kind of animals was about one hundred and thirty." Bear meat was the most valuable of all. "If we saw a bear track when we were in pursuit of elk, we would always leave the elk and follow the bear."

The methods of Browning and Tome would be illegal today in most of the country; there is also a real question of whether their methods would be as effective. Black bears were certainly much less wary in the early 1800's. Elk, in the habit of standing up to wolves, did not fare well when responding in the same way to dogs and hunters with rifles. There may well be some over-simplification or exaggeration in some of the accounts, but we do know that wild animals responded very differently before they came to know of humans with firearms.

Black bears then also tended to be more aggressive than the ones which survive in the East today; they were a real threat to livestock, especially free-ranging hogs. Browning saw the bear as a respected adversary, but he fought them no holds barred. Describing a rough bear fight, he wrote:

"When I saw him laid out at my feet, and thought how manfully he had fought in his own defence, and also how unfairly he had been taken, without the least notice at the onset, it destroyed all pleasure of the fight. But then it occurred to me that, if he had escaped at this time, he would perhaps have killed a dozen hogs for some of my friends; and that if he had received the least notice of the attack, he could not have been taken by all the dogs in the neighborhood."

Both Browning and Tome hunted deer as if they were harvesting apples for the market. They picked everything in sight, always confident that there would be more for the following year. They were hard men living in hard times, but they did not hunt for the love of killing. Tome wrote:

"I never want only killed an animal, when I could gain nothing by its destruction. From October to May their skins are good, and at this season I always killed all I could. With a true hunter it is not the destruction of life which affords the pleasures of the chase; it is the excitement attendant upon the very uncertainty of it which induces men even to leave luxurious homes and expose themselves to the hardships and perils of the wilderness."

For these two frontier hunters dogs were as much a part of big game hunting as their flintlock rifles. Dogs and men had much in common. They were equally driven and equally tough. They lived up to one another.


Browning, Meshach, Forty-Four Years of the Life of a Hunter Being Reminiscences of Meshach Browning, a Maryland Hunter, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1859. Reprint. Oakland, MD: Appalachian Background Inc., 1982.

Tome, Philip, Pioneer Life or, Thirty Years a Hunter, Harrisburg, PA: Aurand Press, 1854. Reprint. Salem, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 1989.


abensing said...

It was great to read that again. I really enjoyed it. Your article gives real insight into why in the late 1800's dogs were outlawed for hunting big game in the north as the different states enacted game laws.

Doug said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I check in on your blog now and again, and this was a good read.