▶️ Little Did I Know: The mystery of how Smith Rock got its name


A while back I did a “Little Did I Know” about how Smith Rock was formed geologically. But several viewers had the question “Who is the Smith behind Smith Rock?  

I’m going to attempt to answer that question. Or more accurately, probe deeper into the mystery.

You see, how Smith Rock got its name is not entirely known. According to SmithRock.com and my friends at the Deschutes Historical Museum, there appears to be essentially three narratives:

  • The myth
  • The “Possible”
  • The “Probable”

The first two feature the same character — Private Volk Smith. He was believed to have died in the in the heat of battle.  

You see, in the mid-1800’s, U.S. Soldiers were sent to the area to protect the Indians and their valuable horses from raids from thieves and other unfriendly tribes who hoped to steal their valuable equine commodities.  

Chief Paulina himself was the head of one of these very raids. He had refused to join the others at The Warm Springs Reservation. So, in October 1863, he sent some of his forces to execute an ambush in the rocks of what is now Smith Rock.  

When Private Volk Smith’s crew pursued the raiding party into the canyon toward the river, a fierce battle broke out for over an hour.  

That’s what the history books appear to verify. How Private Smith died is up for debate.  

RELATED: Little Did I Know: The creation of Smith Rock

The myth version says that Private Smith, upon realizing he was surrounded, chose death over capture and hurled himself off a ledge to his demise and into mortality.  

And while that version sounds good, there is no evidence back it up.

However, there is evidence that supports another end to our young Private Smith. This one I call “The Possible.”  

According to nine different documents from that time, Private Volk Smith quickly ascended the rock ledge to get a vantage point on the battle and sadly, lost his footing and fell to his death.  

Equally as tragic, but far less romantic.  

But as with most stories that travel from generation to generation, the truth is probably not as tragically romantic as a solider losing his life in defense of indigenous tribes.  

“The other version of the story,” says Kelly Cannon-Miller of the Deschutes Historical Museum, “is that John Smith, who was a sheriff in Linn County in the late 19th century, comes over in 1866 to takeover being the Indian agent at The Warm Springs Reservation. In 1867, newspapers are reporting that Smith has found Smith Rock and named it essentially for himself as the “Discoverer.'”

RELATED: Destination Oregon: Climbing at Smith Rock State Park

It’s funny in retrospect to consider that Smith Rock was “discovered” in the mid 1800’s, when indigenous peoples like the Northern Paiute and Tenino had been using the area for millennia.  

Kind of reminds me when I first heard as a kid that Columbus discovered America. I’d always ask my teacher “Weren’t there people here when he arrived?” to which my teacher said, “Let’s just say that he introduced the Americas to Western Europe.” 

That sounds better. Let’s say that Sheriff John Smith “introduced” Smith Rock to the American settlers.  

And speaking as someone who regularly spends hours among these rocks and whose lineage traces back to western expansion, thanks for the introduction, Sheriff Smith.

Mighty glad you did.   


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