Excerpts from the Journal of an Expedition to Kentucky in 1750

Dr. Thomas Walker led 5 men on an expedition through the wilds of western Virginia and eastern Kentucky in 1750.  This was 20 years before Daniel Boone hunted and trapped the then Indian territory.  Dr. Walker kept a fascinating if brief journal of his experience.  Lyman Draper included the journal in his manuscript, The Life of Daniel Boone.

I wish I could’ve seen Kentucky in 1750.  Some early explorers reported seeing a thousand animals including bison, elk, deer, bear and flocks of turkeys all within 1 view of a Kentucky prairie landscape–a scene as rich as any on the African plains.  Though not as pristine as it was during the Pleistocene before the Indians, it must have been much more beautiful and impressive than any landscape in today’s America.  I’ve copied excerpts from Dr. Walker’s journal for this blog entry, and I’ve alternated them with my comments (in italics).  Most amusing is the way Dr. Walker sums up incredible adventures in 1 short sentence without any elaboration whatsoever.


Thomas Walker’s Journal 1750

Having on the 12th of December last, been employed for a certain consideration to go to the westward in order to discover a proper place for a Settlement, I left my house on the 6th day of March at 10 o’clock in Company with Ambrose Powell, William Tomlinson, Colby Chew, Henry Lawless, and John Hughs.  Each man had a horse and we had two  to carry the Baggage.  I lodged this night at Col. Joshua Fry’s in Albemarle, which County includes the Chief of the head branches of James River on the East side of the Blue Ridge.

March 13th.  We went early to William Calloway’s and supplied ourselves with Rum, Thread, and other necessaries and from thence took the Waggon Road leading to wood’s or the New River.  It is not well cleared or beaten yet, but will be a good one with proper management.  This night we lodged in Adam Beard’s low grounds. Beard is an ignorant, brutish fellow, and would have taken us up, had it not been for reason, easily to be suggested.

That last sentence is not clear to me.  I think it means Beard was being inhospitable because he thought they weren’t going to pay him enough for lodging.  Sounds like the exasperated Dr. Walker had to talk him into it.

March 15th.  We went to the great Lick on a Branch of the Staunton and bought corn of Michael Campbell for our horses.  This lick has been one of the best places for game in these parts and would have been of much greater advantage to the Inhabitants than it has been if the Hunters had not killed the Buffaloes for diversion, and the Elks and Deer for their skins.  This afternoon we go to the Staunton where the houses of the Inhabitants had been carryed off with their grain and Fences by the Fresh of last Summer, and lodged at James Robinson’s, the only place I could hear of where they had corn to spare, notwhithstanding the land is such that an industrious man might make 100 barrels a share in a Seasonable year.

Even this early in colonial history, overhunting wiped out the game in some areas.  Salt licks abound in Kentucky, formerly making it a destination for large herds of game.  A Fresh is an archaic term for flood.

March 24th.  We went to Stalmaker’s, helped him raise his house and Camped about a quarter mile below him…

This guys were handy, capable of building a log cabin in a day.

March 27th.  It began to snow in the morning and continued till Noon.  The Land is very hilly from West to North.  Some Snow lies on the tops of the mountains N.W. from us.

How unusual is snow in West Virginia in late March?  A cooler climate did prevail in the 1700’s compared to the present day.

March 31st.  We kept down Reedy Creek to Holston where we measured an Elm 25 feet around 3 feet from the ground.  We saw young Sheldrakes, we went down the River to the north Fork and up the north Fork about a quarter mile to a Ford, then crossed it.  In the Fork between Holstons and the North River, are five Indian Houses built with loggs and covered with Bark, and there were abundance of Bones, some whole Pots and Pans, some broken, and many pieces of mats and Cloth.  On the West side of the North River, is four Indian Houses such as before mentioned.  we went four miles Below the North River and camped on the Bank of Holstons, opposite to a large Indian Fort.

Wow, an elm with a 25 foot circumference, and an abandoned Indian village.  Nice day of exploration.

