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Lesson 5: The First West: Explorers and Hunters

The First West: Explorers and Hunters


Watch The Lure of the Middle Grounds video: pic

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Early explorers described this land as rich in natural resources and wildlife. This encouraged more and more explorers to travel to Kentucky. The first settlers in Kentucky settled in the center of the state because of the rich farmland.


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During the early colonial period Kentucky was claimed first by the Spanish, later by the French, and then by the English. Following DeSoto’s exploration of the lower Mississippi River in 1541, Spain asserted that all lands touched by that river and its tributaries belonged to her, but it is doubtful that the conquistadors ever visited Kentucky. In the 1670’s LaSalle explored the lower Ohio River and claimed the lands watered by it and its tributaries for France. The French interests, however, lay more in trading with the Indian than in acquiring his land. Thus, it was the English colonists of the 18th century who first expressed more than a passing interest in the territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains.



Long used by Native Americans, the Cumberland Gap was brought to the attention of settlers in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and explorer.

A few adventurers from Virginia and North Carolina probably visited eastern Kentucky during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but the first organized effort to explore the area west of the mountains resulted from the formation of the Ohio and Loyal Land companies. Following the creation of the latter in 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, the company’s surveyor, and several companions journeyed through Cumberland Gap and traveled inland to the area of the present day Barbourville, where they established a supply post. They cleared a few acres of land, constructed a log cabin, and killed and salted down deer, bear, and other game for food. For several months Walker’s group wandered around the interior of eastern Kentucky (traveling through what is now Magoffin County, they pitched their camp at Salyersville, and explored and named the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River) and then returned to Virginia.

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Click  above to hear the song Cumberland Gap and then to read about Dr. Thomas Walker in Appalachian History.



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