Some people become legends in their own time. They’re larger-than-life heroes and tall-tales that live and breathe. Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, Hugh Glass, and Buffalo Bill–they lived in times where their exploits and achievements became the stuff of American legend. We love these stories as they’re about personalities that conquered their shortcomings. They became hardened through life experiences and defeated every adversary that sought to undermine them. They’re part of our national history, but for historians, this is problematic. How can one separate fact from fiction? When does a story become a tall-tale?
The story of Orrin Porter Rockwell is one that reads like a Zane Grey or J.T. Edson novel. A hard-scrabble lawman who pursued criminals with a vengeance and deadly aim. What sets him apart from other Western notorieties however was he spent his entire life with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. From 1830 to his death in 1878, Rockwell witnessed the church’s origins, served at the side of the Prophet and President Joseph Smith, and spent years as a marshal in the wild Utah territory during the church presidency of Brigham Young. When examining his life, you could imagine Rockwell almost as a ‘Mormon Forrest Gump’; he witnessed important moments with Church leaders and sometimes was at the center of pivotal events. Rockwell’s story is ingrained in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah history, but contemporary accounts both praised and vilified the man who became known by an infamous moniker: “The Destroying Angel of Mormondom.” The goal of this post is to deliver a non-embellished account of his life and how his role in the Church cemented his historical reputation. We can’t fully separate out fact from fiction though; even Harold Schindler who wrote the definitive Rockwell biography in 1966 admitted that some crucial details are lost to the ages.
Breaking down Rockwell’s life into chapters is the most manageable way of providing an accurate historical portrait. A majority of the LDS Church’s history is chronicled in a similar manner so the same approach is adopted here for easy reading and comprehension. Examining his life in extreme details means that I’ll be dividing this story into two parts.
Orrin Porter Rockwell was born on June 28, 1813 in Belchertown, Massachusetts to Orin and Sarah Rockwell and within a few years, they moved to Manchester, New York and had new neighbors; Joseph Smith Sr. and family (Schindler, Harold, ‘Orrin Porter Rockwell – Man of God / Son of Thunder’, pg. 3). Living only a mile apart, the Rockwells and Smiths became close friends, especially between Porter and Joseph Smith Jr. Even at an early age, Rockwell was enthralled by Joseph’s accounts of discovering the Golden Plates. He heard the story repeated countless times and Rockwell immediately made himself indispensable to the Smith family. The two men were united by a personal tragedy that gave them a common ground; both suffered from a limp as a result of an accident. Rockwell didn’t spend much time schooling; he barely learned how to read and write. Instead he worked a variety of odd jobs such as berry picking and gathering firewood and much of the proceeds went to pay for the Book of Mormon’s publishing costs. Despite harsh public criticism towards Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Rockwell remained firmly dedicated to Joseph’s work and in April 1830 after the new Church of Christ (predecessor name to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) was founded, Orrin Porter Rockwell was baptized by Joseph Smith.
Vitriol was widespread against the new church and the Saints relocated to Ohio to escape the New York critics. The Rockwells for a time did make it to Ohio, but records are scant for this time frame. Instead the Rockwell family joined the first group of Saints to settle in Jackson County, Missouri and Porter quickly adapted to his new surroundings. Missouri offered new opportunities for the Saints; open prairies for ranching, cheap land, abundant timber, and business opportunities in shipping and ferrying. Porter took up a lucrative trade in ferrying pioneers and supplies across the Big Blue River. Not long after moving to Jackson county, Porter married Luana Beebe on February 2, 1832, making it the first Mormon marriage in the state. His life seemed idyllic; a new home, family, wife, and business that provided them with everything. The image of a new Zion was not to last however as the black cloud of persecution followed the Saints wherever they settled. Missourians looked upon the Saints with skepticism, but in the early 1830s as the specter of slavery loomed in every new state’s admission to the Union, events set in motion their eventual expulsion, forcing another exodus. Missouri was divided in its stance on slavery, but powerful legislators and influential public figures made Missouri a predominantly pro-slavery state. The Church took an anti-slavery stance at its founding and when that view was expressed in an article entitled ‘Free People of Color’, Missourians seized it as evidence that the Saints were out to upset the balance of political power. This damage was irreparable. On few occasions in 1833, the Rockwells were harassed by Missourians and given ultimatums to hand over their businesses and leave the state. Lieutenant Governor Lilburn Boggs encouraged much of this sectarian violence against the religious group; his reputation cemented his place in annals of Church history as arguably the most despised man in North America. Porter did not stand idly by as violent retribution was inflicted upon his fellow Saints. He took up pistols and a rifle, becoming a crack marksman and sharpshooter. On October 31st, 1834 another Missouri mob swooped down on the Big Blue ferry destroying nearly all of the Rockwells’ homes and demanded Porter surrender all his possessions. He clashed with dozens of mobsters, leaving a handful mortally wounded and scattered the rest. Despite holding out, the Saints left Jackson country in November, leaving Porter with an intense hatred for Lt. Gov. Boggs, a vengeance becoming the foundation of Porter’s legacy (Schindler, pg. 20).
