Porter Rockwell

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Mormon Porter Rockwell

Orrin Porter Rockwell was a colorful personality in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rockwell was around age seven when Joseph Smith experienced his First Vision, and lived nearby. He became Joseph Smith's protector as they matured together. He was the bodyguard of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Conflicting dates are given for Rockwell's birth, which was in June of 1813 or 1815, in Hampshire County, Massachusetts. Joseph Smith was born in December, 1805. Rockwell's colorful history begins in New York, but he went west with the Latter-day Saints after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and became a lawman in Utah Territory, nicknamed Old Port, and Avenging Angel. During his lifetime he was as famous and controversial as Wyatt Earp or Pat Garrett.

Rockwell was baptized into the Mormon Church the very day the Church was organized, April 6, 1830. He married Luana Beebe on February 2, 1832, in Jackson County, Missouri, and was endowed in the Nauvoo Temple on January 5, 1846. Rockwell kept no personal diary, so it has been the work of others to construct his story and undertake the difficult task of separating fact from legend.

When there was an assassination attempt against Lilburn W. Boggs, the governor of Missouri who had issued an Extermination Order against the Latter-day Saints, Boggs accused Rockwell, although the attacker was never seen. Rockwell was imprisoned for eight months during trial, showing up in Nauvoo after his release. At that time, Joseph Smith promised him that if he remained faithful and never cut his hair, no bullet or blade would ever harm him. This prophecy was fulfilled.

"Rockwell was a character of contrasts. On one hand he was said to be generous to a fault, even to strangers. For example, upon hearing of a widow who was balding from typhoid fever, he gave up his famous long hair to make the woman a wig. (The recipient of the hair was Agnes Coolbrith Smith Pickett, widow of Joseph Smith's brother Don Carlos, and mother of Ina Coolbrith, who grew up to be Poet Laureate of California.)"[1]

On the other hand, Rockwell was a heavy drinker and a gunfighter, who surely killed men during his stint as a Deputy United States Marshall. Although legend calls him a religious enforcer, there is no record of him having used his gun as an enforcer for the Church. At his trial for attempting to kill Governor Boggs, Rockwell claimed that the fact the assassination failed was proof that he didn't do it. If he meant to shoot someone, that person would be shot.

During the persecutions in Missouri, a group was formed among the Mormons without the approval of Joseph Smith, called the Danites. The Danites desired to take up arms to defend the Saints, and Rockwell was supposed to be a leader among them.

When in Utah, Rockwell operated the Hot Springs Hotel and Brewery at the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley, in an area known as "Point of the Mountain." The former site of the hotel is now on the grounds of a state prison. A nearby stone marker commemorates the spot (Mary Ann Neff Rockwell Biography). It may seem strange that Rockwell ran a brewery, seeing that the Mormon dietary law, the Word of Wisdom proscribes the use of liquor, but when first given, the Word of Wisdom was counsel. It was made a commandment under Brigham Young with the approval of the Church.

Rockwell died in June, 1878, of heart failure. His daughter helped prepare his body for burial and found bullet holes in his vest, but no bullet injuries to his body.

A new book, by John W. Rockwell and Jerry Borrowman, called Stories from the Life of Porter Rockwell seeks to separate fact from myth. (Covenant Communications, Inc., 2010, Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-60861-005-1.) The video below is a conversation between the co-authors.