Meriwether Lewis was not the first famous explorer and journalist in his family. That honor belongs to Dr. Thomas Walker, one of the first white men to see Kentucky and the first to provide a written account of his trip through the Cumberland Gap.
Originally from Staffordshire, England, Thomas Walker’s ancestors arrived in America in 1650 and soon took a prominent place in colonial Virginia. Born in 1715 in King and Queen County, Virginia, Thomas’s early life reads like a resume for a successful Tidewater gentleman. Educated at the College of William and Mary, he studied medicine in Williamsburg under his brother-in-law, Dr. George Gilmer. In 1741, Thomas married the widow of a very rich, prominent Virginia gentleman, Nicholas Meriwether (the great uncle of our own Meriwether Lewis). Thomas and Mildred built a home, Castle Hill, on her 15,000-acre estate in Albemarle County, east of Charlottesville, where they raised a whopping 12 children.
Managing Mildred’s lands was almost a full-time job, and Walker soon learned the art of land management and surveying. He met others interested in the same thing, most notably his neighbor Peter Jefferson, a successful planter. Thomas Walker served as Peter Jefferson’s personal physician and the two men became trusted friends. (Walker was appointed guardian of Peter’s son, fourteen year-old Thomas Jefferson, after Peter’s death in 1757.)
Walker loved the wilderness, and the exploration bug bit him hard. He began making a name for himself as an explorer and surveyor. As early as 1743, Walker led an expedition to the virgin lands to the west, getting as far as present-day Kingsport, Tennessee. In 1749, Walker joined a number of other prominent Virginia men in establishing the Loyal Land Company, which petitioned the colonial government of Virginia for a huge grant of land west of the Allegheny Mountains. In addition to Walker, charter members of the company included Peter Jefferson, Joshua Fry, James Maury, and Thomas Meriwether (Meriwether Lewis’s grandfather).
The Loyal Land Company received a patent for 800,000 acres located along the southern border of Virginia (now southeastern Kentucky). The grant contained a provision that required settlement of the land within four years. Thomas Walker took the lead in exploring the company’s new territory, heading off on a four-month expedition to find a route and document what the land was like for potential settlers. On April 13, 1750, Walker wrote the following entry in his diary:
“We went four miles to large Creek, which we called Cedar (Indian) Creek, being a branch of Bear Grass (Powell’s), and from thence six miles to Cave Gap (Cumberland Gap), the land being levil [sic]. 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 (Cudjo Cavern), which the Spring runs through, and there is a constant Stream of cool air issuing out. The Spring is sufficient to turn 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… 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 does not appear to be so low as the other.”
This was the famous Cumberland Gap, which would form a key passageway on the Wilderness Road through the Appalachian Mountains, the primary route used by western-traveling settlers for the next fifty years.
For the remainder of his life, Walker continued to act as surveyor and land agent and served as an Indian treaty commissioner, member of the House of Burgesses and General Assembly, delegate to the Revolutionary Convention and a member of the Committee of Public Safety. He was the kind of man people trusted. His son said of him, “(He) possesses all that life and good humor which we were all kept alive by in the woods.”
Walker died at his home in Albemarle in November 9, 1794. By that time, the Loyal Land Company had sold more than 200,000 acres, and the land that would be known as Kentucky was home to 38,000 settlers, most of whom had traveled there through Walker’s discovery, the Cumberland Gap.
Walker is immortalized in the great Appalachian folk song “Cumberland Gap,” which in some versions contains the lyric, “The first white man in the Cumberland Gap was Old Doc Walker, an English Chap.” Here’s a fun version by the great British skiffle king Lonnie Donegan.