The Prophet’s Bodyguard: A Look at the Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell (Part 2 of 2)

Joseph Smith: prophet, seer, revelator, and the first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in the summer of 1844, was dead. He and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob at the Carthage jail. His close friend and bodyguard, Orrin Porter Rockwell, was distraught and his mind was plagued with depression. From out of this anguish, Rockwell thrust himself into a new horizon. H threw his lot behind Brigham Young and began the westward migration to the Rocky Mountains. With another home taken from them with the Prophet’s death, the Saints sought to establish a new Zion far away from the influence of any state or federal government.

Porter Rockwell did not start his new phase off on the right foot. After a brief stint in jail for the murder of Frank Worrell (leader of the Carthage Grays militia who indirectly permitted the martyrdom of Joseph Smith; see Part 1 of ‘The Prophet’s Bodyguard’) he regrouped with Brigham Young and other Saints in Council Bluffs, Iowa in August 1846. Working in the hands of God to shepherd the church, Young sought out one person who would fight tooth and nail and be a provider to the church. That same year, Young called Rockwell to be his personal bodyguard. But protecting the new president wouldn’t be his only duty. For months, church leaders were assembling supplies and making preparations for a mass westward migration. They expected to battle the natural elements and encounter hostile Indian tribes. Rockwell and a handful of other frontiersmen were the vanguard of the Saints column. After moving to Winter Quarters, Nebraska earlier in the year, companies of Saints were assembled to break out across the Plains in groups of ten. Rockwell was attached to the tenth group in line and was immediately made a chief scout for the entire column. It was during this trek that Rockwell made himself indispensable through his adept marksmanship. He fended off a group of Pawnees, kept the company’s horses from escaping, and managed to shoot a couple of buffalo that provided so much needed nourishment for the pioneers (Schindler, Harold, ‘Orrin Porter Rockwell – Man of God / Son of Thunder’, pg. 155). Even when Brigham Young misplaced his spyglass, Rockwell backtracked through the company, located the spyglass, and return it to Young, “which was a source of joy to all the brethren” (Egan, Pioneering in the West, pg. 35). Continuing on their journey, the Saints also encountered Missourians traveling West, among whom they thought was Lilburn Boggs making his way to California. Despite their animosities, the Church managed to profit from the Missouri wagon trains by charging them for crossing the rivers on Mormon ferries. Cash-strapped church members and leaders would soon need these funds to build their new settlements. By July of that year, the Saints passed into the Rocky Mountains and were winding their way through the labyrinth of rivers, valleys, and deserts to the Great Basin beyond the horizon. Rockwell led a scouting party seeking out the best trail for wagons and on July 22nd, Rockwell and his band led the train to into the valley and here they gazed upon the Great Salt Lake. It’s believed that Rockwell was the first to see the vast basin suitable for their new home and recognized the valley’s potential.

“Entering the Great Salt Lake Valley” by C.C.A. Christensen, courtesy of BYU Museum of Art

There was no rest for Porter Rockwell. Not when more Saints needed protection and guidance crossing the Plains and the church underwent new development in the Salt Lake Valley. Rockwell made multiple treks across the Plains, providing the companies with food and delivering much needed correspondence. His diplomatic skills with local Indian tribes became valuable also as he was pivotal in building friendly relationships through trade. After riding all over the western territories, Rockwell was made an emissary as part of a larger group to gather more supplies and livestock from California. A successful return of cattle, wagons, mules, and other supplies were a life-giving boost to the Saints.

Gold fever hit the nation with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and thousands of prospectors set out for California. A colony of Saints in California led by Sam Brannan reported on the stupendous amount of wealth being claimed by miners, but Young dissuaded people to seek such fortunes, lest they fall into sin. Tithing was needed to conduct church business and some in California weren’t carrying their share. However, profits from more respectable and reliable ventures were more prudent and Rockwell was dispatched to California in the spring of 1849. He and his companion Amasa Lyman spent their time spreading the Gospel and conducting business with the miners. Predictably, business fared much better than religious enlightenment in the mining camps. Rockwell opened an inn, sold hardware, and won prize money with his sharpshooting skills. By the time Rockwell left California in the fall of 1850, he made a generous profit, all of which he donated to the church coffers. His old enemy Lilburn Boggs was also in the gold fields and Rockwell never let his identity be known; using a pseudonym and never traveling without his dual pistols kept him from stirring up any discord.

Thousands of people traveled to California to mine for gold. Rockwell and other Saints focused more on selling mining hardware, providing food and housing, and conducting missionary work in the mine fields.

