“Old Port Rockwell”


"Old Port Rockwell has work to do, So he saddles his sorrel and rides away... the waiting wife... shrinks in terror as down the night Comes the wailing of Port's dread war cry, 'Wheat!'" Rockwell's cry means that a wife and children will be orphaned


Burt lists Orrin Porter Rockwell (1813-1878) as a bodyguard to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, but he was evidently a dangerous tough also. He was the most famous of the Sons of Dan, or Danites (see Dale L. Walker, _Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West_, Forge, 1997, p. 209), which also apparently included John D. Lee, the alleged main perpetrator of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (for which see "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" [Laws B19]).

Rockwell's cry "Wheat!" is reputedly derived from the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30): The wheat was to be kept, the tares (weeds) to be burned.

According to Wallace Stegner, _The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail_, pp. 37-38, "Rockwell had been promised by Joseph [Smith] that no bullet would ever touch him. He wore his hair long in remembrance of that prophecy, and in a long life that his enemies said included upwards of a hundred holy murders (his most scrupulous biographer guesses twenty) the promise held good. He was illiterate, nerveless, tireless, dedicated, an utterly dependable zealot."

Even Fawn M. Brodie, herself a Mormon, calls his appearance "sinister"; see Fawn M. Brodie, _No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith_, 1945, 1971 (I use the 1995 Vintage edition), p. 322

At the time Burt and Stegner wrote, however, there do not appear to have been any really good biographies of Rockwell. The first appears to be Harold Schindler, _Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God/Son of Thunder_ (with illustrations by Dale Bryner), University of Utah Press, 1966, 1983 (I use the 1993 paperback edition).

Little is known of Rockwell's early life, except what is found in church and other official records; he was born in 1813 in Belcher, Massachusetts, the second of nine children. At the age of ten, he broke a leg, and the doctor who set it did a poor job, leaving him with a lifelong limp (something he shared with his idol Joseph Smith) Early in life, his family moved close to the home of Smith, and he seems to have fallen under the Prophet's spell even while Smith was compiling the Book of Mormon, working in the fields to help the Prophet's work. Apparently the first record of him as an individual is as a rambunctious youth of 17, in 1831, as he is found running off his energy on a boat on the Erie Canal. He was already a Mormon at this very early date -- indeed, he was one of the first converts, and helped to bring his mother into the fold (Schindler, pp. 2-6).

Rockwell was one of the Mormons who moved to the colony in Independence, Missouri, where he married his first wife Luana Beebe in 1832 -- "the first Mormon wedding in Jackson County" (Schindler, p. 8). He came to work as a ferryman, which finally closed off any possibility of schooling; Rockwell never did learn to read or write (Schindler, p. 9). According to Schindler, pp. 10-11, it was Rockwell and his father who ferried the toughs who perpetrated the first assault on the Missouri Mormon colony. It was this that brought the state's Lieutenant Governor, Lilburn W. Boggs, to the area, where he made it clear that he wanted the church destroyed. The Mormons promised to get out, then sought relief from the courts -- and found themselves under even more severe assault.

The Missouri brutality was personal to Rockwell -- his brother-in-law and a neighbor were beaten in one of the assaults (Schindler, p. 15). A later attack destroyed, among others, the homes of Rockwell and his father (Schindler, pp. 16-17). The Mormons scattered to other parts of the state; Rockwell ended up in the Mormon Community of Far West in 1838; his wife had borne him two daughters, Emily and Caroline, in the interim (Schindler, pp. 23-24).

It was in this context that the Sons of Dan were formed. After some experimentation, they settled on their name based on Genesis 49;17, which calls Dan a serpent in the road that bites at horses' heels. It is also noteworthy that the name "Dan" means "judge" -- though that is not evident from the King James Bible, and there seems to have been no one in the Mormon church with the Biblical learning to realize that (had there been, someone would surely have told Joseph Smith of the fact that the Greek and Hebrew, unlike the King James Bible, are not full of archaisms; they were in the ordinary language of the times they were written. Maybe that someone would also have told him that Hebrew is an actual language, not something in which one could arbitrarily make up words).

