Historical Society of Southwest Virginia


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Dr. Thomas Walker
By Bonnie Ball


In 1911 a historian, Archibald Henderson, wrote: "In this era of America's coming of age and the birth of American biography, a closer scrutiny of the moving forces in our early history is decisively necessitated. In our preoccupation with the Mont Blancs and Mount Everests in the South, and especially inVirginia - Washington and Jefferson, Madison and Mason, Henry and Lee, we have overlooked the lesser peaks - the lower Alps. We look in vain for biographies of George Wythe, Peyton Randolph, Edmund Pendleton, and Thomas Walker.
"Of pioneering and exploratory spirits of the eighteenth century in the old Southwest - George Washington and George Rogers Clark, Richard Henderson and Daniel Boone, James Robinson and John Sevier, Simon Kenton and Joseph Martin. History and Biography have not been silent. But we still wait, and without impatience, desiderated biographies of Thomas Walker is easily the most distinguished for versility and cultural range in indefatigable labors in many fields - pioneering thought and action, intimate association with leading men of his day, and constructive accomplishments as: physician and surgeon, surveyor and commissary, soldier and legislator, explorer and colonizer, treaty negotiator, politician and diplomacy."
In 1949, Glenna Louise Delinger wrote: Dr. Thomas Walker, Father of Kentucky. She stated that when Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492 he was searching for a new route to the Orient; and when Champlain entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he called the stream "La Chine", because he believed it a river of China.
Although much exploring had been done by the middle of the 17th century, the 7th decade of that century brought a new impetus to western exploration that was to carry it to a successful fulfillment of its object - the crossing of the mountains.
Beginning with Captain Abraham Wood and Edmund Bland in 1650, explorations were carried on by Thomas Batts, Robert Fallam, and others until 1674. Batts and Captain Wood are the first to leave us a story and record of waters that flow into the Ohio River, down which LaSalle sailed and believed to be a transcontinental stream that might float him to the Pacific Ocean. By then at least three parties had been beyond the Blue Ridge on the New River trail and Virginians had progressed this far toward Kentucky before Daniel Boone.
It was not until the middle of the 18th century that we have records of English Explorations of the Trans-Allegheny region at the latitudes of 36-30. These, of course, are known to us by the written records of Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750, when he called the area long known to the Indians as Ken-tuck-e by the English
name of Louisa.
Although John Salling and Alexander Maginty, prisoners of the Indians were in the region before Walker's tour, his Journal kept in 1750 marks him as the first white man to make an organized and recorded expedition beyond the mountains.
By profession he was a physician, but the title of Doctor did not confine him to the practice of medicine. He was as well, a great land owner, surveyor, statesman, hunter and trader.
From the book, Dr. Thomas Walker and the Loyal Land Company, we learn the following facts about the personal life of Dr. Walker: "He was born in 1715 as what was then Gloucester County, Virginia, third child and second son of Thomas and Susanna (Peachy) Walker of King and Queen County. The Thomas
Walker who served in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1662 is believed to have been a progenitor, and was reportedly his grandfather. His ancestors came from Staffordshire, England and settled about 1650 in the tidewater area.
"While still a lad Thomas Walker lost his father, and went to live with his sister, Mary Peachy, the second wife of Dr. George Gilmer, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. Until his death in 1757, Dr. Gilmer successfully combined the vocation of physician, surgeon and druggist. He also studied
medicine at William and Mary College. Later he practiced medicine in Fredericksburg, where he acquired eminence in the field of surgery, and is credited with one of the earliest in America or abroad, to perforate a home for suppurlative osteomyelitis, to release the drainage of pus."
Dr. Walker's consuming interest in acquiring land, and his adventurous spirit, forced him to lay down his saddlebags and take up the occupation of surveyor, which would offer greater remunerative returns. (Times have changed!)
Besides his medical practice and land speculation, he had considerable interest in mercantile business, and participated in religious and governmental affairs of the State, which led to his election to the Virginia House of Delegates and Convention of 1775, and council of State and Commissary for the forces of
Virginia in the French and Indian Wars. He was an agent for Virginia to survey the boundary between that state and North Carolina. He was also an admitted authority on folklore and practices.
Dr. Walker gained his first sizeable tract of land through his marriage to the widow of Nicholas Meriwether, who was a second cousin of George Washington, Mildred Thornton. This was a tract of 15,000 acres in Albemarle County.
In 1765 he completed his home, "Castle Hill," near Charlottesville. Here he "rendezvoused" with such figures as: Madison, Monroe, Patrick Henry, William Preston and Thomas Jefferson. It was at this house that the Redcoats were deliberately served late breakfast in order to give Jack Jewett more time to warn Governor Jefferson that Tarleton was on his way to capture him and the General Assembly.
Dr. Walker was the Guardian of Thomas Jefferson, administrator of the estate of his father, Peter Jefferson, whom he attended in his last illness. He has been credited with encouraging the scientific pursuits of young Jefferson.
In 1775 there were four different maps covering the territory that Walker explored in 1750, which were used by later explorers.
Extant records in a letter show that for 5 years Walker's headquarters were in what is now Abingdon, which he called Washington Courthouse, and which had been previously called Wolf Hills. He owned a large tract of land around Abingdon.
In 1748, Dr. Walker accompanied Col. James Patton, James Wood and others, on a expedition into the Holston Valley, which resulted in the formation of the Loyal Land Company, with a grant of 800,000 acres of land to be explored for settlement. This contract led to his exploration of Kentucky in 1750.
Early historians of Kentucky gave conflicting dates of Dr. Walker's journey, but a conclusive proof, years later Col. Shelby related that while he was traveling with Dr. Walker on Yellow Creek, a mile or two west of Cumberland Mountain (Bell Co., KY), the latter pointed to a beech tree and stated that Ambrose Powell had marked it with his name and date. Shelby examined the tree and found, "A. Powell - 1750."