The next five years were relatively stable and sedentary for Porter. On September 9th, 1850 Brigham Young appointed him the Deputy Marshal for the Utah Territory. Between tracking down criminals and treating local Indian tribes with civility (his belief was to feed an Indian rather than shoot him), he found love again and married Mary Ann Neff on May 3rd, 1854. Young himself officiated the wedding. From 1854 onwards though, it would become the most accomplished yet checkered stage of Porter’s life, one that that could be the subject of many dime-store novels.

By 1857, relations between the LDS Church and the U.S. government were arguably at their lowest. Newly inaugurated president James Buchanan, who was elected on a platform of ending polygamy in the United States, was adamant in restraining Brigham Young’s western theocracy. He appointed Alfred Cumming to replace Young as the territorial governor, but failed to notify him of this change. An expedition of 2,500 soldiers under the command of Col. Albert Sidney Johnston were sent west with orders to forcibly remove Young if necessary. While delivering mail, Rockwell and two other couriers, Abraham Smoot and Judson Stoddard, discovered that the U.S. Army was in route to Salt Lake and quickly returned to inform Young of the pending doom. Church leaders and civil authorities adopted a guerrilla strategy in striking at the heels of the Utah expedition; attacking supply lines, stealing wagons and animals, destroying ferry and river crossings, etc. Rockwell and men like Lot Smith and Daniel Wells led these raids, the first in Mormon attacks against the federal government (Schindler, pg. 255). They roared through camps stampeding animals and setting fires to wagons. Their havoc was not limited to the patrols and scouting parties, but some sizeable forts and supply depots were torched on Rockwell’s orders. When the army reached Fort Bridger in December 1857, the column that arrived was half-starved, frostbitten, and short on everything from cooking lard to gunpowder.

Col. Johnston’s men marched through heavy snowstorms in the winter of 1857, stopping their advance on Salt Lake City. Coupled with Mormon raids on their supply wagons, the Utah expedition was severely depleted and demoralized by their arrival (Image courtesy of Harper’s Weekly, circa 1858)

Sabotage and stealth proved well for Rockwell and other Mormon scouts in the Utah War. Skills that became crucial for the next conflict: The American Civil War. Joseph Smith prophesized that crises over secession would take place in the South (specifically mentioning South Carolina) and the war would engulf the whole nation. Utah’s remoteness did not spare it from the ravages of warfare. Within the first few months of the war’s outbreak in 1861, Confederate columns pushed into New Mexico Territory, signaling the start of hostilities in the American Southwest. [read more about the New Mexico and Arizona Campaigns in ‘The Bleeding Southwest’] Fortunately for the LDS Church and Utah residents, no major Confederate invasion occurred in the region. Raids by local Native American tribes on local farms, army posts, and mail routes were the primary engagements. With the absence of U.S. troops from much of the West, tribes like the Shoshone, Sioux, Apache, and Cheyenne felt emboldened to strike back at white pioneers. People like Porter Rockwell who maintained good relationships with local tribes were employed as mediators to resolve conflicts or relocate individuals. In January 1863, tensions between the Union army and the Shoshone tribes reached their climax at Bear River. Rockwell signed on to work for the federal government again; this time he acted as a scout for the column of Union soldiers moving through the Utah and Idaho territories. California volunteers under the command of Col. Patrick Connor and Major McGarry attacked Shoshone Indians in the Cache Valley, resulting in tremendous losses for the Indians. While Conner was pleased with the destruction of the Shoshone, Rockwell was devastated at the orgy of violence that unfolded. He always believed that Indians should been treated with civility and hospitality, but his role in the Bear Creek Massacre was something he always regretted (Schindler, pg. 331).

Western territories in the 19th century were wide open in opportunities for both pioneers and outlaws. In such as wide swath of land like Utah, Brigham Young’s choice to make Rockwell a marshal was one that he believed would bring all God-fearing criminals to justice. Throughout Rockwell’s tenure as a marshal, he arrested dozens of thieves, scofflaws, vagrants, and other nefarious characters. Stories like these of lawmen catching criminals in the Old West have been so embellished with romantic imagery or severe criticism based on the central character, that it’s almost impossible to determine the hard truth. What really transpired is known only to those directly involved. In 1868, a Overland Stagecoach for Wells Fargo was robbed of $40,000 in gold bouillon. As the robber made his way on foot, Rockwell (who was employed as a coach guard) set out to find the thief. Rockwell tracked the man down for a week and spent another week observing the man’s behavior. The bouillon was buried and when he returned to exhume the treasure, Rockwell swooped in and arrested the thief. He put him under guard at Government Creek, but when the guard fell asleep, the thief escaped on horseback and Rockwell failed to take him out via longshot rifle. When he returned the gold to Salt Lake City, Wells Fargo officials initially believed that Rockwell stole the gold himself when he failed to bring the criminal in for charges. Whether they believed he stole the gold or not, Rockwell was never charged and the Case of the Great Bouillon Robbery inflated the controversial legend of Porter Rockwell.

