Orin Porter Rockwell spent his life as a servant to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the 1800s. Rockwell was born in New York in the same area as Joseph Smith and would be the youngest person baptized into the church at the age of 16.
Rockwell dedicated his time to aiding Joseph Smith in any way that he could while Smith translated the golden plates. This would be the beginning of lives intertwined.
Rockwell would marry young at the age of 18 and would eventually follow the mass migration of Mormons to Jackson County, Missouri, where he would spend most of his time as the personal bodyguard of Smith.
He would earn a reputation as quite the gunslinger and would be known for his marksmanship. He was not afraid to serve those around him with a quick tongue and a crack shot. Rockwell was even credited with coining the famous phrase later used by John Wayne many years later, “I never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.” That quote and its attribution to Rockwell would be the premise of one of the largest issues in his life.
Lilburn Boggs, acting governor of Missouri during the height of the Mormon migration across the continent and enemy of the members, would end up shot in his study while reading a newspaper. The shot was taken by a skilled marksman and would hit Boggs through his window. Although the wound would be severe, it would not be enough to kill Boggs and would begin the manhunt for the perpetrator.
Because of Rockwell’s known disgust for Boggs and his ability with a rifle, he would be suspect number one during the investigation. The grand jury would be called in order to try and indict Rockwell, but the jury would decide that there was not enough evidence to go forward with the case at this point in time.
It would be announced that the reason for no-true-bill would be the fact that Boggs survived the assassination attempt. Rockwell was known for his skill with a firearm and would be supported by fellow members of the church including Smith who would be quoted as saying, “He’s still alive, isn’t he?” in reference to Boggs, suggesting that if Rockwell would have taken the shot, Boggs would have been easily dispatched.
Rockwell had also been quoted saying something similar, he stated, “never shot anybody, if I shoot, they get shot!” It would be these sure statements that would eventually spring Rockwell from jail, where he spent eight months in lockup awaiting trial.
It is claimed that it was Christmas Day that Rockwell was released from jail and he would appear at the Smith home unannounced but would be welcomed with open arms. Rockwell would serve the Smith family until Joseph passed away, at which point he would decide it was time for him to traverse the journey to Zion and would meet up with Brigham Young in the Salt Lake Valley.
Rockwell was known for his ability to move across the frontier, and was told that his dedication to his people and his God would pay dividends. Among the dividends were claims that he was told that he would never need to shave ever again or trim him hair because he would be accepted into heaven regardless of how he appeared. Rockwell would never shave again, but he would cut his hair when a family member that was suffering from typhoid fever was losing her hair. He offered his hair as a wig to her.
Rockwell would serve as a law man in the Utah Territory before opening a hot springs and brewery near the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley. Rockwell would live the remainder of his life in the Utah valley where he was thought to be protected by the divine, a rumor started when they were in Jackson County, Missouri.
Rockwell was known for giving special information to those who were traveling further west to Sacramento including Richard Burton, who Rockwell instructed to avoid the main trail ways and to camp away from where he cooks his meals in order to avoid being robbed on the trail by the “white Indians.”
The white Indians were white men who dressed as native Americans in order to try and confuse those who they robbed on the trails into thinking that it was a raid party from a local tribe. It became common practice for robbers to try and rob those who are working their way across the territory to the west coast.
Rockwell passed away in 1878 and was laid to rest in the Salt Lake City Cemetery where his gravestone reads, “He was brave and loyal to his faith. True to the Prophet Joseph Smith. A promise made him by the prophet. Through obedience, it was fulfilled.”
Later, President Joseph F. Smith, nephew of Joseph Smith, and apostle at the time of the speech, noted that despite the actions that Rockwell took up to and including potential murder, he was acting with faith and belief in his heart and in the direction of protecting the church and because of that he will be rewarded in death with an invitation into heaven.
“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.”
The legacy of Porter Rockwell continues into present day storytelling. Movies have been made since the mid-1900s with different actors portraying Rockwell and different parts of his life being explored and reproduced on the silver screen. Although it is safe to assume that some liberties were taken in the name of entertainment, it rings true that Rockwell was a man that paved the way for future frontiersman such as Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill. He was known for fearing nothing and being loyal to a fault — Porter Rockwell was a historical phenomena that continues to leave more questions than answers from all the historical documents written in that time.