Thomas Walker, a colonial Virginian, significantly marked Tennessee through his discovery and naming of the Cumberland River in 1750 and his establishment of the North Carolina-Virginia western line in 1780. He was born in Tidewater Virginia, probably in King and Queen County, on January 25, 1715. He trained as a physician and practiced that profession throughout his life, but he was also a major landowner, planter, merchant, manufacturer, land speculator, surveyor, parish leader, military man and public official. Related by marriage to George Washington, he served as a guardian of young Thomas Jefferson. He reared a large family, and his children married into families that continued to influence America’s westward development.
In 1750, as investor in and agent of the Loyal Company, a speculative land company, Walker led an exploration through Cave Gap, which he subsequently named Cumberland Gap. In his journal account of the expedition he reported his discovering and naming of the Cumberland River and the construction of a cabin to mark the first white settlement in the area. Within three years after that journey, plans were afoot for Walker to lead an expedition to find the way to the western sea by following the Missouri River to its sources and beyond. That trip, which would have predated the Lewis and Clark Expedition by fifty years, never materialized due to the French and Indian War. During that war Walker served as commissary general for Virginia’s troops and was present with Colonel George Washington and another young soldier, Daniel Boone, when General Edward Braddock met defeat in his attempt to capture Fort Duquesne in 1755.
When peace returned, Walker became officially involved in negotiations with several Native American tribes. He represented Virginia in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768. The next year he held the same position in negotiations to adjust some errors in the Hard Labor Treaty with the Cherokee in Charleston, South Carolina, and he negotiated with the Ohio Indians at Pittsburgh in 1775. Walker served in a number of political positions in Virginia throughout his life, was instrumental in founding the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, and served on the Committee of Safety, one of the early independence initiatives.
As a young man Daniel Smith, who was to become a prominent figure in early Tennessee history, came to apprentice with Walker, initially planning to become a physician. When his interests turned toward surveying, Walker was his mentor in those activities as well. In 1780 Walker and Smith were Virginia’s commissioners appointed to work with Colonel Richard Henderson of North Carolina, one of the founders of the Transylvania Company, to survey the North Carolina-Virginia line. When Henderson became disenchanted with the survey, he abandoned the effort. Part of the survey team continued to run the line, while Walker floated down the Cumberland River to French Lick, now Nashville. After the line was completed to the Tennessee River, Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson charged Walker and Smith to proceed to the Falls of the Ohio, join General George Rogers Clark, and travel the Ohio River to its union with the Mississippi River to complete the survey by establishing the southwest corner of the state of Virginia at the Mississippi River. An error in the survey, recognized at the time but accepted by both North Carolina and Virginia, explains the offset in the resulting state line at its junction with the Tennessee River, still official today on maps of Tennessee and Kentucky.
After completing the survey, Walker served in political positions in the Virginia state government before retiring from public service to live out his days at Castle Hill, his Albemarle County home. He died there on November 9, 1794.
Alexander C. McLeod, “A Man for All Regions: Dr. Thomas Walker of Castle Hill,” Filson Club Quarterly 71 (1997): 169-201; Harry W. Welford, “Dr. Thomas Walker: His Uncelebrated Impact on Early Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 34 (1975): 130-44