Essay: Porter Rockwell, Richard Lloyd Dewey, 1986, 2002.
Orrin Porter Rockwell wasn’t just any Mormon gunfighter. He was the first Mormon baptized after the parents of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith. He was a man Rockwell revered like an older brother.
While you may have never heard of Rockwell, he is a saint-like figure among the Saints, an anti-Peter in the Mormon story of their founder’s martyrdom. It’s no coincidence that I first came across him in the weird westerns of Mormons Joel Jenkins and David J. West and not in accounts of Old West gunfighters. He supposedly appeared in his own dime novels of the 19th century (a claim I have not confirmed) and as a character in several films, it took a Mormon – Dewey himself – to write and direct movies centering on him. Statutes, songs, and places are named after him. There are Rockwell bobblehead dolls. And, of course, you can get his likeness on t-shirts.
Several Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ affiliated sites favorably mention him.
It’s no mistake that, according to one of his descendants (he had many but was never a polygamist), historians who might be interested in Rockwell stray away from writing about him. Too many undocumentable stories, good and bad, about him.
The fame he had in his life was under names like the Destroying Angel, the Exterminating Angel, the Mormon triggerite, and a reputed member of the Danites, a group of supposed Mormon assassins. Famous journalists of the time met and wrote about him. French travel writers mention him. Sir Richard Burton even met and wrote about him in his 1861 book The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California.
Rockwell was born in 1813 and, when he died – of natural causes – in 1877, the leader of the church defiantly said,
They say he was a murderer; if he was, he was the friend of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and he was faithful to them, and to his covenants, and he has gone to heaven and apostates will go to hell. . . . he was an ornament to the Church.
In his life, Rockwell was a ferryman, rancher, miner, legendary tracker, Indian fighter and sometime missionary to them, lawman, leader of a successful guerilla movement against the United States government, and, sometimes, an actor (playing Davilla in Pizarro).
This book is almost as much about the tumultuous and often violent relationship between Mormons and the rest of the America in much of Rockwell’s lifetime as a biography of Rockwell.
Orin Porter Rockwell first met Joseph Smith, Jr when the Smith family became the Rockwells’ neighbors in 1819. The young Rockwell worked at various jobs so Smith would have money to print The Book of Mormon, a book Rockwell, a lifelong illiterate, would never read for himself.
The Rockwells followed the Smith family from New York to Ohio to Missouri. There, in the 1830s, violence broke out between Mormon and gentile with Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issuing what would become known as the “Exterminating Order” ordering all Mormons out of Missouri by April 1, 1839. Chased out of Missouri, the Mormons fled to Illinois. A scurrilous charge that he attempted to kill Boggs would long follow Rockwell though Dewey presents convincing evidence that the would-be assassin was someone else.
Violence followed the Mormons into Illinois, and Porter, who had been involved in standing up to anti-Mormon citizen militias in Missouri, became Smith’s bodyguard. It was during this time that a remarkable legend arose. Smith supposedly blessed Smith and told him that, as long as he kept his hair long, no bullet or blade would ever touch him. (Some emphasize that it was the other conditions of the prophecy, that he remain loyal to God and the Church, that were important and not the hair.)
It was during this time that the future U.S. Deputy Marshall would have several encounters with the law and being jailed on occasion. The only account we have in his words regards once such imprisonment. Entanglements with the law, whether motivated on bogus or legitimate charges, would follow Rockwell all his life. When he died, he was awaiting trial on a murder charge concerning a death 19 years earlier.
In the early morning hours of June 23, 1844, an event occurred that has something of the flavor of the New Testament and the Garden of Gethsemane about it. Fleeing arrest in Illinois, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum crossed the Missouri into Iowa with Rockwell. But when another Mormon, Reynolds Cahoon, questioned how Smith could abandon the flock that had stuck with him. He was leaving his flock to be devoured.
Smith famously replied, “If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of none to myself.” Smith turned to his old friend Porter for advice.
“You are the oldest and ought to know best.” Rockwell, though Dewey doesn’t give the exact words, supposedly replied, “If you make your bed, I will lie in it with you.”
A private conversation then took place between Rockwell and Porter in which Porter supposedly (again, Dewey doesn’t give a quote that shows up in many Mormon accounts) had to be ordered not to accompany the Smiths in what would be their martyrdom at the hands of a mob the next day. Unlike Peter, Rockwell had to be ordered to abandon his Prophet and was willing to accompany him to death. Smith’s last journal entry mentions Rockwell.
The anti-Peter motif continues when Porter disobeyed Smith and rode from Nauvoo to Carthage, Illinois but too late to save his friend.
After Smith’s death Rockwell killed his first man, officially at least. He was a leader of an anti-Mormon militia, and Porter was deputized on the spot by a local sheriff wanting to put the mob down. Porter had probably killed people already in the violent clashes between Mormon and anti-Mormon militias in Missouri.