Little is really known of the Danites; it's not even clear whether Joseph Smith was aware of their founding (Schindler, p. 32). It is known that, contrary to legend, Rockwell was not their chief (Schindler, p. 33). But we have testimony that they were sworn to work for the "utter destruction of apostates" and to keep the group's secrets at all costs (Schindler, p. 36).

Meanwhile, the war in Missouri was just getting hotter as the Mormons began to fight back seriously. Bands of Danites were important to this process. It is thought that Rockwell may have fought his first battle in a raid on the Crooked River, though we cannot be certain he was present (Schindler, pp. 45-46).

Lilburn Boggs [this is the spelling used in most histories; the _Dictionary of American Biography_ prefers "Lillburn"] made anti-Mormonism one of his key issues, and rode it to the Missouri governorship in 1836. In 1838, he issued an "Extermination Order" against the Mormons (see Bernard DeVoto, in _The Year of Decision: 1846_, Little, Brown and Company, 1943, p. 83; Schindler, p. 49, prints the order and notes that it was not rescinded until 1976!). We know that Rockwell was prepared to fight the battle which followed the Boggs order (Schindler, p. 52), but Joseph Smith decided to yield in Missouri.

Smith ended up in prison, where Rockwell visited him regularly (Schindler, p. 56). After that, Smith, Rockwell, and most other Mormons headed for Illinois.

Rockwell's father died in 1839, but Rockwell the Younger -- whose wife bore a son around this time -- was clearly becoming an important figure in the Church; when Smith sent a petition for relief to Martin van Buren (which the president rejected as politically inexpedient), Rockwell was one of those sent to convey it. It sounds as if his real role was bodyguard (Schindler, p. 59), but still, he was clearly a trusted bodyguard.

His looks probably contributed. By this time, he worse his beard long and his hair longer -- well below his shoulders; he really did have the look of an Old Testament prophet. The one problem with the image was his voice, which went into the falsetto when he became worked up. Schindler, p. 61, reports that he tried very hard to control his emotions as a result.

In 1842, with his fourth child about to be born, Rockwell headed back to Missouri to be with his wife wife and her parents. He was well enough known by now that he chose to use the pseudonym "Brown" rather than his own name (Schindler, p. 66).

Of course, returning to Missouri also brought him back into the state of Lilburn Boggs.

In 1842, someone attempted to kill Boggs by shooting through his window (Walker, pp. 207-208). If the murderer didn't manage to kill him, it wasn't for lack of trying; he had a heavy pistol loaded with buckshot, and fired it through Boggs's window. Boggs suffered four wounds, the worst being to his head and neck; he was thought to be doomed, and it was considered miraculous that his six-year-old daughter, who was in the room at the time, was not injured (Schindler, pp. 67-70). Boggs gradually recovered, but left Missouri in 1846 to settle in California.

Rockwell, who had been in Missouri for only a few months, was quickly credited with the assassination attempt, though no absolute proof was offered at the time. Indeed, Schindler is not entirely sure Rockwell committed the crime, though he cites strong evidence for it (p. 73). Brodie, pp. 323-324, notes only two points of evidence: That Rockwell had briefly visited Missouri at the time, and that Rockwell seemed to come into some money after his return -- and Smith had offered $500 for anyone who killed Boggs. But she also notes that Rockwell's improved circumstances seemed to be derived from the work he did for Smith, not from any payment for the attack on Boggs. Will Bagley, _Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young an the Massacre at Mountain Meadows_, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002, p. 13, is certain Rockwell did it, though he admits in the footnote that he couldn't prove it at law.

As a result of the attempted murder, a newsman dubbed Rockwell "The Destroying Angel." Rockwell later threatened the writer John Cook Bennett for the charges published against him (Schindler, p. 72) -- though much of Bennett's information in fact came from Boggs, who swore to an affidavit charging Smith with being an accessory to murder (Brodie, p. 324)

The Nauvoo authorities (in effect, Smith) ignored the charge against Rockwell (and against Smith himself), refusing to extradite them to Missouri (Schindler, pp. 74-76). Eventually Rockwell ended up with a price of $3000 on his head. Although he remained free, he was unable to find employment in the world outside the church, and spend some time wandering around the Midwest; his wife left him at this time (Schindler, p. 79). Eventually the Illinois authorities tossed out the warrant against Smith -- but Rockwell was apprehended (Schindler, p. 82). The trip back to Missouri had comic aspects; the driver was so drunk that he twice cracked up the stage, and Rockwell, with his knowledge of horses and carts, twice had to repair and rescue the vehicle (Schindler, pp. 84-85). He was imprisoned in dreadful conditions while awaiting trial (Schindler, pp. 85-87), attempted an escape which failed mostly because his companion was too slow (Schindler, pp. 88-89) -- and, upon his recapture, was shackled so tightly that he could not even stand up straight (Schindler, p. 90).

