A Longhunter (or long hunter) was an eighteenth century explorer and hunter who made expeditions into the American frontier wilderness for as much as six months at a time. Historian Emory Hamilton asserts that "The Long Hunter was peculiar to Southwest Virginia only, and nowhere else on any frontier did such hunts ever originate" although the term has been used loosely to describe any unofficial American explorer of the period. Most long hunts started in the Holston River Valley near Chilhowie, Virginia. The hunters came from there and the adjacent valley of the Clinch River where they were land owners or residents. The parties of two or three men (and rarely more) usually started in October and ended towards the end of March, or early in April.
The information gathered by longhunters in the 1760s and 1770s would prove critical to the early settlement of Tennessee and Kentucky. Many longhunters were employed by land surveyors seeking to take advantage of the departure of the French from the Ohio Valley at the end of the Seven Years War, and some would later help guide settlers to Middle Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky.
As colonial settlement approached the base of the Appalachian Mountains in the early 1700s, game in the Piedmont region became more scarce. Merchants returning from trade missions to Overhill Cherokee villages in the Tennessee Valley brought back news of the abundance of game west of the range, and began taking hunters along on their trade expeditions. In 1748 and 1750, Thomas Walker crossed the mountains and explored the Holston River valley, recording and widely-publicizing the location of Cumberland Gap— a pass near the modern border of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee— which allowed relatively easy access to the headwaters of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
In 1761, Elisha Walden (spelled variously "Wallen", "Wallin", and "Walling") led the first major recorded long hunt into what is now Tennessee. Walden set up a station camp in Lee County, Virginia, and trekked into the Clinch and Powell valleys in what is now Hawkins County, Tennessee. That same year, Colonel Adam Stephen led a regiment of Virginia soldiers and militia to Long Island of the Holston, in what is now Sullivan County, Tennessee. The expedition, which was launched in retaliation for the Cherokee sacking of Fort Loudoun in 1760, forced the Cherokee to sign a peace treaty.
The end of the Seven Years War in 1763 removed French claims to lands east of the Mississippi River, and with the Cherokee threat minimized, long hunters (some of whom may have been veterans of Stephen's expedition) began crossing into Tennessee and Kentucky in greater numbers. In 1764, Daniel Boone and Richard Callaway explored the upper Holston valley as agents for Richard Henderson, a land speculator who later played an important role in the early settlement of Tennessee. A camp used by Boone and Callaway would later become the home of Boone's friend William Bean, Tennessee's first known permanent Euro-American settler, who built a cabin at the site around 1769.
In 1766, James Smith led an ambitious long hunt into Middle and West Tennessee, following the Cumberland River all the way to its mouth. One member of the Smith expedition, Uriah Stone, was hunting along a tributary of the Cumberland when a French hunting companion stole all of his furs. The tributary was subsequently named Stones River. Stone returned to the Cumberland valley in 1769 along with fellow hunters Kasper Mansker, Isaac and Abraham Bledsoe, Joseph Drake, and Robert Crockett. Although Crockett was killed, the various trails, salt licks and camping areas identified by the 1766 and 1769 expeditions would later help guide the first Euro-American settlers to the Middle Tennessee area.
A royal proclamation issued by King George III in 1763 made it illegal to procure pelts from Cherokee lands without a trading license, which essentially barred hunting west of the Appalachian range. Both the Cherokee and the British, however, had considerable difficulty enforcing this ban. In 1769, Cherokee Chief Oconastota complained to the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs that the entire Cherokee Nation was "filling with Hunters, and the guns rattling every way on the path."While some long hunters had their pelts confiscated by the Cherokee, and a rare few were even killed, most managed to avoid detection.