Thomas was born to Benjamin and Sarah (Harrison) Bullitt about 1734 in Prince William County of Virginia. He became active in the militia when young, and became interested in western exploration and development. By 1754 he was a Captain in the County's militia, and participated in a number of attempts to secure western Virginia and Pennsylvania from the French.
French and Indian War
Captain Bullitt led part his company with Colonel Washington's expedition in 1754 that ended with defeat in the Battle of Great Meadows. The next year he again marched against Fort Duquesne, this time with the Braddock Expedition, and again they failed at the Battle of Monogahela on July 9, 1755.
The third try in 1758 also started badly, but ended in success. Bullitt led a militia company in the Forbes Expedition. In September he was part of the large advance party of regulars and militia commanded by Major James Grant. After Grant refused advice on wilderness fighting, his party was ambushed by the French and their Indian allies on September 21, 1758. They took heavy losses and Grant was captured. Bullitt took to the woods, but rallied the militia, and counterattacked their pursuers. He then led more than half of the original party back to their main force. The French were forced to abandon the fort in November.
After the war
Bullitt kept his interest in the frontier. He began to speculate in land and invest in development. When a number of his militia company exercised their land grant bounties in what would become Bath County, Virginia, he bought land there and built an Inn at Hot Springs in 1766. Over the next few years his guests included Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
He also continued his militia service, and at the war's end in 1763 he became adjutant general of the state militia, a post that he held through the early days of the Revolutionary War.
By 1773, Virginia was still searching for land to satisfy grants and bounties, and was still struggling with the details of the Proclamation of 1763. Settlers were pushing west into Kentucky, even without colonial authorization or control. In an effort to bring some order to the situation, Governor Dunmore, authorized Captain Bullitt to organize a party to survey northern and eastern Kentucky.
Bullitt gathered about 40 men and set out from the Kanawha River Valley and generally followed the along the south side of the Valley of the Ohio. He made some excursions from his direct path, going as far north as Chillicothe to speak with Chief Cornstalk of the Shawnee. By July his party had reached the Falls of the Ohio, and Bullitt laid out a town site there that later became Louisville, Kentucky.
Bullitt and his men tried to maintain peaceful relations with the Indians, but did lose one work party in an attack. The incursion was also one of the Indian complaints that caused Lord Dunmore's War the following year. As a reward for his service on this expedition and in the French and Indian War, Bullitt was granted 1,240 acres (5 km2) in the newly surveyed territory. He chose a site he believed best for early development, in what is today downtown Charleston, West Virginia.
The Revolutionary War
Bullitt still held the post of Adjutant General for the Virginia militia. As the Revolution became imminent his sympathies lay firmly in the rebel cause. When Governor Dunmore made his last stand in 1775, Captain Bullitt was a part of the forces that assembled for the Battle of Great Bridge. He took charge of engineering works for Colonel William Woodford who had overall command. His rapidly constructed defenses aided in the overwhelming American victory on December 9, 1775. Dunmore fell back into Norfolk, but was forced to abandon that as well when Bullitt began the construction of siege trenches and works. By the end of December, Virginia had no British forces on her land, and Bullitt was promoted to Colonel.
Thomas Bullitt was elected several times to the House of Delegates (legislature) of the newly formed Virginia government. But he did not usually attend their meetings. He made an exception in November and December of 1777 to help George Rogers Clark promote his plans for a western campaign. The delegates made Clark a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized him to defend the western frontiers. A second, and secret, set of orders allowed him to invade the Illinois Country. These were known only to Bullitt, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and George Wythe.
- Johnson, E. Polk (1912). A History of Kentucky and Kentuckians: The Leaders and Representative Men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities. Lewis Publishing Company. p. 606. Retrieved 2008-11-10.