If you’ve ever had computer classes while attending elementary schools in the mid-1990s, then you’ve more than likely played the original survival game, The Oregon Trail, on your Apple II computer. You start in Independence, Missouri with your team of oxen, wagon supplies, ammunition, and pray that at least one member of the company makes it to the Willamette Valley. The dangers faced in the game were no less real than in true life; venomous snakes, disease, harsh weather, accidents, and drowning were all endured by those who braved the Oregon Trail. Simultaneously, another group of pioneers moving west encountered the same struggles, but they were more motivated by a religious calling to build a new Zion in the American West. The same group also traveled overland by handcarts rather than the larger, more expensive Conestoga wagon. They were the Mormon Pioneers and they prevailed through hardships more unforgiving than anyone could imagine.
In 1847, Brigham Young and a vanguard company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley and decreed that a new home for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was to be built in the valley. Discussions amongst the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and local church leaders declared that Saints should make their way to the Salt Lake Valley by whatever means necessary. Between 1848 and 1890, large companies of pioneers were established and made their way across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. Before railroads ventured into the Utah territory, the Church made a distinctive choice with their method of travel; handcarts. Only ten percent of pioneers made the long trek by handcarts, they have become an iconic symbol of the pioneer resilience, determination, and sheer strength in their journey to the newly established Zion.
The year 1856 saw the trek of arguably the two most famous handcart companies in church history, the Willie and Martin companies. Three prior companies departed Iowa City in June 1856 (Ellsworth, McArthur, and Bunker), but due to the long trans-Atlantic communication lines, word did not reach Iowa City that the Willie and Martin companies were still planning to travel that summer. They had not even left England yet. By the time they arrived in Iowa City, church members frantically assembled handcarts from whatever leftover materials were available and gathered as many provisions as possible. Many urged that the two companies settle down in Winter Quarters, Nebraska that winter because they were ill-equipped and too far behind schedule to safely make it through the mountains. Church members were limited by the amount of weight they could carry on each cart; food, blankets, and protective gear were all they could carry. Despite the shortcomings, the two companies agreed to strike out for the Salt Lake Valley in July 1856, one month later than planned. What ensued were harsh trials challenging their fortitude, faith, and future in the West.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an important commandment is keeping a faithful record of the church and its people. Since the early days of Joseph Smith’s ministering work, he wrote about received revelations, religious experience, doctrine, contemporary events, and correspondence with a large number of people. Keeping a journal is a common practice in the church and during the course of the westward migration, the pioneers also kept a record. These journal entries recount everyday activities, births, deaths, landmarks, and other events that occurred in the handcart companies. They provide a glimpse into what the pioneers felt about their excursion and how they overcame their obstacles with the help of other company members and their religious conviction. Of course, what one can expect when reading these entries as the company enters the mountains and the bitter cold winter, the optimism declines and the desperation shows.
The companies made their way across the long stretches of Nebraska, battling the harsh summer heat and attacks by wildlife. People rejoiced at the sights of significant trail landmarks used by other pioneers such as Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Fort Laramie. William Southwell of the Martin Company writes this account when they arrived in sight of Chimney Rock:
“…This was an ideal place. Plenty of grass, plenty of wood, and all the requisites of a good camp. We were now on the side where the formed Chimney Rock stands. It was a great sight. A sight that once seen is never forgotten. It stands on the Laramie Plains and is visible one hundred miles.”
John William Southwell, Martin Company, 1856
However, the prejudices faced by the Saints back east followed them west. Other pioneers harassed them for food, livestock, weapons, and military outposts meant to have stockpiles of supplies were either sold out or refused to sell the the impoverished companies of Saints. The first wave of snowstorms hit the Saints when they ventured into Wyoming crossing the Platte River for the final time:
“…We have scarcely crossed the river when we were visited with a tremendous storm of snow, hail, sand, and fierce winds. It was a terrible storms from which both the people and teams suffered. After crossing the river, my husband was put on a handcart and hauled into camp; and indeed after that time he was unable to walk, and consequently provision had to be made for him to ride in a wagon…From this time my worst experience commenced.”
Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, Martin Company, October 19, 1856
Church historians will tell you that the lowest point in the Saints westward migration was when they came to Martin’s Cove in the winter of 1856. By this stage many members of the company were starving and racked with illness. Their daily rations were reduced to only a handful of flour and many substituted by chewing on leather or tree bark. Winter had come with a vengeance in the mountains and claimed many lives of the Saints. John Kirkman of the Martin Company aptly summarizes the Martin’s Cove experience:
“Death had taken a heavy tool; the ravine was like an overcrowded tomb; no mortal pen could described the suffering.”
John Kirkman, Martin Company, 1856
Despite the hardships, the companies were not completely without hope. Church President Brigham Young dispatched a network of scouts carrying supplies to reach pioneers within a few days reach of Salt Lake City. Wagon trains filled with rations, blankets, and other items were sent out for the struggling companies and they were godsends for sure. Not only did they bring material relief, but they shepherded spiritual relief also and a sign that their journey was coming to an end.
“As we were resting for a short time at noon, a light wagon was driven into our camp from the west. Its occupants were Joseph A. Young and Stephen Taylor. They informed us that a train of supplies was on the way, and we might expect to meet it in a day or two. More welcome messengers never came from the courts of glory than these two young men were to us. They lost no time after encouraging us all they could to press forward, but sped on further east to convey their glad news to Edward Martin and the fifth handcart company who left Florence about two weeks after us, and who it was feared were even worse off than we were. As they went from our view, many a hearty ‘God bless you’ followed them.”
John Chislett, Willie Company, 1856
“I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp can ever be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal, was enough to touch the stoutest heart…When I saw the terrible condition of the immigrants on first entering their camp, my heart almost melted within me. I rose up in my saddle and tried to speak cheering and comforting words to them. I told them also that they should all have the privilege to ride into Salt Lake City, as more teams were coming.
Ephraim K. Hanks, Rescuer, 1856
On November 30, 1856, the last of the Willie and Martin handcart companies made it into Salt Lake City. Over two hundred people died en-route to the valley and many more arrived half-starved with nothing more than their handcarts and the clothes they were wearing. They were warmly welcomed by the Saints and had their stories recorded for posterity for the church. Five more companies would traverse the plains by 1860 before the outbreak of the Civil War when guerrilla warfare ravaged the West. With the completion of the first Trans-continental railroad in 1869, the era of wagons and handcarts ended. Historians and church leaders still debate on the fundamental planning and policies of the handcart companies; whether or not they were truly prepared and if more deaths could have been avoided. What remains strong though is the resilient spirit and fortitude of the pioneers who pushed their way to a new homeland beyond the mountains and made a new Zion on Earth. American West historian Wallace Stegner memorializes their convictions by stating:
“Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for lifewith the ferocity of animals and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both the Fremont and Donner parties did. … But if courage and endurance make a story, if humankindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Fr. Weninger continued his missions during the Civil War, but his memoirs reflected a growing resentment for its causes and progression. The political scenes in the North caused concern for Weninger who saw impending difficulties for Catholics who served with the Union Army. Catholic clergy from Northern states put forth their grievances and perspectives on the war. They pointed to slavery as the primary evil and root cause for the war and their concerns varied on the political spectrum. Weninger adopted a unique position in criticizing all factions and stressed uniform reconciliation. Even though Weninger did not identify himself as Republican or a Lincoln supporter, he was convinced slavery was the greater evil:
‘…Weninger was convinced that the north was in the right. He blushed on account of the company he was in because of that statement but he consoled himself with the reflection that just because a person agrees with the north does not make him a member of the republican party.’ (Benjamin Blied, Catholics and the Civil War 129).
Weninger believed slavery created radicals within the South who instigated the secession. He argued that rebellion was unjustified and criticized politicians for mishandling the crisis. The rapid influx of Irish Catholic immigrants that were quickly conscripted for the Union army disheartened Weninger for both religious and political reasons. Factions who despised Catholics and paid substitutions benefiting the wealthy who could avoid military service put an enormous stress on Weninger seeing many of his fellow Catholics die. Many still enlisted for the chance to prove themselves as Americans and to remove many of the instilled prejudices that had branded them as un-American though (Sean Fabun, “Catholic Chaplains in the Civil War,” Catholic Historical Review, 99 no. 4, 675). As those Catholics enlisted and fought for the cause, Weninger further criticized the Republican Party for its anti-Catholic influence of ’48 Germans (those who participated in the 1848 Revolutions and resented Catholicism) and residual members of the Know-Nothing Party.