April ye 1st. The Sabbath.  we saw perch, mullets, and carp in plenty, and caught one of the large Sort of cat fish.  I marked my Name, the day of the month and date of the year on several Beech trees.

No telling what kinds of fish these were because he used familiar English names for American species of fish.

April 2nd.  we left Holston and travelled through small Hills till about Noon, when one of our Horses being choked by eating Reeds too greedily, we stopped having travelled 7 miles.

By reeds he undoubtedly meant bamboo cane which grew abundantly in pre-Colonial Kentucky.  He treated the horses that choked on reeds by giving them a lot of water to wash them down.

April 7th.  We rode 8 miles over Broken Land.  It snowed most of the day.  In the Evening our dogs caught a large He bear, which before we could come up to shoot him had wounded a dog of mine, so that he could not Travel, and we carried him on horseback, till he recovered.

They had many encounters with bears.  Note–it snowed again.

April 12th.  We kept down the Creek 2 miles further, where it meets with a large Branch coming from the South West, and thence runs through the East Ridge making a very good Pass; and a large Buffaloe Road goes from that Fork to the Creek over the West Ridge, which we took and found the Ascent and Descent tollerably easie.  From this Mountain we rode four miles to Beargrass River.  Small Cedar Trees are very plenty on the flat ground nigh the River, and some Bayberry trees on the East side of the River.  on the Banks is some Beargrass.  We kept up the River two miles.  I found some Small pieces of Coal and a great plenty of good yellow Flint.  The water is the most transparent I ever saw.  it is about 70 yards wide.

Herds of buffalo trampled down vegetation and earth into sunken roads as much as 3 feet deep and often 20 yards wide.  Indian paths followed these Buffalo roads.  Today, many state highways follow these same paths.  Coal and flint demonstrate interesting geology.  River waters were clear then, unlike today’s muddy rivers.

April 13th. We went four miles to a large Creek, which we called Cedar Creek, being a branch of Beargrass, and from thence Six miles to Cave Gap, the land being Levil.  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, which the Spring runs through, and there is a constant Stream of Cool air issuing out.  The Spring is sufficient to turn a 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, on the top of the Ridge are Laurel Trees marked with crosses, others Blazed and several figures on them.  As I went down on the Other Side, I soon came to some Laurel in the head of a Branch.  A Beech stands on the left hand, on which I cut my name.  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.  The Mountain on the North Side of the Gap is avery Steep and Rocky, but on the South side it is not so.  We called it Steep Ridge .  At the foot of the hill on the North West Side we came to a Branch, that made a great deal of flat Land.  We kept down it 2 miles.  Several other Branches Coming in to make it a large Creek, and we called it Flat Creek.  We camped on the Bank where we found very good Coal.  I did not Se(e) any Lime Stone beyond this Ridge.  We rode 13 miles this day.

This is a more detailed entry than others.  I think he’s describing a gap through the mountains to aid  future settlers.

April 16th.  Rain.  I made a Pair of Indian Shoes, those I brought out being bad.

These guys had to be a jack of all trades.  In additions to making their own shoes, they could build cabins and canoes in about a day.

April 19th.  We left the River but in four miles we came on it again at the Mouth of Licking Creek, which we went up and down another.  In the Fork of Licking Creek is a Lick much used by Buffaloes and many Large Roads lead to it.  This afternoon Ambrose Powell was bit by a Bear on the Knee.  We rode 7 miles this day.

This is my favorite passage.  Oh yeah, and by the way, a bear bit Ambrose on the knee.  No elaboration whatsoever.  I wish he’d taken some literary license and added some exciting details.  Like what happened to the bear?

April 20th. we kept down the Creek 2 miles to the River again.  It appears not any wider here than on the mouth of Cl0ver Creek but much deeper.  I thought it proper to Cross the River and began a bark Canoe.

April 21st.  We finished the Canoe and tryed her.  About noon it began to thunder, lighten, hail, and rain prodigiously and continued for two hours.

