Dr. Thomas Walker (1715-1794)

route of Dr. Thomas Walker through Cumberland Gap, 1750
route of Dr. Thomas Walker through Cumberland Gap, 1750
Source: National Park Service - Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Dr. Thomas Walker

Thomas Walker was one of the early Virginia explorers who pushed westward across the Appalachian Mountains, expanding European settlements by documenting the existence of Cumberland Gap, building the first colonial house in Kentucky, and surveying both parcels for sale and boundaries between colonies.1

He was born in Tidewater (King and Queen County) and educated at William and Mary in Williamsburg. He worked as a doctor in Fredericksburg and operated a business in Louisa County. After he married a rich widow, they moved to Albemarle County, from which he was elected to the House of Burgesses. He was successful in developing relationships there, and became a member of the Loyal Land Company which obtained an 800,000 acre land grant in 1849.2

To survey and sell that land, Walker became one of the great explorers of southwestern Virginia. He was the first European to document crossing Cumberland Gap, which he called Cave Gap, and "discover" Kentucky. He was not the first person ever to cross the gap - Native Americans had lived in the area for perhaps 10,000 years - and as Walker recorded in his journal on April 17, 1750, he was not even the first European to cross it and mark the passage:3

April 13th. We went four miles to large Creek which we called Cedar Creek being a Branch of Bear-Grass, and from thence Six miles to Cave Gap, the land being Levil. On the North side of the Gap is a large Spring, which falls very fast, and just above the Spring is a small Entrance to a Large Cave, which the spring runs through, and there is a constant Stream of Cool air issueing out. The Spring is sufficient to turn a Mill.

Just at the Foot of the Hill is a Laurel Thicket and the spring Water runs through it. On the South side is a Plain Indian Road. on the top of the Ridge are Laurel Trees marked with Crosses, others Blazed and several Figures on them. As I went down the other Side, I soon came to some Laurel in the head of the Branch. A Beech stands on the left hand, on which I cut my name.

To clear title to the land claimed by the Loyal Land Company, Walker negotiated with the Iroquois at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, and with the Cherokee for the Treaty of Lochaber in 1770. He led the 1779-80 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border, marking the Walker Line (in an incorrect location...) all the way to the Tennessee River.

In 1864, after his explorations of southwestern Virginia and the Cumberland Plateau but before his service as a treaty negotiator, Walker built Castle Hill on the 15,000 acres in Albemarle County that came with his marriage to Mildred Thornton Meriwether. That plantation home was on the route taken by Banastre Tarleton in 1781, in his effort to surprise the Virginia legislators assembled in Charlottesville. Legend records that Walker insisted on being hospitable to the visiting British cavalry, delaying them long enough for Jack Jouett to get to Charlottesville first and for Thomas Jefferson to flee.4

Thomas Walker's 1750 house was documented as the furthest extent of English settlement on Mitchell's 1755 map
Thomas Walker's 1750 house was documented as the furthest extent of English settlement on John Mitchell's 1755 map
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection, Map of the British and French Dominions in North America


French maps in 1755 also showed Thomas Walker's 1750 house
French maps in 1755 also showed Thomas Walker's 1750 house
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection, Cours de l'Ohio, Nlle. Angleterre, Nlle. York, Pensylvanie, Virginie, Caroline (by Robert de Vaugondy, 1755)


1. "Dr. Thomas Walker History," Kentucky State Parks, http://www.parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/thomas-walker/history.aspx (last checked July 13, 2014)
2. Archibald Henderson, "Dr. Thomas Walker and the Loyal Company of Virginia," American Antiquarian Society, 1931, pp.82-84, http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44806881.pdf (last checked July 13, 2014)
3. , posted online in "The Land of Our Ancestors," TNGenWeb, http://www.tngenweb.org/tnland/squabble/walker.html (last checked July 13, 2014)
4. "Castle Hill 002-1112," Virginia Department of Historic Resources, nomination to National Register of Historic Places, http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/Albemarle/002-0012%20-%20Castle%20Hill%20-%201972%20-%20Final%20Nomination.pdf (last checked July 13, 2014)

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Exploring Land, Settling Frontiers
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