Dr. Thomas Walker’s Expedition from Virginia to Kentucky in 1749

Although he was, by profession, a medical doctor, Dr. Thomas Walder was probably more of a land developer, and he explored the passage from Virginia to Kentucky for the Loyal Land Co. of London.

By 1755, the boundary of Virginia had been extended to include all of the land west of the Ohio River and south of Canada, and the time was right to begin assessing what this new land had to offer. Dr. Thomas Walker led one of the early expeditions into that area.

Doctor Thomas Walker (1715-1794) built Castle Hill in Albemarle County in 1764. Walker's granddaughter, Judith Page Walker, m… | Albemarle county, Albemarle, Castle

Dr. Thomas Walker’s home Castle Hill is near the James River in Cash Corner, VA.

Having, on the 12th of December last, been employed for a certain consideration to go to the Westward in order to discover a proper Place for a Settlement, I left my house on the Sixth day of March, at 10 o’clock, 1749-50, in Company with Ambrose Powell, William Tomlinson, Colby Chew, Henry Lawless & John Hughs. Each man had a Horse and we had two to carry the Baggage. I lodged this night at Col. Joshua Fry’s, in Albemarle, which County includes the Chief of the head Branches of James River on the East side On the day after the party left Colonel Fry’s, “We set off about 8,” writes Dr. Walker, “but the day proving wet, we only went to Thomas Joplin’s on Rockfish. This is a pretty River, which might at a small expense be made fit for transporting Tobacco; but it has lately been stopped by a Mill Dam near the Mouth to the prejudice of the upper inhabitants of the Blue Ridge.” Thus begins Dr. Walker’s journal”

On the day after the party left Colonel Fry’s, “We set off about 8,” writes Dr. Walker, “but the day proving wet, we only went to Thomas Joplin’s on Rockfish. This is a pretty River, which might at a small expense be made fit for transporting Tobacco; but it has lately been stopped by a Mill Dam near the Mouth to the prejudice of the upper inhabitants….”

The next day was Sunday, and Walker noted: “11th. The Sabbath.” In only one or two instances did the party travel on Sunday, and then the journey was occasioned by necessity. On the twelfth the party crossed the Upper James River above the mouth of the Rivanna, and lodged with one Thomas Hunt.

“13th. We went early to William Calloway’s and supplied ourselves with Rum, Thread, and other necessaries & from thence took the main Waggon Road leading to Wood’s or the New River. It is not well clear’d or beaten yet, but will be a very good one with proper management.” Wood’s River—or New River, as we know it today—was discovered in 1671 by Colonel Abraham Wood, who explored along the line which later became the boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia. He crossed the Alleghenies through “Wood’s Gap” (now Flower Gap) and, going down Little River, found New River not far from Inglis Ferry…”

March 14 “… “we bought corn for our horses, and had some Victuals dress’d for Breakfast.” From here they[Pg 58] climbed the Blue Ridge through Buford’s Gap, in Bedford County, through which the Norfolk and Western Railroad now passes. “

After leaving Buford’s Gap, Walker and his comrade wandered around circuitously, but they finally came to the Cumberland Gap, which Walker named as such.

From the Cumberland Gap, the party traveled to Flat Lick. I failed to mention this before, but Daniel Boone was one of the very first pioneers to make this trek and it was Daniel Boone who talked about the importance of the Licks to the pioneers, who depended upon hunting as a means of food. In terms of terrain, a lick is a place where minerals are deposited. At the licks, the pioneers gathered salt to preserve their game.

