Porter Rockwell

Orrin Porter Rockwell (June 28, 1813, or June 25, 1815June 9 1878) was a colorful figure of the Wild West period of American History and a law man in the Utah Territory. Nicknamed Old Port and labeled "the Destroying Angel of Mormondom", during his lifetime he was as famous and controversial as Wyatt Earp or Pat Garrett.


Orrin Porter Rockwell was born in Belcher, Hampshire County, Massachusetts to Orin and Sarah Rockwell, and was baptized into the LDS church on 6 June 1830 at Fayette, New York. He married Luana Beebe on 2 February 1832 in Jackson County, Missouri, and was endowed in the Nauvoo Temple on 5 January 1846 A faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he served as a loyal personal bodyguard to both Joseph Smith, Jr. and Brigham Young. Separating fact from legends, folklore and myths concerning Rockwell is difficult for historians, in large part because Rockwell was only semi-literate and kept no personal diary.

He had the distinction of being the subject of a direct prophecy by Joseph Smith. After spending about eight months in jail, a filthy and emaciated Rockwell traveled to Nauvoo, where he crashed a Christmas party at Joseph Smith's home. When his identity was confirmed, Smith was moved to say, "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." The promise echoes that given by an angel to the parents of the Biblical Samson.

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.)

On the other hand, he was reputed to have killed many men as a gunfighter, as a religious enforcer, and Deputy United States Marshal. It is said that Porter once told a crowd listening to United States Vice President Schuyler Colfax in 1869, "I never killed anyone who didn't need killing." Rockwell was accused of attempting the assassination of Lilburn Boggs, the former governor of Missouri, who was notorious for signing an executive order on October 27, 1838 known as the "Extermination Order 44" in Latter Day Saint history. The order was governor's response to the 1838 Mormon War and to what Boggs termed "open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State... 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." The order was not formally rescinded until 1976.

Rockwell was in Missouri at the time of the assassination attempt and arrested for it, a grand jury was unable to find sufficient evidence to indict him, convinced in part by his reputation as a deadly gunman and his statement that he "never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot!... He's still alive, ain't he?" Rockwell denied involvement in oblique terms, stating that he had "done nothing criminal". Some Mormons saw the assassination attempt positively: An anonymous contributor to The Wasp, a pro-Mormon newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois, wrote on May 28 that "Boggs is undoubtedly killed according to report; but who did the noble deed remains to be found out."

Also at about this time, John C. Bennett reported that Smith had offered a cash reward to anyone who would assassinate Boggs, and that Smith had admitted to him that Rockwell had done the deed. He went on to say that Rockwell had made a veiled threat against Bennett's life if he publicised the story. Mormon writer Monte B. McLaws, writing in the Missouri Historical Review, averred that while there was no clear finger pointing to anyone, Governor Boggs was running for election against several violent men, all capable of the deed. He also noted that Rockwell may have had cause, but that otherwise there was no particular reason to suspect him of the crime. Harold Schindler, Rockwell's most noted biographer,a journalist who was noted for separating fact from fiction, did not share Bennetts opinion, either. Rockwell was reportedly a leader together with Ephe Hanks and Bill Hickman of the Danites, a Mormon vigilante group sworn to exact blood vengeance. Stewart Durham writes, "The most notorious Danite was Orrin Porter Rockwell, the so-called Destroying Angel, who served occasionally as bodyguard for Joseph Smith ... and for Brigham Young. Though he was never convicted, Rockwell was implicated in several murders, including the decapitation, in Utah in 1850, of a Missourian who was said to be a member of the mob that killed Joseph Smith". (Durham, 331-332)

It was Porter's membership in the Danites that attracted the explorer Richard Francis Burton to him. In 1860, on his trip across America to the west coast, Burton stopped to explore Salt Lake City and its environs. He stayed with Bishop Lysander Dayton (from Ohio) in a village near the city one evening and Dayton invited Porter Rockwell to dinner. Porter sent for a bottle of Valley Tan Whiskey and he and Burton drank shot for shot into the night with Porter outlining steps that Burton should take for safety during his passage to Sacramento. Porter advised Burton to carry a loaded double-barreled shotgun, sleep in a "dark camp" (unlit, miles from where supper was cooked), to never trust appearances, and to avoid the main trail, where "White Indians" (so-called because they were white robbers who disguised themselves as Indians to pass off blame) preyed on travelers. Born in Belchertown, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, Rockwell died in Salt Lake City, Utah of natural causes.

He was brave & loyal to his faith,
true to the prophet Jos. Smith,
a promise made him by the
prophet thro. obedience it was
— Orrin Porter Rockwell's epitaph


With the exception of the 1994 bomb Rockwell: A Legend of the Wild West (starring NBA MVP Karl Malone), Hollywood has neglected to produce any feature film about Rockwell, though he appears as a character in two films: John Carradine plays him in the 1940 20th Century-Fox film, Brigham Young (also starring Dean Jagger in the title role and Vincent Price as Joseph Smith) and James Coburn plays him in the 1995 TNT TV-movie The Avenging Angel (starring Tom Berenger as Miles Utley/Bill Hickman and Charlton Heston as Brigham Young).


There is a modern day restaurant in Lehi, Utah named for Rockwell called Porter's Place. The edifice was built in 1915 and the restaurant contains a clock from the Hotel Utah ca. 1912. On the menu is the Destroying Angel, a one-pound burger.

Porter 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.

Further reading

  • Dewey, Richard Lloyd Dewey. Porter Rockwell: A Biography. Paramount Books, 1986, Hardcover: 2nd edition, 1988. ISBN 0-9616024-0-6
  • Durham, Stewart. The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America. Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1990. ISBN 1-55670-105-5
  • McLaws, Monte B. “The Attempted Assassination of Missouri’s Ex-Governor, Lilburn W. Boggs,” Missouri Historical Review, 60.1 (October 1965): 59.
  • Schindler, Harold. Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder. University of Utah Press, 1966: Paperback, 1993. ISBN 0-87480-440-X


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