Dr. Thomas Walker: Wilderness Explorer

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Thomas Walker was an 18th-Century explorer of North American who named the Cumberland Gap.

Thomas Walker

He was born on Jan. 25, 1715 in Rye Field, King and Queen County, Virginia. Not much is known of his early life.

He studied medicine at the College of William and Mary and became a widely recognized physician and surgeon. This medical knowledge no doubt came in handy during the next phase of his life, when he spent much of the time in the wild. He also for a time ran a general store in Fredericksburg.

In 1741, he married Mildred Meriwether, who had inherited a large amount of land from her recently deceased husband. The newlyweds built a family home that they called Castle Hill; they eventually had 12 children.

Cumberland Gap

Walker signed on with the Loyal Company of Virginia in 1748 to explore the New River Valley. Two years later, he was the leader of the first expedition into what is now Kentucky, nearly two decades before the appearance of Daniel Boone. They built the first non-Native American-built cabin the region. Walker set about naming natural features, including the Cumberland Gap, the Cumberland Plateau, and the Cumberland River. (The name came from King George II's son, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. He was the hero of the 1745 Battle of Culloden, which ended the Jacobite Rising in Great Britain, and many places in North America bear his name.) Walker and his party were some of the first English explorers in the region. He also kept a daily journal.

Thomas Walker 1750 expedition

He served three terms in Virginia's legislative body, the House of Burgesses, in 1762, 1756–1761, and 1775–1776. He was also a trustee of the town of Charlottesville.

His time in the military included serving as commissary general at several dozen forts during the French and Indian War. A skilled negotiator, he hammered out treaties between local Native Americans and first Virginia and then the Continental Congress.

He returned to surveying later in life, documenting the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina and extending it westward. (This became known as the Walker Line.) He also shared much of his knowledge with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a book called Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785.

Walker's wife, Mildred, died in 1781. He married again, to Elizabeth Thornton. Walker died on Nov. 9, 1794, at his home in Albemarle County.

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