Porter Rockwell kept his covenants with both his family and church calling (he was ordained as a deacon in July 1838). The Missouri years were never quiet for him though. It’s in Missouri and more importantly in the year 1838 when one of two consequential moments defined both his life and historical reputation; the rise of the Danites.
A dark cloud befell the Church in early 1838 with the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society in Ohio and their persecutions in Missouri. Dissenters within the church argued over its next move and changes in leadership as many renounced Joseph Smith’s divinity as a prophet. Distrust between neighbors grew and many sought to take vengeance into their own hands. In a series of clandestine meetings, eighty-three men signed on as part of a fraternal organization founded on Biblical doctrine:
‘Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward’Genesis, Chapter 49 Verse 17
The Sons of Dan (the Danites) came together to remove dissenters in the Church, but paramilitary activities and anti-Mormon propaganda vilified their cause and became a black mark for anyone remotely connected. Porter Rockwell was among them; he was the sixty-ninth signature. They explained in their manifesto that it was their duty to expel all those who were deemed weaknesses in the Church. Many historians who reviewed Porter Rockwell’s life saw how his affiliation with the Danites followed him like a foul stench throughout his life; even at his death, Porter was labeled a ‘Danite chieftain’ and ‘destroying angel’ (Schindler, pg. 33). One might ask why would a devoted follower of Joseph Smith belong to such a group? The Danite vows included swearing unwavering, dying allegiance to the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, making it probably the only reason Porter Rockwell would have considered membership. Digging through the immense archives concerning the Danites can take even longer that discussing the life of Porter Rockwell, but in summary, historians disagree on whether or not Joseph Smith authorized their creation and their actions [see the Battle of Crooked River, October 24, 1838] were fodder for the anti-Mormon camp who exploited the Danite actions as proof of their ungodliness and warranted their extermination. Both the public and the Saints condemned them, but they were instrumental in facilitating their people’s expulsion from Missouri. On October 27, 1838, Lt. Gov. Boggs issued the infamous ‘Missouri Executive Order 44’ authorizing the forced removal and necessary extermination of the Mormons:
“The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”Missouri Executive Order 44
The violence in Missouri following clashes with the Missouri state militias prompted Joseph Smith to surrender himself and after an illegal court martial, he and other church leaders including his brother Hyrum Smith were sent to the jail in Liberty, Missouri. From here Joseph received numerous revelations and employed Porter Rockwell to act as courier between him and bands of Saints moving eastward towards Illinois. The Rockwells were already en-route to Illinois, but Porter’s skills as a marksman and horseman were used effectively during Smith’s incarceration. Rockwell even managed to smuggle in some tools during one visit to help the captives escape, but this was attempt was thwarted. On April 15, 1839, while being transported to Boone County for sentencing, Joseph and his companions escaped the armed escort and safely made their way into Illinois. Their Missouri years were now behind them as the remaining vestiges of their settlements were burned by rabid Missourians. Among the people’s celebration of the returning Church leadership, coming in behind Joseph Smith was his guardian and loyal friend, Porter Rockwell (Schindler, pg. 57).
The Illinois phase of Porter Rockwell’s life was just as formative as his years he spent on the Big Blue and Jackson County. The Saints were welcomed with open arms in Illinois after residents heard about their plights. Here in their new settlement of Nauvoo, Porter made himself as indispensable as never before to the Prophet. Joseph Smith and other church leaders decided to bring their Missouri grievances to Washington D.C. and petition both Congress and the White House reimbursements to cover their financial losses. Porter joined the mission and in October 1839, the party left for the capital. Their journey wasn’t as productive as they had hoped. President Martin van Buren offered no aid to the Saints, stating ‘Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri’ (History of the Church, Vol. IV, pg. 80) [President Van Buren was also preoccupied with the 1837 financial panic that crippled the U.S. economy and was a contributing factor to his re-election defeat in 1840]. Smith and Rockwell then confronted members of Congress, pushing affidavits attesting to the mistreatment and violent reprisals against the Saints. Rockwell’s own testimony of harassment at Big Blue was incorporated, but this was still not enough. Congressional committees refused to act on any of the requests and the men returned to Nauvoo empty-handed. What did come out of the Washington D.C. trip was a strengthened friendship between Joseph and Porter. Each had found comfort in the other by serving a just cause on Earth, received by revelation all done in the name of creating a new Zion for the Church. Porter knew that Joseph was indeed conducting God’s will on the Saints and Joseph saw Porter as his strongest remaining supporter as followers like Oliver Cowdrey, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer fell away from the church. Porter was strong in both faith and body and Joseph believed he could always count on him in difficult times.
