The Amazing Davy Brown by R Lawson Gamble

Davy Brown, by all reports, was a remarkable man, the sort of character around whom myths and lies swirl, about whom the facts fail to stick, sliding away like eggs in a Teflon frying pan. It is common knowledge that he had a cabin near the campground that bears his name in the west end of Sunset Valley on a creek that also bears his name. Here he lived as a semi-recluse, hunting and fishing and occasionally hosting parties of hunters. His name is revered in the area; all manner of hidden artifacts and treasures are attributed to him, and his name adorns the bottle of a popular beer brewed by Figueroa Mountain Brewery in Buellton.

But who, in fact, was Davey, or Davy, or David Brown?

Michael C. O’Laughlin, in Irish Families on the California Trail, writes that Davey Brown was born at Mount Charles in County Donegal, Ireland, in 1800 as William S. Brown. At just twelve years of age, he left home to serve aboard a British ship, a warship or privateer, during the War of 1812. The Americans captured the vessel along with Davey Brown, but as he was seen as too young to press into service, he was released to his own devices in South Carolina.

His storied adventures had just begun. He reputedly traveled west to Missouri and on to Texas. For a while, he was a Texas Ranger. He was said to have known Kit Carson; some accounts say he taught him his trade, and he journeyed with the mountain man “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. The Fitzpatrick Expedition of 1831 was a likely time for the three to be together. The expedition traveled west to the Rockies and eventually to Oregon, hunting and trapping, until returning to Taos, New Mexico, in 1833. If indeed he was a member of this expedition, Brown would have been a mature thirty-one and Carson a youngster of twenty-one. It is certainly possible that Davy Brown contributed to Carson’s education at this time.

According to some sources, Brown served as a mule driver in 1846 for the United States Army during the Mexican-American War.

Davey Brown next appears in California. John Muir knew about Davy Brown from early on in the Gold Rush and wrote glowingly about him. In his book, “Our National Parks,” he refers to him as the most famous bear hunter in the Sierras. Brown had a forest camp on the north fork of the Merced River, where he divided his time between hunting for meat and hunting for gold. He hunted bear and deer with his long-barreled rifle, assisted by his small hunting dog, Sandy. In another of his books, “My First Summer in the Sierra,” Muir describes how Brown befriended the Digger Indians of the region and helped protect them from the Utes who raided across the Sierras to plunder food stores and to steal wives.

By 1872, Brown had come to live in San Francisco, and his unquenchable thirst for liquor resulted in serious illness. Doctors pronounced him near death, but Brown left the city and moved to the San Mateo hills, where, to everyone’s surprise, he recovered. Then he drifted south, eventually ending up in Guadalupe, North Santa Barbara County, where he bought some land to farm.

But by 1883, he began to feel the town was getting too crowded for comfort, so Davy, at 83 years old, moved to Cuyama. However, when he found about as many people there as Guadalupe, he packed his two white mules, Jinks and Tommy, and headed into the wild Manzana country. Brown spent his first winter there holed up in a hollow sycamore tree.

Davy later built a cabin on a point between two creeks, later known as the Davy Brown and the Fir Canyon Creeks, not to live in but to serve as a storage area while he slept in a lean-to. When he was 84, a 64-year-old named George Willis, whom Davey called “boy,” came to live with him. They used Davy’s two mules, Tommy and Captain Jinks, to haul logs for his fireplace.

Then the day came when Brown found “the boy” dead on the old Figueroa Mountain trail. By this time, Davy was a sick man and barely able to care for himself.
He returned to Guadalupe and boarded with a Mrs. Wyman, whom he paid fifteen dollars for his board, and an extra twenty dollars a month to take care of him. When her restaurant business failed, Davy promised her if she stayed with him to the end, he would see that she would want for nothing. He was true to his word.

Davy died in 1898 and was buried at Guadalupe Cemetery.

Once, Brown was heard to remark that he enjoyed the simple life of hunting, eating, and sleeping and neither drank nor smoked, having given both up at age 72. Mrs. Mattei, of Mattei’s Hotel in Los Olivos, a woman well known for her temperance views, heard that Brown abstained from alcohol. She invited him to attend a meeting of the Woman’s Christian Temperance at Mattei’s Hotel. When she insisted he give a testimonial, he remarked, “I don’t drink now, but I was drunk for 60 years prior.”

(Sources for this article include works by Shirley Contreras of the Santa Maria Historical Society, among others.)

One thought on “The Amazing Davy Brown by R Lawson Gamble

  1. I don’t know if this will go out, but I hope that it does. Thank you for sending me your column about Davy Brown. It’s great. Much, much better than mine.  I’m planning on saving it…hope that yo won’t mind. Again, Many thanks Shirley


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