Like many Southwest Virginia counties, Smyth County is divided into a series of mountain ridges and valleys. The valleys here correspond to the three forks of the Holston River. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Middle Valley, the widest and most fertile, attracted settlers making their way along the Great Wagon Road or Wilderness Road, which roughly follows today's U.S. 11. The county seat of Marion and the early communities of Atkins, Seven Mile Ford, and Chilhowie are located along this thoroughfare. Most early settlers raised grains and livestock in these rich river bottomlands. The first gristmills west of the New River Valley were erected in 1770 in what is now Smyth County, and the first iron forge in the region, located south of Sugar Grove, produced iron products used in the Revolutionary War. In the 1780s a salt extraction facility was established at Saltville and the saltworks became a principal industry in the county.
Increased population in the region during the early nineteenth century led to the formation of Smyth County in 1832. Formed from portions of Washington and Wythe counties, the county was named in honor of General Alexander Smyth, a prominent politician from the area. Commerce and industry grew after the the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad traversed the county in the 1850s. Following the Civil War, the county experienced an intense period of industrialization focusing primarily on the area's natural resources. Lumber companies purchased timber rights to large tracts of mountain ranges and seemingly overnight created company towns to cut and process the lumber. Marion, especially, benefited from the lumber industry and such associated businesses as furniture factories. In 1892 the Mathieson Alkali Works (SM26) built plants in Saltville and employed a large workforce. These industries prospered in the first half of the twentieth century, extracting and producing materials needed for defense purposes during both world wars. By the second half of the century the resources were depleted, although new tree growth has returned much of the landscape to its original forested state. The county continues to focus on its natural resources, but now for recreational purposes. Hungry Mother State Park established in 1933, the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area created in the 1950s, and the Appalachian Trail all help to make Smyth County a haven for recreational enthusiasts and tourists desiring to take in the county's scenic beauty.
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