They made a canoe out of bark in a day.  No mention is made of the shelter I’m sure they made to stay out of the rain.

April 23rd.  Having carried our Baggage over in the Bark Conoe, and Swam our horses, we all crossed the River.  Then Ambrose Powell, Colby Chew, and I departed, Leaving the others to provide and salt some Bear, build an house, and plant some Peach Stones and Corn.  We travelled about 12 miles and encamped on Crooked Creek.  The mountains are very small heareabouts and here is a great deal of flat Land.  We got through the Coal today.

Well, this answers the question of what happened to the bear that bit Ambrose.  I guess they were contemplating making this a regular stop, if they planted corn and peach seeds.  I wonder how the peaches did without any human care.  Unlike most fruits which are mutants that need grafting, peach trees will grow similar quality fruit as their parents, and they can produce in as little as 3 years.

April 26th.  The River is 150 yards wide and appears to be navigable from this place almost to the mouth of Clover Creek…On the Lower Side of the mouth of the Creek is an Ash mark’d T.W., a Red Oak A.P., a white hiccory C.C. besides several Trees blazed Several ways with 3 Chops over each blaze.  we went up the North Side of the River 8 miles, and Camped on a Small Branch.  A Bear Broke one of my Dogs forelegs.

They initialed their names on the trees. I’m sure these trees are long gone. Initialing trees was a way of proving where they were in case they got kidnapped by Indians or killed.  I’m surprised about how aggressive bears were.

April 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 wounds with Bear’s oil, and gave him a drench of the same and another of the decotion of Rattle Snake root some time after.  The People I left had built a House 12 by 8, clear’d and broke up some ground, and planted 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.

Physicians still practiced the medieval treatment of bleeding.  Colby Chew recovered despite the archaic treatment.

May 1st.  Another Horse being bit, I applyed Bears Oil as before mentioned…

The rattlesnake population must’ve been very high.  The rocky country is favorable habitat for them because it provides plenty of denning areas.

May 7th.  We went down Tomlinson’s River the Land being very broken and our way embarrassed by trees that had been blown down 2 years ago.

This is a landscape not often seen but common then.  Lumber companies often harvest storm blown trees.

May 12.  Under the Rock is a Soft Kind of Stone almost like Allum in taste; below it a layer of Coal about 12 inches thick and white Clay under that., I called the Run Allum Creek…

Interesting geology.  Probably been stripmined since.

May 17th.  Laurel and Ivy are very plenty and the Hill still very steep.  The Woods have been burnt some years past and are now very thick, the Timber almost all kill’d.  We Camped on a Branch of Naked Creek…

May 26th.  We kept down the Branch almost to the River, and up a Creek, and then along a Ridge till our Dogs roused a large Buck Elk, which we followed down to a Creek.  He killed Ambrose Powell’s Dog in the Chase, and we named the Run Tumbler’s Creek, the Dog being of that Name.

Poor Ambrose.  First bitten by a bear, then his dog gets stomped by an elk.

May 30th.  We went to the head of the Branch we lay on 12 miles.  A Shower of Rain fell this day.  The Woods are burnt fresh about here and are the only fresh burnt Woods we have seen these Six Weeks.

The Indians burned the woods regularly to improve habitat for game.  It was unusual for Dr. Walker to have travelled so long through country that hadn’t been burned lately.  I wonder, if the local Indians had suffered a smallpox epidemic, and there weren’t that many setting fires here.

May 31st.  We crossed 2 Mountains and camped just by a Wolf’s Den.  They were very impudent and after they had been twice shot at, they kept howling about the Camp.  It Rained til Noon this day.

June 4th.  I blazed several trees four ways on the outside of the low Grounds by a Buffalo Road, and marked my Name on Several Beech trees…We left the River about 10 o’Clock and got to Falling Creek, and went up till 5 in the Afternoon when a very black Cloud appearing, we turn’d out our Horses, got tent Poles up, and were just stretching the Tent, when it began to rain and hail, and was succeeded by a violent Wind which Blew down our Tent and a great many Trees about it several large ones within 30 yards of the tent.  we all left the place in confusion and ran different ways for shelter.  After the Storm was over, we met at the Tent and found all safe.

