MY KENTUCKY: Walker opens the new west

By Sam Terry
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing, Inc.

Dr. Thomas Walker

Dr. Thomas Walker’s journal entry for April 13, 1750 is the first written record of a non-Native American at the place now known as the Cumberland Gap. He and five other men – Ambrose Powell, William Tomlinson, Colby Chew, Henry Lawless, and John Hughs – set out from Virginia on March 6 to explore the wild lands of Kentucky for the Loyal Land Company.

With the aid of Native American guides, they passed through the gap where they discovered a spring and having a little rum remaining, drank to the health of Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, who was a British hero at the time and thus the names Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Mountain and Cumberland River.

Walker erected the first house in Kentucky, sized 12 feet by 8 feet, in order to legally claim to 800,000 acres of western wilderness before returning to Virginia on July 13; he never returned to Kentucky but the Virginia-Kentucky border is still known as Walker’s Line.

Walker was the first American to discover and use coal found in Kentucky. His journal notes that during their journey, the party killed 13 buffaloes, 8 elks, 53 bears, 20 deer, 4 wild geese, about 150 wild turkeys, plus small game. He recorded that they could have “killed three times as much meat, if we had wanted it.” It would be another 19 years before Daniel Boone would emerge through the Cumberland Gap, renewing interest in settling Kentucky.

Seven years after Walker returned from their exploration of the wilderness, his friend Peter Jefferson died naming Walker guardian of his 7-year old son, Thomas Jefferson.

Walker was fond of Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, as were many Brits of the era. The Duke’s supportive admirers nicknamed him “Sweet William” which his Tory opponents detested him, referring to him as “Butcher” Cumberland. Due to the Duke’s notorious “pacification” of Scotland, hundreds of Scottish families fled their home country for America with many eventually settling in Kentucky. A few generations later, the Scots’ abhorrence of Cumberland led to the Cumberland National Forest’s name being changed to Daniel Boone National Forest in 1966.

Sam Terry’s My Kentucky column appears weekly in Jobe Publishing newspapers in celebration of the 225th anniversary of Kentucky statehood.  

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