Indian Head Rock

The Indian Head Rock originated as part of “Quaternary Pleistocene and Recent Landslide deposits” from the Kentucky hillside facing the city of Portsmouth. The landslide deposits consist of “unconsolidated angular boulders and finer debris; found at base of steep slopes along Ohio River.”

An early account of the Indian Head Rock (1891) stated that “The rock is not of the freestone formation of the river bed at this point, but is a hard sandstone, and must have rolled from the top of the hill in remote ages. The face was probably made to commemorate the lowest water ever known in the Ohio river since white men settled upon it.” At that time there was already “a multitude of…names and characters, evidently quite ancient” carved in the rock.

The angular surfaces of the boulder were worn smooth over time by the flow of the river. A 1908 newspaper account stated: “That the rock rolled off the hill at some remote period seems assured, as it is of the same formation as the summit of the river hills. It is now smooth as a bowling ball, made so by the motion of the water for generations. Histories of the river of as early a date as 1811 mention its presence.”

The Indian Head Rock, named for a carving on the bottom of the eight-ton boulder, fell into the Ohio River as part of a landslide during an unknown date. It would rest at the bottom of the Ohio River for hundreds of years, building quite a following and reputation, and birthing countless theories about how the carving appeared on the rock, and how it ended up in the Ohio River. 

Alongside the face that was carved into the rock, there were also other ancient symbols and pictures of lesser or unknown meaning. 


The first-recorded mention of the rock goes as far back as 1811, in documentaries talking about the Ohio River as a whole. The first ever use of the Indian Head Rock was as a river gauge, as a local resident of Portsmouth used various reference points on the rock to gauge how low the Ohio River was. The more of the head, and by extension the rock, that was visible, the lower the river.  He kept a log listing this information, the first entry of which was from 1839. The City of Portsmouth continued using the Indian Head Rock as a gauge for the river for many years, up until at least 1891. 

In 1894 a sketch was submitted to the local newspaper detailing the appearance of the rock and the glyphs that covered it. Many of the symbols depicted on the rock in this sketch are now not visible on the rock itself thanks to age.

In October 1908, thanks to an unusually shallow Ohio River, the Indian Head Rock was easily visible, and, as the Portsmouth Daily Times reported, more than 1500 people from both Ohio and Kentucky ventured out to examine the rock. It was also during this time that the most high-quality photos of the rock up until that point had been taken, by amateur photographer J. E. Bradford. 

One of the last times the Indian Head Rock would see the surface until 2007 would be in 1917, when the construction of a dam by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers would raise the water level of the Ohio River, thus permanently submerging the rock under water. 

In 1920, due to a damaged downstream dam, the Indian Head Rock would make its final appearance above water as the water levels of the Ohio River hit an all-time low. More people came out to see the rock, and more photos were taken before the river eventually rose again, submerging the rock.

Congressman Henry T. Bannon included his account of seeing, and photographing, the rock with his brother during its 1920 appearance in his 1927 book “Stories Old and Often Told, being Chronicles of Scioto County, Ohio” – a history of Scioto County. In Bannon’s word “Such was the only time, within the memory of any living man, that the Indian’s head has been seen, except when covered with water. In all probability neither the Indian’s head, nor the rock upon which it is cut, will ever be seen again, as it is hardly within the realms of chance that the dam will be broken at such an opportune time.”

The Indian Head Rock would rest at the bottom of the river until 2007, when a team led by Steve Shaffer, a historian from Ironton Ohio, retrieved the eight-ton stone as part of an expedition. Citizens of both Ohio and Kentucky celebrated the retrieval for a time, but controversy soon began to surround the Indian Head Rock, as Kentucky believed that the rock should be returned to the state due to its location in the river, while Shaffer and Portsmouth officials believed that it should be displayed in their city instead. In 2008, charges were placed against Shaffer and his team, starting a legislative battle that lasted until 2010, when the Indian Head Rock was officially returned to Kentucky.

In 2017, a documentary created by Steven Middleton of Morehead University titled Between the Rock and Commonwealth, documented the controversy around the removal of the rock. 

In September 2020, the Indian Head Rock was moved to a park in South Shore, KY, where it remains to this day.

The rock itself was somewhat of a local tourist attraction, bringing many from around Portsmouth, Ohio and other areas to see the rock and try to theorize its origins. Whenever the river would go down, the rock would become visible, and this would attract residents of Portsmouth to take a look. Whenever the river would freeze over, some would venture out to see if they could peer through the ice to get a look at the Indian Head Rock, as well as ice skate around it.

The Waverly Press as well as the Portsmouth Daily Times would constantly take pictures of the rock, and have written some interesting documentaries on the boulder. James Swauger with the Ohio University Press wrote an article in 1984 talking about the petroglyphs of Ohio, in which he briefly spoke about the Indian Head Rock.

The Indian Head Rock was a popular sight for residents of Portsmouth to see whenever it was visible, and remained that way until its removal from the Ohio River in 2007. 

Photos of Indian Head Rock
Various Newspaper Clippings
Between the Rock and the Commonwealth Documentary