Said difficulties were never in short supply for Joseph Smith and the Saints. Following their absconsion from the Boone county escort, Missouri officials threatened Smith with extradition threats constantly. Bounty hunters were tempted with massive rewards for the Prophet’s capture and lawmen tried conjuring up ways to spirit him across the Mississippi River. Although Joseph succeeded in dismissing many of the warrants against him, he did make a riveting prophesy: Lilburn Boggs would die by a violent means. Years later, a harsh critic of Joseph Smith and excommunicated church member, John C. Bennett painted a darker, more ominous interpretation of this prophecy:
“The exterminator should be exterminated and the Destroying Angel will do it by the right hand of his power…The Destroying Angel will do the work; when God speaks, His voice must be obeyed.”Words of Joseph Smith as recorded by John C. Bennett in ‘History of the Saints’
Whether or not the above statement was true, it was a well-known fact that Lilburn Boggs had been responsible for much of the Saints’ sufferings in Missouri. Simultaneously, Porter was going through a rough patch in his and Luana’s marriage and she wanted to visit family back in Independence, Missouri. He obliged and by March 1842, the Rockwells returned and he found various work involving horses before the family returned to Nauvoo. What happened next would shock the region, the Church, and become the defining characteristic of Porter Rockwell’s life.
On the evening of May 6th, 1842, Boggs sat in his study reading a newspaper when suddenly a gunshot went through the window, hitting him in the skull, neck, and throat. Family and friends who rushed to the scene thought he was already dead (one obituary appeared soon after) but he survived. The local sheriff investigating the shooting found a discarded revolver, still partially loaded, and learned it had been stolen from a local store. The storekeeper immediately recognized the revolver as his and pointed the sheriff to ‘that hired man of Ward’s’–meaning Porter Rockwell. Eight days later, Rockwell returned to Nauvoo where news of Bogg’s attempted assassination was flying everywhere and at the center were John C. Bennett’s accusations that Joseph Smith had paid Rockwell to shoot the former governor. Conversations between Rockwell, Bennett, and Smith leave an unclear picture on what exactly Rockwell’s actions were. That secret is something Porter took to his grave (Schindler, pg. 73). Later in August, the arrest orders came down charging Porter with assault with intent to kill Lilburn Boggs. Accompanying this charge was arresting Joseph Smith as an accessory ‘before the fact’. Porter subsequently took off and fled east, trying to avoid the heat of his arrest, but he couldn’t stay away for long. His wife Luana returned from Independence to serve him with divorce papers, something he couldn’t ignore. Rockwell journeyed back and by the time he reached St. Louis, he departed the paddle boat to ferry over to Illinois, but on March 4, 1843, Porter Rockwell was finally caught by a Missouri posse who recognized him.
After a preliminary hearing in St. Louis, Rockwell was transferred to Independence to await trial. The conditions in the jail were horrid and no friendly persons were around to assist him. He quickly began suffering from malnutrition (the jailers didn’t bother to bring him food) and he attempted a couple of jailbreaks, but was foiled. The jailers and local sheriff abused his mercilessly, but Rockwell was unwavering in his faith and resolve. He even found ways to humor himself while incarcerated. One popular story tells that he hung a corn dodger (a hard biscuit) out his cell window and when passerby’s asked what he was doing, he exclaimed, ‘Fishing for pukes!’ [pukes was a derogatory term for Missourians] and saying he had a few nibbles. A larger plot was afoot with Porter Rockwell’s arrest though; Missouri officials hoped that it would draw Joseph Smith, their real target, back into the state and easily arrest him. While Smith dealt with problems in Nauvoo persisted (ongoing dissention in the church leadership mostly) he still thought of his friend Porter and eventually raised funds to get Porter a lawyer. Porter’s mother, Sarah Rockwell couriered the money and Porter tactfully chose his defense attorney, Alexander Doniphan. He was a longtime friend of the Mormons during their Missouri years and was famous for having stopped the summary execution of Joseph Smith back in 1838 [see Joseph Smith Papers, December 1842 – June 1844]. Doniphan eventually secured an acquittal for Rockwell as the jury couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that he shot Boggs. He was released and after a grueling return journey, Porter finally returned to Nauvoo, emaciated, filthy, and exhausted. When he burst into the Mansion House where Joseph Smith was hosting a party, he immediately recognized the destitute man and after hearing about his journey, Smith placed his hands on Rockwell and blessed him:
“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”Joseph Smith’s Blessing of Porter Rockwell
The story of Rockwell’s blessing was foreshadowing indeed [he would never again be physically harmed or injured in a knife or firefight] and those in the room believed that he was now the Samson of the Mormon Church (Schindler, pg. 102).