(Regiments like the Irish Brigades of New York were predominantly Catholic and often held Mass before battles)
‘Of course, all Republicans were not so better; but many, and those most influential, were, and hence the danger which hung over the Church. Even whilst loyal and brave sons of that Church entered the army and shed their blood for the cause, dark threats resounded over the land.’ (Francis X. Weninger Papers, Jesuit Archives-Central United States, 209).
Staunchly against Democrats and their support of slavery and Republicans for harboring anti-Catholic dissidents, Weninger resigned himself from directly participating in the political or military conflict. He understood the military actions, but what concerned him was the situation of slavery following the war’s outcome:
‘The North now has gained victory and after victory, and it seems that the war will not be of long duration, but that does not mean that things will be happily settled. The great question of slavery remains, the issue of which cannot be foretold…If slavery continue, the root of the evil will remain, and sooner or later there will be repetition or all the trouble and discord, for so bitter is each [political] party, and so violently are their passions aroused, that a reconstruction of the former status quo is not to be thought of…the fitness of the negro for any species of labor can never be sufficient grounds for the perpetuity of slavery.’ (Francis X. Weninger Papers, Jesuit Archives-Central United States, 209).
These concerns were a combination of the well-being of liberated slaves and the public reception of the Catholic Church. Proposals such as slave compensation for owners and African re-settlement did nothing for the well-being of blacks themselves as Weninger believed and he overrode these with the idea of national emancipation and atonement:
‘Should the abolitionists gain their point and slavery cease, should the Union be consolidated upon a new and permanent basis…doubtless there will be grievous trials in store for the Church, but at present she has no reason to fear. Divine Providence in this present juncture watches over her.’ (Francis X. Weninger Papers, Jesuit Archives-Central United States, 240)
Weninger assuaged the moral issue over slavery by arguing the need for avoiding the political backlash and simply carry out emancipation and reconstruction through faithful devotion. He acknowledges the political factor within Church operations and what he saw precipitated the oncoming issue of black evangelization in a post-Civil War country. Slavery had established a version of the U.S. when Weninger arrived, but now he saw the Church as a catalyst in creating opportunities for newly liberated peoples to lead religious lives out from underneath bondage. He knew that freed slaves would face a mountain of obstacles, but within those challenges were golden opportunities for spiritual awakenings.
Francis Xavier Weninger, S.J., was a learned scholar of theology, history, Hebrew studies, and his oratory skills earned him status as an eloquent public speaker. Born in Austria in 1805, his family maintained noble connections to the old Austrian aristocracy. Originally planning on a military career, Weninger’s father dissuaded him, eventually sending him to Vienna to pursue higher education. After completing his studies at the University of Vienna and the Gratz Episcopal Seminary, Weninger was ordained in 1829 and joined the Society of Jesus in 1832. While serving as a confessor in Innsbruck, the 1848 Revolutions in Germany made Europe hostile for Jesuits and Weninger requested missionary work in the United States’ western territories. In 1848, Weninger arrived in New York and started his missionary work in earnest; at the height of anti-Catholicism and Know-Nothing political influence. Simultaneously during this American nativism in the 1850s, Catholicism experienced a brief period of revivalism that consolidated parish communities. What stimulated this revivalism was the mission effect carried out by newly arrived European missionaries, like Weninger.
Francis Xavier Weninger, circa 1860
The country’s dangerous political and social landscape shaped the Catholic position as a crucial component. Disagreements between Republicans and Democrats permeated Weninger’s memoirs as he criticized many political figures. Weninger refused to join political factions, but he did possess more northern sympathies because he condemned slavery. The biggest ideological clash was with Know-Nothingism and in the 1850s, which during the Civil War would also impact Weninger’s view of politicians’ involvement with the conflict.
