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Porter Rockwell

Porter Rockwell: Bodyguard to the Prophet

A Legend of Utah & LDS History

 

Porter Rockwell was born on June 28th, 1813, in Belcher, Hampshire County, Massachusetts. He was baptized at the age of 16 in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fayette, New York, when the church was only two months old, making him and his mother some of the very first members of the church.

 

About eight years later in 1838 the governor of Missouri forced all church members to leave the state by issuing the “Extermination Order” which allowed others to kill all of the Missouri Mormons. Porter did what he could to help the fleeing members of the church, but life was very difficult then. Four years later in 1842 someone attempted to kill that same governor, Lilburn Boggs, and Porter Rockwell was put in prison for nine months in very harsh conditions as a suspect for that crime, but without any conviction or trial. He was finally released because there was no evidence against him. He made comments such as: “if I shot Boggs, they have got to prove it. I never did an act I was ashamed of, and I do not fear to go anywhere that I have ever been. I’ve done nothing criminal!”1 He also said that he “never shot AT anybody, if I shoot they get shot!... He's still alive, ain't he?”2

 

After being released from prison, Porter went to Nauvoo to the home of his friend, Joseph Smith. He arrived in a very weak, poor condition at a time when a Christmas party was being held in the Smiths’ home. Upon recognizing his friend, Joseph Smith stated “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.”2 Joseph Smith wrote the next day, “I rejoiced that Rockwell had returned from the clutches of Missouri, and that God had delivered him out of their hands.”3

 

Porter Rockwell served as a bodyguard for Joseph Smith, which means he had the assignment to protect Joseph Smith from the people who wanted to kill him. He was a very good aim and protected Joseph Smith on many occasions. When Porter was away on another assignment, Joseph Smith was killed by an armed mob in 1844. Government leaders had promised to protect Joseph Smith but failed. When Porter learned of this, he found the son of Joseph Smith and said, “They have killed the only friend I have ever had” and wept like a young boy.

 

Porter served his community as a deputy sheriff. There was a time when the county sheriff, who was friendly towards the Mormons, was being chased by a mob trying to kill him. As he was running away, the sheriff saw Porter Rockwell and asked for his protection. Porter raised his gun and aimed from a very far distance. The bullet hit the leader of the mob and killed him, making the rest of the mob leave. After the sheriff thanked Porter for saving his life, Porter humbly replied, “I was afraid my rifle couldn’t reach him, but it did, thank God. I aimed for his belt buckle.”1 Later it was discovered that this mob leader was Frank A. Worrell, the same man in charge of protecting Joseph Smith when he was killed.

 

Porter Rockwell also served as a bodyguard to the next prophet, Brigham Young, and helped to guide him and the first pioneers across the plains in 1847 to the Salt Lake Valley. During the journey Porter wanted to demonstrate to the pioneers that a buffalo can’t be killed by shooting its forehead. He found a buffalo, shot it in the forehead, and sure enough, the buffalo just ran away. Some of the other men in the group followed after the buffalo and discovered that the bullet had just flattened against the buffalo’s thick skull.

 

After arriving in the Salt Lake valley, Porter served as the deputy marshal for the state of Deseret, a region larger than the state of Utah. There is a story of a horse thief that stole one of the best horses in the valley. After Porter found the thief on the horse, the thief pointed his gun right at Porter. Porter was faster, though, killing him first. A reward of gold was offered by the horse’s owner, but Porter refused the reward, seeing he was in the line of duty. Porter also served his country as a territorial guide for US soldiers who handled the mail during Civil War times to help protect them against the Indians.

 

In 1857 the President of the United States, James Buchanan, thought there was a “Mormon rebellion” against the United States, so he ordered an army to come to Utah to fight against them and to replace Brigham Young as governor. There wasn't any rebellion, though, so Brigham Young ordered Porter Rockwell to slow them down without killing any soldiers. Porter succeeded by visiting the government camps at night, silently tapping pins out of their wagon wheels, and scattering their horses. In 1858 the conflict ended when they found out the Mormons are loyal to the government, and Brigham Young accepted President Buchanan’s apology for this invasion.

 

Porter Rockwell’s fame spread throughout the West. Indians feared him, saying that it was impossible to kill him. Cowboys and outlaws sang songs about him around campfires, and some people would travel hundreds of miles to try to kill him.3

Once an outlaw found Porter Rockwell and told him “Rockwell, I come all the way from California just to kill you!” Porter calmly replied, “Cain't shoot me without a cap on yer gun.” He had the kind of gun that required a cap and ball to shoot. “The outlaw was petrified.  He'd rode all the way from California, after all, and hadn't checked the cap.  He decided he'd better have one last quick look.  No sooner did he shift his eyes from his target to his pistol, then Porter drew his pistol and blew him clean off his horse.”4

 

Even though there were many attempts on his life, the prophecy of Joseph Smith came true: no bullet or blade ever harmed Porter Rockwell. He died of natural causes at the age of 65 on June 9th, 1878, disappointing many outlaws who wanted to kill him. He is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

 

Unfortunately, Porter didn’t know how to read or write very well so he didn’t keep a journal. This makes it very hard for historians to know which parts of his history are true and which parts are not. However, he was an intimidating figure with unswerving loyalty and a true friend to Joseph Smith. It is said that at the time of his death he was as well known in the West as Brigham Young himself.

 

 

Porter Rockwell: A Utah Legend

 

Be sure to also read this story from the Friend magazine:

Lawrence Cummins, “Orrin Porter Rockwell,” Friend, May 1984, 42

 

 

 

Bibliography

  1. "Orrin Porter Rockwell"  http://www.historymormon.com/porterrockwell.php
  2. "Porter Rockwell" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porter_Rockwell
  3. "Orrin Porter Rockwell: A Brief Insight" http://www.mormonapologetics.org/index.php?showtopic=6272&pid=156396&mode=threaded&show=&st=0
  4. "Orrin Porter Rockwell" http://www.geocities.com/cbellnt/rockwell.html

 

This article is a summary based on information from the above references and also the following articles:

"Orrin Porter Rockwell" http://www.onlineutah.com/historyrockwell.shtml

"Orrin Porter Rockwell" http://www.media.utah.edu/UHE/r/ROCKWELL%2CORIN.html

It appears that the vast majority of the information contained in these articles originated from the same resource:  Harold Schindler, Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder (1966; second edition 1983)

 

Orrin Porter Rockwell’s Burial Site:

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=3463

Salt Lake City Cemetery

200 N Street
Salt Lake
City, Utah  84103

Plot: 280 N, Plot 5

 

Photograph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OPRockwell.png

 

 
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