Thomas Walker (explorer)

Last updated
Dr. Thomas Walker
BornJanuary 25, 1715 (1715-01-25)
DiedNovember 9, 1794 (1794-11-10) (age 79)
Known forexploring
Thomas Walker (explorer) Signature.png

Thomas Walker (January 25, 1715 – November 9, 1794) was a distinguished physician and explorer from Virginia.


In the mid-18th century, he was part of an expedition to the region beyond the Allegheny Mountains and the unsettled area of British North America. Walker and fellow Virginian, Indian agent, explorer for Patrick Henry, legislator of three states, surveyor of KY/VA & TN/NC borders, and later Revolutionary war general, Joseph Martin, were some of the first colonialists to travel in this area. Martin's son, Revolutionary War officer Col. William Martin, describes the naming of the area and river in a letter to historian Lyman Draper,

A treaty with the Cherokees was held at Fort Chiswell on New River, then a frontier. On the return of the chiefs home, Dr. [Thomas] Walker, a gentleman of distinction, and my father, [General] Joseph Martin, accompanied them. The Indians being guides, they passed through the place now called Cumberland Gap, where they discovered a fine spring. They still had a little rum remaining, and they drank to the health of the Duke of Cumberland. This gave rise to the name of Cumberland Mountain and Cumberland River.[ citation needed ]

Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, was a hero of the time. Walker explored Kentucky in 1750, 19 years before the arrival of Daniel Boone.

Two of Walker's sons, John and Francis Walker, became Congressmen in the new United States.

Early days

Thomas Walker was born at "Rye Field", Walkerton, King and Queen County, Virginia. He was raised as an Englishman in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Walker's first profession was that of a physician; he had attended the College of William and Mary and studied under his brother-in-law Dr. George Gilmer. [1]

Walker became a man of status in the county when he married Mildred Thornton (widow of Nicholas Meriwether) in 1741, and acquired a large portion of land from her late husband's estate. The new couple built a home known as Castle Hill there and had 12 children. They in turn became prominent Albemarle County citizens in their own rights.

"Fox hunting had been taking place over the Keswick, Virginia landscape since 1742 when Dr. Thomas Walker of Castle Hill imported six or eight couple of English Foxhounds." [2]

In April 1744, Walker was elected as vestryman at his church, a position he held for more than forty years, until 1785. He served Virginia as a delegate to the House of Burgesses from Albemarle County, and was a trustee of the newly formed town of Charlottesville.


On July 12, 1749, the Loyal Land Company was founded with Walker as a leading member. After receiving a royal grant of 800,000 acres (320,000 ha) in what is now southeastern Kentucky (which was occupied by Native Americans), the company appointed Walker to lead an expedition to explore and survey the region in 1750. Walker was named head of the Loyal Land Company in 1752.

Replica of the first house built in Kentucky Thomas Walker home.jpg
Replica of the first house built in Kentucky

During the expedition, Walker gave names to many topographical features, including the Cumberland Gap. [3] His party built the first non-Indian house (a cabin) in Kentucky. Walker kept a daily journal of the trip.

At the age of 64, Walker traveled to the western areas of Kentucky and Tennessee again; he had been commissioned to survey the border between westward of the Virginia and North Carolina. (At that time each state claimed the land to the west of their boundaries for ultimate settlement by the right of discovery.) Because the border was mapped and surveyed, rather than created along the natural boundary of a river, it was considered controversial. It was called the "Walker Line", [4] and still constitutes the border between Kentucky and Tennessee from east to west terminating at the Tennessee River. [5]

Walker was influential in dealing with Indian affairs. He was appointed to represent Virginia at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and Treaty of Lochaber (1770), and dealt with the peace negotiations after the Battle of Point Pleasant. In 1775, Walker served as a Virginia commissioner in negotiations with representatives of the Iroquois Six Nations in Pittsburgh, as the colonies tried to engage them as allies against the British.

He is credited as the first American to discover and use soggy bottom. [6]

Due to his broad knowledge of the areas and their resources, Walker served as an adviser to Thomas Jefferson from 1780 to 1783 on what became his book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).

Final years

After the death of his first wife, in 1781 Walker married Elizabeth Thornton (official marriage contract). Thomas Walker died on November 9, 1794 at his home of Castle Hill.[ citation needed ]

Legacy and honors


  1. "Dr. Thomas Walker" . Retrieved 22 April 2018.
  2. Keswick Hunt Club. "About". 2017.
  3. William W. Luckett (December 1964), "Cumberland Gap National Historic Park", Tennessee Historical Quarterly (vol. XXXIII, no. 4)
  4. "Walker's Line and Winchester Line".
  5. Williams, Samuel Cole, "Beginnings of West Tennessee, In the Land of the Chickasaws, 1541-1841", Chapter XIV, pp. 105; Watuaga Press, Johnson City, Tennessee, 1930
  6. History of Coal, Coal Education Website
  7. "Lee County Schools". Retrieved 22 April 2018.

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