As Smith’s bodyguard, Porter traveled everywhere by his side and heard much of the political intrigue, extradition rumors, and anti-Mormon sentiment that plagued Smith’s life. A local newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, consistently published articles making false charges against Smith and accusations that the church was involved in nefarious schemes. Smith became irate and ordered the Expositor printing press destroyed; Porter led the group that kicked down the door and tore the machine apart beyond repair. Many citizens saw the Prophet’s actions as a violation of the freedom of the press and they reacted harshly (Schindler, pg. 117). The threat of a mob from nearby Carthage was calling for Joseph’s lynching and while prepping for another trip to Washington DC and laying plans to remove the Saints to the Rocky Mountains, Smith became convinced that his life was nearing the end. He knew very well that if he entered Carthage to answer questions about the the destruction of the Expositor, he might very well be killed by the mob. Wracked by what to do, he asked Rockwell ‘If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself. What shall I do Port?’ (History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day-Saints, Vol. 6, pg. 549). Rockwell told him to that whatever decision Joseph made, he would stand by him. On June 25th, 1844, Joseph and his brother Hyrum surrendered to the Carthage constable. Two days later, both men were dead.
Porter waited anxiously to hear back from Joseph, but three days without a letter was strange. Suspicious of what transpired, he rode out of Nauvoo the next day and soon encountered George D. Grant (a fellow Saint) who described what happened to the Prophet and his brother. Porter turned about and rushed back to Nauvoo bearing the awful news, acting like the Mormon Paul Revere. A guard at the Nauvoo temple saw Porter racing into town at a full gallop, shouting the terrible words, ‘Joseph is killed–they have killed him! Goddamn them! They have killed him!’ Joseph’s death threw the church leadership into a power struggle that was precipitated by a succession crisis. While church members debated the crisis, Rockwell was anguished over the loss of his friend and vowed revenge. He soon fulfilled that during a violent encounter with the Carthage Grays (local militia) and killed Frank Worrell, the Grays’ leader who was charged with protecting Joseph while incarcerated at the Carthage jail. They simply stood aside, letting the mob into the jail.
For the Saints, salvation lay west in the Rockies. Brigham Young, who would emerge as the new President of the Church nearly three years after Smith’s death, arranged to have all the necessary temple work completed before the Saints left Nauvoo. Porter was endowed on January 5th, 1846 and then began assembling everything needed to make the inevitably long and rough journey ahead of him. While ferrying messages between Illinois and the church’s forward camp in Iowa, Porter made his last contact with the Smith family in the form of Joseph’s teenage son, Joseph Smith III [Following the succession crisis, Joseph Smith III became the Prophet-President of a new branch labeled the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known modernly as the Community of Christ]:
‘Extending my hand, Rockwell shook it warmly, put an arm affectionately around my shoulders, and said, with much emotion, “Oh Joseph, Oh Joseph, they have killed my only friend I have ever had!”… I tried to comfort him, but to my astonishment, he said “Joseph, you had best go back. I am glad you came to meet me, but it is best that you are not seen with me. It can do me no good and it may bring harm to you.”‘Joseph Smith III and the Restoration, pg. 76-77
Another chapter of Porter Rockwell’s life had closed. His life, defined by the heroic and violent struggles of a man dedicated to his faith, showed him a blank future slate. Whatever he could do now lay ahead. For a man whose identity was tied directly to the Prophet’s vision of a new Zion on Earth, he felt directionless without Joseph Smith. From the moment he mounted his horse and put Nauvoo behind him, Porter Rockwell was determined to make himself an instrument in the hands of God and the Church. Hands that would strengthen his already legendary persona in the place where a man could achieve anything with discipline, resourcefulness, faith, and a quick draw of the pistol; the American West.