The Suspicious Death of Olympia Pioneer Levi Smith

olympia history
The death notice for Levi Smith indicates that he drowned.


By Emmett O’Connell

sunset airLevi Smith died somewhere between Olympia and Tumwater.

Before the Capitol dome was built, before Capitol Lake was created, before there was even a Washington Territory (let alone state) Smith tried to paddle to the community then called New Market.

Smith had been elected to the Oregon Territorial legislature, and New Market was the first stop on his way across the Columbia River to the territorial capital.

But, Smith never made it.

olympia history
During Levi Smith’s days, settlers traveled by canoe.

Newspapers at the time assumed Smith had suffered an epileptic seizure while paddling his canoe alone. He was “subject to fits,” wrote a contemporary newspaper account. Some historical tellings decades later claim that his body was recovered, or possibly didn’t even leave his canoe. But, newspapers at the time don’t mention his body being recovered, so I’m prone to think it wasn’t.

Smith is one of the two original non-native settlers of Olympia. Obviously, tribal communities and families called this place home for generations. Smith and Edmund Sylvester came to the place the tribes called Cheetwood (place of the bear) in 1846. Smith’s claim was down near the water (his cabin overlapping Capitol Way near the Olympia Center). Sylvester originally claimed the upland Chambers Prairie area.

Smith led a lonely life in his just about two years here.

His diary is dotted with references to his waivering health, melancholy days of watching canoes go by and “nothing a sturing.”

Optimistically, Smith called his claim Smithfield and some others just called it Smith’s.

After Smith’s drowning, Sylvester took over Smith’s claim, moving into his cabin. Two years later, the community would officially become Olympia, dropping any reference to Smith.

We can only really assume that Smith drowned.

I suppose when we think about it, there are other ways he could have died. Possibly trying the trip on too low tide, he ran aground. Seeing New Market in the distance, across a smooth mudflat, he might have tried to walk instead. But, then, finding the mud too deep, he got stuck and was slowly covered by the incoming tide.

olympia history
The death notice for Levi Smith indicates that he drowned.

That more horrifying version of Smith’s death is just as likely as him simply falling out of his canoe during a seizure.

It also helps partially explain the other mystery of his life, where he is buried. An online discussion between two historians a few years ago points to a place just uphill from the spot of Smith’s death as the most likely place.

This is assuming anyone actually recovered Smith’s body.

Levi Offut, who claimed property just south of what is now the Capitol campus, gently published a notice in the paper in the 1850s asking people to stop burying bodies on his property. If someone were to bury Smith’s body, why not right next to where he died? Also, why not in a spot that would become known a few years later for buried bodies?

The final ironic footnote of this story is that it only took days after Smith’s death for the trail between Smithfield and New Market to be finished. Before then, the only way to travel easily between the two spots was by boat.

Maybe, if he would’ve walked the trail, we would be living in Smithfield now.

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