God can use a thunderstorm. Or Porter Rockwell.
One reason why I have always loved history is that it is so often wilder and more colorful than fiction. A very colorful part indeed of American history is that which records the events of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, and in that history no portion is more colorful than the life of Orrin Porter Rockwell. Throughout his life legends began to cluster about him and it is not easy to keep fact and fable in his biography separate.
Born on June 28, 1813, in Belchertown, New Hampshire, he was one of the earliest followers of Joseph Smith, being baptized into the church in 1830. Powerfully built, he served as a bodyguard for Smith. In 1838 he may have attempted to assassinate the Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, after Boggs issued an order calling for the expulsion of the Mormons from Misssouri or their extermination. The order was prompted by the Missouri Mormon War of 1838.
Rockwell was held in jail for eight months, but no grand jury would indict him due to lack of evidence. Rockwell defended himself with such statements as “I never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot!” and “He’s alive, ain’t he.” in reference to Governor Boggs. After his release from jail, Rockwell traveled to the house of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, a town built by the Mormons, arriving there on Christmas Day 1843. A Christmas party was underway and Rockwell looked like a dirty tramp, his hair grown out during his imprisonment and his clothes and his body unwashed. Smith purportedly made the following prophecy upon seeing Rockwell: “I prophesy, in the name of the Lord, that you — Orrin Porter Rockwell — so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to thy faith, need fear no enemy. Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee.” Rockwell wore his hair long thereafter until he cut it to make a wig for a woman who lost her hair from typhoid fever.
Rockwell was a Danite, a secret Mormon organization dedicated to carrying out acts of violence on behalf of the Mormon religion. In 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were indicted for treason against the state of Illinois, the culmination of ever growing tension between Mormons and non-Mormons in Illinois. On June 27, 1844 a mob stormed the jail in Carthage, Illinois where the Smiths were being held and murdered them. Rockwell had been away on a mission for the Mormon church at the time, and wept like a child according to witnesses when he learned of the death of Joseph Smith.
In the chaos that ensued after the death of Smith, the Mormons often engaged in battles with mobs of non-Mormons. On September 16, 1845 Rockwell was hastily deputized by the Sheriff of Hancock County Illinois, Jacob Blackenstos. Blackenstos was a non-Mormon but was friendly to the Mormons. He was being chased by an anti-Mormon mob led by Frank Worrell, who had been in charge of the militia unit that failed to protect Joseph Smith when he was murdered. Rockwell took out his rifle and stopped the mob by shooting to death Worrell. Worrell thus became the first man killed by Rockwell, a total that would grow to 40-100, no one is certain, by the end of Rockwell’s life.
Rockwell helped guide the Mormons in their epic trek across the US to their founding of their new Zion around the Great Salt Lake. In the new territory of Deseret carved out by the Mormons, Rockwell was appointed a Deputy Marshal and would remain a lawman for the rest of his life. He quickly established a reputation as a relentless tracker of horse thieves and bandits, often traveling hundreds of miles to capture or kill the men he was pursuing. Indians, among whom he spent a fair amount of time, claimed he couldn’t be killed. His reputation began to grow, and stories were passed from campfire to campfire about his exploits, both true and false. A typical tale of Rockwell is the following: A bandit came from California to make a name for himself by gunning down Rockwell. “Rockwell, I come all the way from California just to kill you!” Porter calmly replied, “Cain’t shoot me without a cap on yer gun.” He had the kind of gun that required a cap and ball to shoot. “The outlaw was petrified. He’d rode all the way from California, after all, and hadn’t checked the cap. He decided he’d better have one last quick look. No sooner did he shift his eyes from his target to his pistol, then Porter drew his pistol and blew him clean off his horse.”
Rockwell by all accounts was absolutely fearless. I have come across only one occasion when he admitted to fear. He was visiting a Mormon Sunday school class when he was invited to speak. This terrified him as he had never spoken in public before, but he manfully did his best, telling the kids about one of his fights with a group of Paiutes.
During the Utah War of 1857-58 Rockwell may, as is the case of so much of his life the historical record is not clear, have participated in the bushwhacking of a party of six California gamblers attempting to link up with the US Army under Albert Sidney Johnston that was encamped at Fort Bridger. Earlier in 1857 Rockwell had slowed the progress of the Army of Johnston that was heading towards Salt Lake City by staging night raids to steal pins from wagon wheels and to drive off horses of the Army. Twenty years later at the time of his death Rockwell was awaiting trial, charged with the murders of Jim and John Aiken, two of the members of the party.
Rockwell made a peculiar Mormon. Outside of his propensity for violence, Rockwell enjoyed three activities heartily condemned by the Mormons: drinking, the use of tobacco and cussing. He was also known to frequently snore so loudly during Temple services as to be a source of amusement. His plural marriages fit right in however. Additionally, when he wasn’t killing people, Rockwell was the soul of kindness, charitable to a fault, and especially noted for his fondness for children and dogs. As to the violence, in an impromptu street debate with Vice-President of the United States Schuyler Colfax in Salt Lake City on June 13, 1869 Rockwell stated, “I never killed anybody that didn’t need killing”, a sentiment that his fellow Mormons agreed with, and who referred to him affectionately as “Old Port”.
I have found no evidence of any meeting between Rockwell and Father Lawrence Scanlan, who came to Salt Lake City in 1873 at the age of 30 and who ultimately became the first Catholic bishop of Utah,and that is a shame. Father Scanlan, who will be the subject of a future post, was warmly regarded by the Mormons, even as he established the Catholic Church in their midst, and I would have loved to have found an account of a meeting between these two figures who became legends in early Mormon history.
Rockwell died of natural causes on June 9, 1878. With such a controversial figure I will end with two contemporary assessments of the man.
“Porter Rockwell was that most terrible instrument that can be handled by fanaticism; a powerful physical nature welded to a mind of very narrow perceptions, intense convictions, and changeless tenacity. In his build he was a gladiator; in his humor a Yankee lumberman; in his memory a Bourbon; in his vengeance an Indian. A strange mixture, only to be found on the American continent.”
—Fitz Hugh Ludlow, 1870.
He had his little faults, but Porter’s life on earth, taken altogether, was one worthy of example, and reflected honor upon the Church. Through all his trials he had never once forgotten his obligations to his brethren and his God.”
Elder Joseph F. Smith at the funeral of Rockwell