Thomas Walker the Explorer Revisited


Jim Glanville

In May 2016, I published a column here titled “Dr. Thomas Walker and the Dunkards.” It told that in 1750 the explorer Thomas Walker and his party of five men had spent four days with the Dunkard community near where present-day I-81 crosses the New River. They were temporarily delayed there while tracking down their horses that had ran off.

Walker’s party had come up from the Great Lick (Roanoke), which Walker wrote had been “one of the best places for Game in these parts and would have been of much greater advantage … if the Hunters had not killed the Buffaloes for diversion, and the Elks and Deer for their skins.”

The column also noted the passing of the excellent Kingsport local historian Dale Carter, one of whose best articles (now online) is titled “Was Dr. Thomas Walker a Crook?”

In his article, Carter showed by land measurements that in 1752 Walker paid land tax on 6,800 acres at Abingdon, Virginian, while actually getting 13,000. Carter concluded that “… Thomas Walker and John Buchanan, along with James Patton, Edmund Pendleton, and John Shelton devised a way to defraud the colonial land office of the correct payment due for land patents.” Walker was avoiding taxes, but he had plenty of company, as the practice was commonplace among the land speculators.

Earlier this year, Andrew Schenker of Blacksburg wrote me, correctly pointing out that in praising Dale Carter, the column left an unbalanced impression of Walker.

“Doctor Thomas Walker (1715-1794): Explorer, Physician, Statesmen, Surveyor, and Planter of Virginia and Kentucky” is the title of Keith Nyland’s 1971 Ohio State University Ph.D. dissertation. The title summarizes Walker’s achievements.

Walker grew up from English stock in King and Queen County and attended the College of William and Mary. Later, he ran a general store in Fredericksburg and took up the practice of medicine.

In 1741, he married Mildred Thornton Meriwether (the widow of Nicholas Meriwether, II, the owner of the estate that is now Charlottesville). This marriage, which eventually produced twelve children, brought Walker control of an Albemarle County estate of more than 11,000-acres.

In 1977, the practicing Nashville physician Alexander McLeod wrote for volume 71 of the “Filson Club Historical Quarterly” the 32-page article “A Man for All Regions: Dr. Thomas Walker of Castle Hill.” McCleod, remarked that despite Walker’s impressive achievements he is relatively unknown. Noting that Walker’s lifetime coincided with Virginia’s great westward expansion, McCleod observed that his frequent and extensive travels gave Walker a unique sense of the potential future greatness of the continent.

In addition to his achievements listed above, Walker was an entrepreneur, a member of the House of Burgesses, a negotiator of Indian treaties, and a highly successful frontier land speculator. He served as commissary of troops during the French and Indian War. Peter Jefferson was a close friend of Walker, and Walker served as one of the guardians of the young Thomas Jefferson. Walker also shared business interests with George Washington, James Madison, and other prominent Virginians of his time.

According to the Monticello website, the 1742 personal property tax list of Albemarle County shows Walker as owning 86 slaves, 115 cattle, and two carriages.

The only book about Walker seems to be David Burns and Adam Jones’ “Gateway: Dr. Thomas Walker and the Opening of Kentucky” (Bell County, Kentucky, Historical Society, 2000).

These authors point out that (24 years before Daniel Boone) Walker as the agent for the Loyal Land Company on his 1750 trip with his party was the first English-speaker at the Cumberland Gap. On that trip, Walker named the Gap and the Cumberland River and built the first cabin in the future Kentucky.

Wikipedia has an entry titled “Thomas Walker (Explorer)” that unfortunately misses all three of the sources cited above.

The online “Encyclopedia Virginia,” which bills itself as “The first and ultimate online reference work about the Commonwealth of Virginia” glaringly lacks an entry for Walker. The encyclopedia’s only three legitimate search hits for Walker tell that 1. He was a partner (with George Washington and others) in the 1763 Dismal Swamp Land Company; 2. That a Sept. 23, 1783, letter to Walker from Thomas Jefferson asks him to edit “Notes on the State of Virginia” and add data on animal sizes and Indians; and 3. That the former Jefferson slave Isaac Granger mentioned Walker in his dictated 1847 recollections.

The search hit that pictures a 1781 officer’s commission for Thomas Walker clearly shows it to be issued to Francis Walker.

The Encyclopedia yields only three search hits for “Cumberland Gap.” One is to the Daniel Boone entry, a second is to the Botetourt Artillery being there during the Civil War, and the third is to Doug Wilder starting his 1985 campaign for Lieutenant Governor there. Because it is generally reckoned that some 300,000 pioneers passed through the Gap on their way to building America, the omission of a Cumberland Gap entry is decidedly embarrassing.

Southwestern Virginia is in general badly slighted by the Encyclopedia. In addition to the absence of Thomas Walker and Cumberland Gap entries, there are no entries for James Patton, William Preston, Andrew Lewis, and Governor John Floyd or his wife Letitia Preston.

Somebody should complain.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.