Sounds like they got caught in a downburst.

June 13th.  We are much hindered by the Gust and a shower of Rain about Noon.  Game is very scarce here, and the mountains very bad, the tops of the Ridges being so covered with Ivy and the sides so steep and stony, that we were obliged to cut our way through with our Tomohawks.

June 15th-16th. We got on a large Creek where Turkey are plenty and some Elks. we went a hunting and killed 3 Turkeys.  Hunted and killed 3 Bears and some Turkeys.

June 19th.  We got to Laurel Creek early this morning and met so impudent a Bull Buffaloe that we were obliged to shoot him, or he would have been amongst us…

Dr. Walker considered the wolves and buffaloes as impudent, if they didn’t flee the vicinity when people appeared.

June 20th…my riding Horse was bit by a Snake this day, and having no Bear’s Oil I rub’d the place with a piece of fat meat, which had the desired effect.

June 21st. We found the Level Nigh the Creek so full of Laurel that we were obliged to go up a Small Branch and from the head of that to the Creek again, and found it good travelling a Small distance from the Creek.  we Camped on the Creek.  Deer are very scarce on the Coal Land.  I having seen but 4 since the 30th of April.

July 13th.  I got home about Noon.  We killed in the Journey 13 Buffaloes, 8 Elks, 53 Bears, 20 Deer, 4 Wild Geese, about 150 Turkeys, besides small Game.  We might have killed three times as much meat, if we had wanted it.

I’m surprised bears were the most common large mammal killed on the trip.  I wonder, if the bears were attracted to the food cooked at camp. or were they simply more numerous in the heavily wooded country.  Just 6 men sure did a lot of damage to the wildlife in just 5 months.  No wonder market hunters wiped out all the large game in Kentucky by about 1840.


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4 Responses to “Excerpts from the Journal of an Expedition to Kentucky in 1750”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    Interesting stuff. I could see bears being the most common large mammal around that time. They are omnivorous beasts and constantly on the move. They ranged over so many types of food they can switch from one to the other without suffering starvation.

    As for snow in late March…I checked one of my webcams today and late this afternoon it was snowing and icing on the high peaks of the NC mountains. April 22. Also, when I was a kid hiking and backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (circa 1972-1974) one of the park naturalists told me that historically speakng the snowiest month in the Park is March. On one three-day backpack in the park I was unable to reach my day’s goal (summit of Mt. LeConte) because we could not make decent time post-holing in three-foot snow. We just gave out of gas and had to pitch a tent on a ridge and spend the night short of the summit. The date? Last day of April. The morning we awakened in freezing cold and waist-high snow, the first of May.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    I live in Augusta and was thinking of the climate here, not Kentucky.

    It did snow in Augusta in March some time around 1972 before I moved here.

  3. gold price Says:

    When the English first settled in Virginia in the 1600’s, there were a number of Indian towns located on the Dan River and its tributaries, the Smith and Mayo Rivers. At the mouth of Goblintown Creek on Smith River in Patrick and Franklin Counties was a village, which is now under the waters of Philpott Lake. The creek’s name is derived from the town. This was also called Peach Tree Bottom. The first European land survey made at this site in 1748 refers to the peach trees planted by the Indians. On the north side of the river, at the mouth of Nicholas or Jamison’s Creek was one of the largest Indian villages in the area. Because it was covered with animal bones and various fresh-water shells, this was called Bone Bottom by the early settlers. Visited by the English traders from the James River settlements, objects of European manufacture found here were nails, gunflints, and glass beads. A 1955 report by the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, mentions this site.

  4. Pleistocene Rattlesnakes | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] settlement.  The first white men to explore Kentucky were constantly blundering into them. ( See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/excerpts-from-the-journal-of-an-expedition-to-kentucky-… ) Habitat loss and direct destruction during rattlesnake roundups greatly reduced their […]

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