Surviving image of Dr. Thomas Walker
Virginia Historical Society image - plaque


On March 6, 1750, Dr. Walker left Castle Hill with Ambrose Powell, William Tomlinson, Colby Chew, Henry Lawless and John Hughes. His entry for April 13, 1750 is the first written record of a white man at Cumberland Gap in honor of the English Duke of Cumberland. His major achievement was that of erecting the first house built by a white man in Kentucky.
On a present day map the same route followed by the Walker party may be traced from Charlottesville to Roanoke, Marion, Abingdon, Kingsport, Rogersville, Tennessee, across the western corner of Lee County, Virginia, to Cumberland Gap. Thence to Pineville, Barboursville, Corbin, London, Irvine, Salyersville and Paintsville, in Kentucky.
Dr. Walker usually named streams and mountains for men of his party, although some of them were later changed. We are sure than when he named a river and mountain Powell that they had either followed or crossed them. He mentioned Ambrose Powell's having crossed the river with supplies on horseback. So, it can be assumed that from Rogersville they may have headed for Sneedville on the Clinch, thence to Kyle's Ford, Blackwater, and the present site of Jonesville, (or to a section to the west of it.) Anyhow they had crossed a mountain with limestone ledges, and a river then called "Beargrass River," but evidently renamed the Powell River. From that point they traveled on to the Cumberland Gap via the same route followed by Daniel Boone nearly two decades later. When Boone reached the gap he already knew that it was named Cumberland - no doubt from Walker's maps, and the trail that he and his party had blazed.
Walker's party returned to Charlottesville by way of Williamson, West Virginia, Hot Springs and Staunton. They had missed the Bluegrass region of Kentucky by only 15 miles. However, he made a second trip in 1753 when he did discover the Bluegrass country, and again he preceded Daniel Boone.
Here I shall give, as briefly as possible, some highlighted from the Journal of Dr. Walker on this exploratory trip through Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia again. Kentucky, West Virginia, and homeward.
"April ye 9th: We traveled to a river which I suppose to be that which the hunters call the Clinch River, from one Clinch, a hunter who first found it. We marked several beeches on the east side. We could not find a ford shallow enough to carry our baggage over on our horses. Ambrose Powell forded on one horse, and we drove the others after him."
On April 11th they traveled 5 miles to and over a high mountain, came to Turkey Creek, which they followed downward 4 miles. It lay between two ridges, that to the eastward being the highest.
On April 12th he wrote that they kept down the creek 2 miles further where it meets a large branch from the south, turning throughout the east ridge, making it a very good pass. A buffalo road led from that fork to the creek over the west ridge, where he said the descent was "tolerably easie" . From this mountain they rode 4 miles to the Beargrass River, kept up the river 2 miles, and found some small pieces of coal and a great plenty of yellow flint. Here he said the water was about 70 yards wide.
On April 13th they went 4 miles to a large creek, which they called Cedar Creek, a branch of Beargrass River, and thence 6 miles to Cave Gap (Cumberland Gap). At the cave and spring he said there was a constant stream of cool air issuing out. On the south side was a plain Indian road. On top of the ridge were laurel trees marked with crosses, others blazed, and several figures on them. As he went down the other side he saw laurel, and a beech tree on the left, on which he cut his name. (Apparently in present Bell Co., KY)
On Easter morning, April 15th they were in "bad grounds for horses," and moved 7 miles along the Indian road, to Clover Creek.
On April 16th it rained. His shoes were worn out, and he made a pair of Indian shoes. On the 17th he discovered the river that he named the Cumberland. Somewhere in that area, along the way he had found much coal.
On April 19th they came to the mouth of Licking Creek, much used by buffaloes. They rode 7 miles that day and Ambrose Powell was bitten on the hand by a bear.
Among his other mishaps, two of their horses were bitten by snakes, which he successfully treated with bear grease. One horse chocked on reeds that grew along the streams, and he "drenched its throat with much water". One dog was badly injured in a fight with a bear, and was carried on horseback for 7 days - until he was able to travel.
You doubtless wonder why I have given much space and emphasis to Thomas Walker, who, as far as I know, had no posterity in this area, yet he left a remarkable stamp of achievement here - as a trail blazer, of many sorts. He tutored Thomas Jefferson who possessed a master mind of a nation. He was closely associated with George Washington during the French and Indian War. Like Washington he surveyed thousand of acres of land in Western Virginia. He drew the maps that guided many of the Long Hunters. He was likely the first Englishman, and possibly the first white man to explore the Powell and Cumberland Rivers. Had it not been for him few, if any, camping or settling in the area of Powell Valley, at those early dates would have been possible, yet history records many such persons. Some may have followed Daniel Boone and remained there until driven out by the Indian wars.
Thomas Walker was a forerunner of Daniel Boone. Nevertheless, historians have written thousands of pages on Boone, while few books, and no movies have honored Thomas Walker, he stands out as a courageous man, an intellectual giant whose medical and surgical skill superseded most, if not all, of his contemporaries, a noted statesman, a patriotic Virginian, and the "Father of Kentucky."
I have always, (since childhood), been curious to know where the expression used by some of my elders, to vent their strong feelings, originated when they would say: "That beats the Devil and Tom Walker!"
Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia, published by The Historical Society of Southwest Virginia, publication 12, 1978, pages 5 to 9.




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