Albemarle Adventurers

By the mid-1700s, Virginia was fertile territory for land speculators and a breeding ground for exploration. The Governor and Council of Virginia, in an effort to extend the colony’s borders and stake a legitimate claim to western lands, began issuing large land grants to individuals and corporations to promote settlement in the uncharted West. Members of the Virginia gentry who received these land grants were known as adventurers, a common term for the bold entrepreneurs or venture capitalists of the day.

Many of these adventurers necessarily became proficient in the art of surveying and mapmaking in order to manage their estates, identify resources, and control access to those resources. Knowledge of surveying gave Virginia’s gentry inside information on choice new lands.

In 1749 a number of prominent Virginia adventurers established the Loyal Company to petition for a large grant of land west of the Allegheny Mountains. Charter members of the company included Peter Jefferson, Joshua Fry, Dr. Thomas Walker, Rev. James Maury, and Thomas Meriwether (Meriwether Lewis’s grandfather). The company received a grant of 800,000 acres located along the southern border of Virginia—present-day southeastern Kentucky.

The Loyal Company appointed Walker to lead an expedition to explore and survey this large tract of land. Dr. Walker was a prominent resident of Louisa and Albemarle counties. He was a physician, surgeon, planter, trader, surveyor, cartographer, and explorer. In 1750, seventeen years before Daniel Boone’s legendary adventures in Kentucky, Walker traveled through the Cumberland Gap (which he named) and gathered geographical and topographical data as the first Virginian to explore the trans-Allegheny region. Upon returning home, Walker produced a map from the information he gathered on this expedition.

Walker’s path-breaking expedition kindled the desire of the Virginia adventurers for more knowledge about the geography of the West. Maury read Fry’s copy of Daniel Coxe’s A Description of the English Province of Carolana (London, 1722). Coxe’s description of a “passage” to the West aroused the enthusiasm of Maury and other members of the Loyal Company. A short time after Walker’s expedition into Kentucky, several members of the company proposed another expedition to explore the Missouri River and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. The French and Indian War intervened, however, and the scheme never came to fruition.

The Virginia gentry passed its interest in cartography, exploration, and western expansion down to younger generations through family and personal relationships. Thomas Jefferson would likely have heard about the Loyal Company’s western adventures from his father and from Maury, his tutor for two years. Meriwether Lewis also may have learned about the proposed expedition to the Pacific from his family or his personal tutor, Maury’s son, Matthew.