Despite such prejudices, Father Weninger conducted an extensive and widespread national mission. He quickly gained notoriety as a public speaker, known for his strict adherence to Catholic doctrine and commitment to local communities. As Weninger continued preaching, his crowds become increasingly integrated with white and blacks attendees. He delivered sermons in German, French, and he delivered his first English sermon to a black audience. Weninger’s missions black missions in St. Louis were pivotal in his career. Along with engaging with the small black community, two miracles associated with Peter Claver, a 16th century Jesuit who ministered to slaves occurred in St. Louis, whereby a terminally ill parishioner was healed through a Peter Claver relic. These miracles signaled Weninger that his support of black evangelization practices were the new focus of his ministry. Weninger conducted few missions in southern states, but he still preached to black congregations in cities such as New Orleans and Jackson, including black baptisms. There is no evidence of segregation or any degree of racial discrimination at any of Weninger’s missions.
The foundation for Weninger’s black advocacy stemmed from his analysis of Southern justification for slavery. What he abhorred was the idea of slavery authorized by Christian practice:
‘They [the South] maintained that slavery is authorized by Holy Writ, that God created a portion of the human race to be under subjection, and that masters should control their servants. So thought the extreme radicals party of the South, and to maintain this principle, they seceded from the Union.” (Francis X. Weninger Papers, Jesuit Archives-Central United States, 201)
The religious conviction of the South condoning slavery vexed Weninger. He maintained that emancipation should occur as there was no theological confirmation of slavery’s acceptance.
Simultaneously, racial ideology over slavery perturbed Weninger and made his own observations. Slaves were not lethargic individuals or lacked basic survival skills, nor did he interpret them as children within the paternalistic slavery ideology. Herein lies the key to Weninger’s black advocacy. Freed slaves could secure a basic education and social standing harnessing their skills and intelligence. The disruption of slave marriages through commerce and physical abuse by white slave owners also offended Weninger. Through his interpretation of marriage, physical separation by commercial means did not dissolve marriages. However, since slave owners saw no legality in slave marriages, this willful separation conflicted with the traditional Catholic institution of marriage. Slavery was flawed in both ecclesiastical and racial contexts, making it an unjustifiable institution. If blacks were granted emancipation and received the necessary attention and education, evangelization potential increased and helped establish black parishes. Weninger saw such possibilities and forthcoming events jettisoned his mission work towards the forefront of black evangelization and parish building; the Civil War.
In the next installment, we’ll look at how Weninger conducted missions during the Civil War and how the conflict’s devastation impacted his theological and social outlook.
The mid-19th century witnessed an explosion of revolutionary thought and actions, as well as intense social, sectarian, and racial hatred. Liberal intellectual movement sparked the 1848 Revolutions and in the United States, the question over slavery divided political parties, regions, and communities. The Know-Nothings, the virulent anti-immigrant nationalist organization, pushed back against Roman Catholics, especially the Irish, and violent outbursts became commonplace over religious issues. Following the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction brought additional perils in integrating a multiracial society, while still including the pressures faced by the Catholic Church.
Despite this sectarian turmoil, one Jesuit missionary saw his purpose in evangelizing former slaves in the Midwestern United States. Reverend Father Francis Xavier Weninger S.J., committed his time and energy to the evangelization and communal fulfillment in fostering black parishes in Northern states. From 1848 to 1888, Father Weninger conducted missions and recorded the country’s racial ideology. Weninger tailored his sermons by regional audiences and offered methods on effective assistance for blacks. During this time, he became a prolific author on theological subjects such as papal infallibility, interdenominational marriages, and the sanctity of sacraments. Weninger saw that while the Catholic Church swayed in adhering to a set pattern for evangelizing former slaves, he spearheaded his own goals, one of which was establishing the St. Ann’s Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. Weninger was not only on a mission serving the liberated slaves, but for building a path to national healing.
The following posts will expand upon Weninger’s origins, missions, sermons, social and political convictions, the role of the Catholic Church in Reconstruction, and how former slaves became indoctrinated into the Church. The posts you’ll read soon is a micro history of one Jesuit priest and his solemn mission to heal a bloodied nation through prayer and the word of God.