Mormon Bad Boy

God can use a thunderstorm.  Or Porter Rockwell.

Mormon Proverb

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

7 Responses to Mormon Bad Boy

  1. Pinky says:

    Articles like this are why I love the internet. Great work.

  2. I’d be interested to know if Rockwell had many run-ins with Episcopal Bishop Daniel Tuttle, a predecessor of Bishop Katharine Schori as presiding TEC bishop.

    Based in Salt Lake City, he once thrashed a stage driver for swearing in the presence of a woman. Ranchers and miners flocked to see the fighting cleric, according to David T. Courtwright’s history _Violent Land_.

  3. T. Shaw says:

    Here’s another American legend.

    In 1972, the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” was released. It was loosely based on the life of John Johnston. If you want the real story, read Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorpe and Robert Bunker.

  4. Alma says:

    There won’t be any accounts of exchanges between Bishop Tuttle and Rockwell unless Tuttle broke the law. Rockwell was a lawman and pioneer; but theological discourse didn’t ever appear to be on his plate.

    On minor error above has Rockwell away on a mission when Joseph Smith was killed. He was instead waiting at home in Nauvoo, Illinois as were the rest of Smith’s bodyguards as they had been directed to be by Smith.

    The so-called Danites were a short-lived group during the Missouri period (1833-38)that was disbanded when Church leaders learned of it.

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “There won’t be any accounts of exchanges between Bishop Tuttle and Rockwell unless Tuttle broke the law. Rockwell was a lawman and pioneer; but theological discourse didn’t ever appear to be on his plate.”

    Isn’t that the truth Alma!

    “On minor error above has Rockwell away on a mission when Joseph Smith was killed. He was instead waiting at home in Nauvoo, Illinois as were the rest of Smith’s bodyguards as they had been directed to be by Smith.”

    That could well be. I used this account for my statement that he was away on assignment:

    In researching Rockwell I found a great deal of contradictory material. A lifetime could be spent attempting to get everything straight in his story.

    “The so-called Danites were a short-lived group during the Missouri period (1833-38)that was disbanded when Church leaders learned of it.”

    That is open to debate.

    From the Utah History Encyclopedia:

    There is incontrovertible evidence that a few “rough-rider” type minute men were appointed by Brigham Young as early as l847 to act as lawmen in the new Mormon settlements on the plains, and later in the Salt Lake Valley. This was necessary in the absence of any civil administration. Handy with their guns and with a knowledge of frontier life, these men were on call for Indian uprisings and immigrant problems such as the July, l849 arrival of the California gold-seekers into the valley. Brigham’s “Minute-men” were kept busy in this period when stealing, rustling and murder increased as travelers entered the territory. Local residents who committed crimes were dealt with by their bishops and not the “Minute Men”.

    The name “Danite was applied to four or five of these early lawmen by the Eastern Press because of an earlier semi-religious organization begun in Missouri in l838 by Dr. Sampson Avard. This early group disbanded almost before it started when the motives of Dr. Avard became suspect and he was excommunicated from the Mormon Church. However, the ideas he promulgated persisted with some for several decades in the Utah Territory. Based on the biblical scripture, Genesis 49:l7, non-Mormon “Gentiles” who persecuted the Mormons were to be punished by losing their possessions.

    It is unknown how many of the Utah period so-called “Danites” had been members of the original Missouri organization. What is known is that there were never “70 Destroying Angels” appointed by Brigham Young. The number seventy came from the Church priesthood calling of the “Seventy”.

    After Sir Richard Burton’s visit to the Salt Lake Valley in l860, the Eastern press most prominently identified as “Danites” William Adams “Bill” Hickman, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Ephe Hanks, Robert Burton, and Lot Smith. All had taken a prominent part in the war against the U.S. Army troops in l857-58, and had been appointed by Brigham Young. These men served with honor during the Mormon War and also the later tumultuous Camp Floyd period.

    Orson Hyde, an apostle in the Church and one who had benefited from the protection given by lawman Bill Hickman in Winter Quarters in l848-49, failed to later discourage Hickman’s gang in l860 for depredations committed against the U.S. Army at Camp Floyd. Hyde contended that Hickman probably “had a revelation to act as he did.” This lawless period should have ended with the official announcement by Brigham Young on 9 September l860, that said, “…if the Lord wants any stealing done he would reveal it to me as soon as to Bill Hickman or others.”

    There continued to be isolated incidences attributed to the “Danites” in Anti-Mormon books and press articles until the railroad came to the territory in l869. By then the original territorial lawmen were mostly dead, retired, or had been replaced by a new group of sheriffs and policemen with civil rather than religious powers. However, the name “Danite” continues to excite readers and historians of the early Utah period, even though the evidence of excessive wrong doing outside the law, appears to be greatly exaggerated.

    Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton”

    Anti-Mormon writers have attributed all sorts of nefarious actions to the Danites. I find the history lacking to support these allegations.

  6. Alma says:

    It is difficult to sift the myth and legend out of accounts of Porter Rockwell because so many people think that a story worth telling is worth telling better.

    It is true that Brigham Young appointed “minute-men” or Mormon Marauders as they became known in the 1857 war. But history notes that they were under strict orders from Brigham Young not to shed blood. They were able to stop the US Army from entering into the Salt Lake Valley without the loss of any human life.

    The idea of a lawless society with Brigham’s destroying angels was good fodder for newspaper and dime novel sales, but the reality was that Brigham Young governed about 50,000 people in over 300 communities with a handshake and a smile. A lot of sayings attributed to him didn’t find their way into reports of his comments that were published weekly. Consider this statement: “I am sorry that some of our brethren have been killed by the Indians, but am far more sorry that some of the Indians have been slain by the brethren. I have often said, and I say again, if any person is to be killed for stealing, let that one be a white man, and not an Indian, for white men know better, while Indians do not.”

    My own great-great grandfather was a member of the Danites in Missouri; but this group was so short lived (except in folklore) that Mormons have ever after been embarrassed by its presence in history.

    One book on Rockwell was written by a journalist named Schindler. He found the material so contradictory that he provided alternate accounts for many of the stories. It makes for interesting citations since you get opposite readings on the same page.

  7. Fascinating.

    What little I know of the early Utah days of the Mormons comes from a pair of truly enjoyable books I read as a kid by Catholic author John D. Fitzgerald: Papa Married a Mormon and Mama’s Boarding House.

    Fitzgerald is more famous for his (much more heavily fictionalized) Great Brain books, but these two, written more for adults, are a less fictionalized biographical account of Fitzgerald’s parents: his father was a Irish Catholic who fell in love with and married a Mormon girl — a marriage which was not blessed by either church for a number of years. The two books tell about his family’s life in a small Utah town, living in between the calm Mormon community and the wild west Gentiles.

    Though given that they’re so enjoyable (and have to do with history) I’m guessing they may not be news to Don…

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