Stagecoaches with Wells Fargo transported all manner of goods and money across the American West. Criminals and bandits targeted these stagecoaches constantly and gunmen like Porter Rockwell were hired to defend these coaches.

In 1857, a group of gamblers named the Aiken Brothers were apprehended by Rockwell, some of who ended up dead while being escorted out of the Salt Lake Valley. Initially their deaths were blamed on local Indians, but church critics placed blame squarely on Rockwell. Nearly two decades later, formal charges were brought against him for the Aiken Brothers murders and with the recent death of Brigham Young, Rockwell had reason to fear he’d be thrown into jail again. Rockwell died before the trial was held, but the jury failed to conclude whether or not any murder took place. Some historians today believe that the Aiken Brothers actually were killed by Indians, but the true story has been laid to rest in the grave.

When not fighting for or against the U.S. government or tracking down criminals, Rockwell was a savvy businessman. On top of carrying mail for the Overland Trails and hauling cargo for across the Utah Territory, he was involved in the liquor trade, operated a saloon and hotel, sold real estate, and raised livestock. The Hot Springs Hotel and Brewery opened back in 1859 and in that time, the business made Rockwell a substantial amount of money; most of which was re-invested in land and his ranching business.

Rockwell lived a long life filled with adventure, challenges, and spiritual conviction. From his early days witnessing the creation of the LDS Church, to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, and his pursuit of the law in the wild Utah territory, Rockwell was a weary man at the age of sixty-five. Despite his age, he was still a robust figure who regularly rode horses and kept busy with his ranches and other businesses. On June 8th, 1878, he returned from a trip to the theater and sat alone at the saloon drinking. By now, drinking alone was a habit of Porter’s; he regularly drank throughout his life, and despite the church’s abolition against hard liquors, he still imbibed now and then. Later that evening, he began to feel ill and collapsed on his bed. A hostler who ran the nearby livery stable quickly came to his side and called for a doctor. Porter laid in his bed for hours, but no relief from the pain ever came. On June 9th, 1878, Orrin Porter Rockwell, bodyguard of the Prophets, the ‘Destroying Angel of Mormondon’, the Samson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, died of congestive heart failure.

Public reaction to his death was polarizing. People who knew him said he was a faithful defender of the church and a righteous man who protected the innocent. Church critics and other Anti-Mormon persons called him the most vile man to ever kill people without just cause. An obituary in an anti-Mormon newspaper described Rockwell:

“He killed unsuspecting travelers, whose booty was coveted by his prophet-master. He killed fellow Saints who held secrets that menaced the safety of their fellow criminals in the priesthood. He killed Apostates who dared to wag their tongues about the wrongs they had endured. And he killed mere sojourners in Zion merely to keep his hand in . . . Thus the gallows was cheated of one of the fittest candidates that ever cut a throat or plundered a traveler.

Salt Lake Tribune, June 12, 1878

The legacy of Porter Rockwell is a long and complicated one, to say the least. Stories about his life embody a times of persecution, retribution, revenge, endurance, sorrow, and cherishing joy. Critics were always at his heels haranguing him for his vicious deeds, the abominable ‘Chief of the Danites’ they always reminded the public. But his life is not limited to the contemporary critics or the historical revisionists who re-examine the narrative and cast him in a better light. Rockwell, at his core, was a man guided by every mission bestowed upon him with reverence for the Church’s callings. He stood at the Prophet’s side in every ordeal and brought sinners to justice. If these words are apt in summarizing his legacy, Joseph F. Smith (nephew of Joseph Smith) delivered Rockwell’s eulogy on June 12th, 1878, putting to words the impact left by Rockwell on his fellow Saints:

“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 can go to Hell … Porter Rockwell was yesterday afternoon ushered into Heaven clothed with immortality and eternal life, and crowned with all glory which belongs to a departed saint. He has 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 never once forgot his obligations to his brethren and his God.”

Joseph F. Smith, Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1878
Grave marker of Orrin Porter Rockwell in Salt Lake City. The epitaph reads ‘He was brave and loyal to his faith. True to the Prophet Joseph Smith. A promise made him by the prophet. Through obedience, it was fulfilled.’

One thought on “The Prophet’s Bodyguard: A Look at the Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: The Prophet’s Bodyguard: A Look at the Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell – Part One | THE CHRONICLES OF HISTORY

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