Originally posted at Hillbilly Savants by Eric Drummond Smith
(Image from the The National Park Service)
I want to introduce another explorer from the age before America was America and before (all) the eastern native American peoples had been driven from their homelands. I first heard his name in association with the geography near my home in Bluefield, attached to two mountains. To the south, defining the edge of what, to my youthful consciousness, was the hinterland of a sort of “Greater Bluefield” was a great old mountain named Big Walker which separates Bland and Wythe Counties in Virginia. Big Walker Mountain, along with nearby Little Walker, is a truly beautiful pile, and is host to a tremendous, if relatively short, scenic byway. Well, as so often with geography (especially on our home turf) I never thought to ask anyone, hey, what or who are the Walker Mountains named after? It was only recently, after a conversation with my wife about Wytheville, Virginia that I even realized I didn’t know. Come to find out, the mountains are named after one of the greatest explorers in American history – one who rivals the likes of such great folks as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and the lesser known (but equally intriguing) Henry Timberlake.
Well, there are any number of ways I could introduce you the man named Doctor Thomas Walker, a man who was a friend and confidant of Thomas Jefferson and who discovered the Cumberland Gap (long before it had a European name). But, it being the weekend, and there being a plethora of great bowl games, not to mention the fact that everything I’d be telling you would be, essentially, a quote from someone else’s website, well, I think it is time for a glut of links, accentuated by an equally delightful glut of quotes. Huzzah!
Here in 1781 Walker’s wife delayed the British colonel Banastre Tarleton to give the patriot Jack Jouett time to warn Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislators of Tarleton’s plan to capture them.
Walker developed great skill and reputation as an explorer and surveyor and in 1743 led an expedition as far west as present-day Kingsport, Tennessee. In March 1750, he led another expedition through present-day Kentucky that lasted four months. Click here to see the path of the expedition. It was during this expedition that Walker discovered Cumberland Gap and recorded its existence in his April 13th diary entry:
“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.”
A physician and surveyor, Walker led the first expedition through Cumberland Gap in 1750. Dr. Walker was an agent for the Loyal Land Company of Virginia and was exploring the western wilderness seeking land for settlement. Near the river, which he named the Cumberland, Dr. Walker built the first cabin in Kentucky, a replica of which stands on the site today. Dr. Walker’s journal, recorded during his four-month exploration, described plentiful wildlife, thickly tangled woods and rugged terrain.
In 1776 the Virginia House of Delegates defined the northern boundary
of the Kentucky District as the low-water mark at the mouth of the Big
Sandy, on the northern shore of the Ohio River. This boundary followed the
Big Sandy River from that point to the junction of the Tug Fork, and from
there up to the Laurel Ridge of the Cumberland Mountain to the point where
it crossed the Virginia-North Carolina line (known as “seven pines and two
black oaks). When Virginia agreed to separate Kentucky in the Compact of
1789, that description was accepted.
In 1779-80, The Virginia-North Carolina dividing line was extended
westward to the first crossing of the Cumberland River. From this point
west to the Mississipppi, Thomas Walker surveyed the line for Virginia.
This took him through dense forests, over rugged mountains – a most
difficult task. According to R S Cottrill, in an article dated 1921, this
line almost immediately caused a tremendous amount of dispute for many
years between Kentucky and Tennessee. When Kentucky became a state in
1792, it immediately began to “find fault” with the line as drawn by
Thomas Walker in 1779.
Thomas Walker Old Fashioned Days will be held at the Thomas Walker High School parking lot in Ewing. Join us for a celebration of frontier heritage including crafts, craft demonstrations, children’s games, beauty pageant and great home cooking.
He also had great influence in dealing with Indian affairs. Walker represented Virginia at the Treaties of Fort Stanwix and Lochaber and dealt with the peace negotiations after the Battle of Great Kanawha. In 1775, Walker served as a Virginia commissioner in negotiations with representatives of the Six Indian Nations in Pittsburg.
(Be sure to check out all the sub-links on this one)
7) The Kentucky Highlands Project: Journal of Doctor Thomas Walker:
28th We kept up the River to” our Company whom we found all well, but the lame horse was as bad as we left him, and another had been bit in the Nose by a”Snake. I rub’d the wound with Bears oil, and gave him a drench of the same and another of the decoction of Rattle Snake root some time after. The People had built a house 12 by 8, clear’d and broken some ground, and planted some Corn and Peach Stones. They also had killed several Bears and cured the Meat. This day Colby Chew and his Horse fell down the Bank. I Bled and gave him Volatile drops, and he soon recovered.
April 29th. The Sabbath. The Bitten Horse is better. 3 Quarters of A mile below the house is a Pond in the Low ground of the River, a quarter of a mile in length and 200 yds. wide much frequented by Fowl.
30th. I blazed a way from our House to the River. On the other side of the River is a large Elm cut down and barked about 20 feet and another standing just by it with the Bark cut around at the root and about 15 feet above. About 200 yards below this is a white Hiccory Barked about 15 feet. The depth of the water here, when the lowest that I have seen it, is 7 or 8 feet, the Bottom of the River Sandy, ye Banks very high, and the Current very slow. The Bitten horse being much mended, we set off and left the lame one. He is white, branded on the near Buttock with a swivil Stirrup Iron, and is old. We left the River and having crossed several Hills and Branches, camped in a Valley North from the House.
May the 1st. Another Horse being Bitten, I applyed Bears Oil as before Mention’d. We got to Powell’s River in the afternoon and went down it along an Indian Road, much frequented, to the mouth of a Creek on the West side of the River, where we camped. The Indian Road goes up the Creek, and I think it is that Which goes through Cave Gap.
When European Americans first entered the western country, they were intrigued and puzzled by numerous mounds and earthworks found in abundance along rivers and highlands. As early as 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker noted earthworks at the head of the Cumberland River in Kentucky.
One other note: Thomas Walker was one of the first three Virginians to import English hounds and took part in the early breeding of coon hounds in the Blue Ridge mountains. . . I don’t know much more than this, but I’m a’looking.