Prior to the Walker excursion, a few families had begun to move westward and a few cabins dotted the path for several miles, but Walker called the place where the cabins stopped the line of the inhabitans.  “On the twenty-sixth they “left the Inhabitans,” as Dr. Walker called the line of civilization, and were at last within the wild land where no settlers had yet come. On the night of the twenty-ninth the “Dogs were very uneasie,” and the next day, on Reedy Creek, a branch of the South Fork of the Holston, the tracks of a party of Indians were discovered, which explained the restlessness of the dogs. It is probably little realized in this day how valuable dogs were to explorers and immigrants. They were not only of service in giving warning of the approach of strangers, but were well-nigh indispensable in securing game and in searching for lost horses.” Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road

“On the seventh of April Dr. Walker writes: “It snowed most of the day. In the Evening our dogs caught a large He Bear, which before we could come up to shoot him had wounded a dog of mine, so that he could not Travel, and we carried him on Horseback, till he recovered.” On the thirteenth the party reached “Cave Gap,” which Walker named Cumberland Gap in honor of the “bloody Duke,” the hero of Culloden. “Just at the foot of the Hill is a Laurel Thicket…. 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…. This Gap may be seen at a considerable distance, and there is no other, that I know of, except one about two miles to the North of it, which[Pg 63] does not appear to be so low as the other. The Mountain on the North Side of the Gap is very Steep and Rocky, but on the South side it is not So. We called it Steep Ridge.” Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road

April 23 “The party crossed the Cumberland River about four miles below the present village of Barbourville, Knox County, Kentucky, on the twenty-third of April. The river was named by Walker at this time. From this spot Walker, with two companions chosen by lot—Powell and Chew—went on a tour of exploration alone, leaving the others “to provide and salt some Bear, build an house, and plant some Peach Stones and Corn.” Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road

Dr. Thomas Walker State Park – City of Barbourville

Dr. Thomas Walker’s Cabin which is considered to be the first house built by white men in what is now the state of Kentucky.

“The People I had left had built an House 12 by 8, clear’d and[Pg 64] broke up some ground, & planted Corn, and Peach Stones.”

“It was not an “improver’s cabin”—a log pen without roof—but a roofed house, and instituted what the English Loyal Land Company could claim to be a “settlement” in the territory which they had been granted. This was completed by the planting of corn and peach trees. The formality of this “settlement” is evinced by the fact that, two days later, the entire party moved on for further exploration, never again to return to their house or to reap their crops. It was twenty years before a house was erected in Kentucky for the permanent dwelling.” Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road

” On the first of May they reached Powell’s River. This was named from Ambrose Powell. During the journey Dr. Walker gave the name of each of his companions to rivers he discovered; none were given his name, though a mountain range to the north of Fort Chiswell still bears the name of Walker’s Mountain. On Powell’s River the party this day again struck the Indian path which later became the great highway to Kentucky.

May 11 “Shoes formed an important item in the catalogue of necessaries for the early traveler’s outfit on the first traveled ways in America. Already Walker’s party, though they traveled largely by horse, had worn out the shoes with which they started, and on the eleventh of May under one of the great cliffs near Rockcastle River they set to work to make themselves new shoes out of elkskin. “When our Elk’s Skin was prepared,” writes Dr. Walker on the fourteenth, “we had lost every Awl that we brought out, and I made one with the Shank of an old Fishing hook, the other People made two of Horse Shoe Nails, and with[Pg 67] these we made our Shoes and Moccosons.” Thomas Walker Journal quoted within Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road

The Party Began Traveling Back to the East

June 14 “On the fourteenth the party had gone east as far as the dividing ridge between the two forks of the Big Sandy; but within a few days the horses were spent, and the whole party floundered onward afoot. On the twentieth they reached Flat-top Mountain, Raleigh County, West Virginia. This[Pg 69] day Dr. Walker’s horse was bitten by a snake; “… having no Bear’s Oil,” he wrote, “I rub’d the place with a piece of fat meat, which had the desired effect.”

July 11 – 16  ” They crossed the Allegheny divide July 8, and Hot Springs the ninth. They found “Six Invalides there. The Spring Water is very Clear & warmer than new Milk, and there is a spring of cold Water within 20 feet of the Warm one. I left one of my Company this day.”

They reached Augusta Court House (Staunton, Virginia) on the eleventh, and Castle Hill on the sixteenth, having been four months and seven days on the journey.

Walker’s hard tour amounted to very little for the plain reason that he never got west of the mountains. He found no good land and his report was depressing.


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