In 1847, convinced that peaceful co-existence between Mormon and gentile was impossible in settled America, the new leader of the church, Brigham Young, led an advance party to Utah and Rockwell accompanied him. It would include the first violent encounters Rockwell would have with Indians though, when they settled in Utah, the Mormons would take care to have good relationships with them. The journal accounts of that trip, which Dewey extensively quotes, also demonstrate Young’s impressive leadership skills.
The following years would see Rockwell involved in a variety of things. He went to San Diego to retrieve the Mormon Battalion, a group of soldiers from the Mexican-American War discharged there. They returned to Great Salt Lake City via a northern route, the first time wagons were taken it. He was one of 94 hunters that went on a “gigantic predator hunt” to protect Mormon cattle with 15,000 predators killed. (What these predators were isn’t stated, presumably coyotes, wolves, and cougars.)
In 1849, he became a deputy marshal. Despite eventual Mormon prohibition against alcohol, Rockwell was a hard-drinker to his dying day. He operated a saloon in California during the gold rush there and did some panning for gold. (He adopted the pseudonym Brown there because Boggs and several of his supporters were also in California then.) In 1851, as part of the Nauvoo Legion, he pursued thieves paying on wagon trains to Great Salt Lake City and fought the Utes.
In 1857, Rockwell did a stint as an express mail rider. But the mail Rockwell delivered from Fort Laramie to Great Salt Lake City brought news of a national call to deal with the Mormons by armed occupation.
When the invasion came, Young dealt with it in the least violent way possible. In a guerilla campaign attacking the U.S. Army’s logistics in the Utah valley, Rockwell led a five man raid to drive off army mules. Since the army was advancing through Echo Canyon to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Mormon soldiers dug fortified positions along it. But the key moment was when Porter led an attack on army wagon trains preceding the main column of U.S. troops. Over 500,000 pounds of provisions were burned, an event witnessed by two future legends of the Old West who were teamsters: Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.
When Colonel Johnston’s column arrived in Utah in November 1857, he, his soldiers, and their horses and mules faced desperate times. By April 1858, the U.S. was willing to sue for peace and would eventually drop charges of treason against the Mormon. Army Captain Jesse Gove would give “the villain, Porter Rockwell” the credit for their problems.
Dewey spends a lot of time on this conflict because, as he says, it’s not covered extensively. It’s yet another piece of American history that should be better known.
There is a famous event from around this time, 1857’s Mountain Meadow Massacre which Rockwell wasn’t involved in though Dewey blithely dismisses the complex debate over how much responsibility Brigham Young had for the death of 120 immigrants bound for California in a wagon train.
In 1863, Rockwell was the baliff at the trial of Brigham Young on federal charges of violating anti-polygamy laws. Young was acquitted.
The rest of the Rockwell’s life would involve various business ventures as well as famed stints as a lawman including two incidents where he was fired upon at point-blank and, true to the prophecy, no bullet hit him. Some accounts go so far as having the spent bullets dropping from the folds of his clothes.
Dewey draws from a wealth of sources: the numerous contemporary books and pamphlets (many by Mormon dissidents) of Mormonism and Rockwell, newspaper accounts, official records, and the reminisces of settlers in the Utah valley. He writes clearly and quotes many an exciting account though he notes the ones that are mere anecdotes, and the book is an impressive work of scholarship. I read the 13th printing of the book, and Dewey says he adds new material from his research in new printings.
He certainly is a Rockwell enthusiast. Besides this book, he’s written a series of novels with Rockwell. This is said, again by his fellow Mormons, to be the definitive and longest biography of Rockwell. Finally, I should add that the book has some photos and a lot original pen and ink drawings by Clark Kelley Price illustrating scenes from the book.
Dewey sometimes mentions reputed miracles from the history of Mormonism, and I did find his account of the church’s early days almost as interesting as Rockwell’s life. (As a parallax view, I read the Mormon chapter in Walter F. Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults which provided some interesting material on the holy scripture of the church and Joseph Smith’s treasure hunting days.)
While mentioning this book to my sister, the family genealogist, I found out I had a distant cousin who was in the Mormon Battalion and a polygamist. I suppose it’s possible he met Rockwell.
And speaking of polygamy, I remain unconvinced by the early Mormon and Richard Burton apologies for it that Dewey quotes. Monogamy proved a very powerful force in developing European civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire. It, along with prohibitions on cousin marriage, weakened tribal links and developed the individualistic and relatively high-trust societies of Western Europe. If it took an Army invasion, albeit a failed one (and the 1879 Reynolds v. United States from the Supreme Court) to beat polygamy out of Mormonism – via divine revelation, of course, it was worth it.