Ironically, Rockwell was eventually cleared of the murder charge, but was forced to stay in prison because he had attempted to escape (Schindler, p. 95). After much more maneuvering, an apparent attempt to kill Rockwell, and most of a year in prison, he finally came to trial. The case finally went to the jury, which sentenced him to "five minutes in the county jail" (Schindler, p. 99). After a few hours of last-minute attempts to file new charges, Rockwell went free. Of course, he was still stuck in Missouri, and vigilantes were after him. Broke, and with his shoes in tatters, he had to walk most of the way to Nauvoo (Schindler, pp. 100-101). This was considered to fulfill one of Smith's visions, though if God were really watching over Rockwell, I'd have to say, that should have included taking care of his badly injured feet....

When Rockwell arrived in Nauvoo, he went to visit a party being held by Smith. And it was there that Smith made his prophecy: "you -- Orrin Porter Rockwell -- so long as ye remain loyal and true to thy faith, need fear no enemy. Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee!" (Schindler, p. 102, who notes the obvious similarity to the tale of Samson -- who, in the Book of Judges, had superhuman strength and avoided capture and death until his hair was shaved).

The prophecy would come to inspire its own folklore; Schindler, p. 351 n. 52, tells two well-known stories about Rockwell which he understandably does not believe. In one, he put a gang of desperadoes to flight and then shook himself, to have several bullets fall out of his coat. According to the other, a man stuck a pistol in his face -- and Rockwell calmly asked if he would try to fire a pistol without a firing cap. While the other hesitated and glanced at the weapon, Rockwell shot him.

For a brief time, Rockwell served as a bartender in Smith's large hotel -- until Smith's wife Emmy convinced the prophet that the head of a church shouldn't himself be serving liquor (Schindler, pp. 103-104). Smith then started a police force of sorts. Or perhaps we should call it a secret police (Schindler, pp. 105-108).

Rockwell's first unquestionably criminal act came as a member of this force. Joseph Smith's authoritarian rule of the Mormon Church led to the founding of a sort of opposition newspaper, the _Nauvoo Expositor_. Among other things, it carefully documented Mormon polygamy (see Brodie, pp. 374-375). Smith determined to suppress it, taking a posse to the offices, where the press was destroyed, the type pied, and the whole office burned (Brodie, p. 377). Rockwell was one of those involved in the destruction, reportedly kicking in the office door (Schindler, p. 116).

The affair was to prove a fatal mistake; Smith ended up in prison in Carthage, Illinois, where he was lynched (Brodie, pp. 382-395).

Rockwell had a curious part in this final tragedy. When Smith realized the Illinois authorities were coming for him, he decided to flee west, leaving his senior wife Emma and the entire Mormon colony behind to suffer the rage of the citizens of Illinois. Rockwell was one of the handful he took with him as a guide, and it was Rockwell who was to get them across the Mississippi. But before Smith left the western shore of the river, Rockwell was sent back to the Illinois side -- and brought back word of the fears of the people of Nauvoo. Smith relented and returned to his martyrdom (Brodie, pp. 384-386; Schindler, pp. 119-121). Rockwell was curiously passive in this, accepting whatever Smith decided -- but did not accompany Smith to Carthage, and so survived even though, in terms of raw violence, he was surely as guilty as the prophet. This was apparently at Smith's command; he wanted Rockwell in Nauvoo to rescue him if need be (Schindler, p. 121). Obviously that didn't work out.

Rockwell did end up being arrested not long after, but immediately escaped (Schindler, p. 136), His first unquestioned killing came soon after this: Lieutenant Frank Worrell, one of those who took part in the capture and killing of Smith, pursued Rockwell and a companion, and was fatally shot during the pursuit (Schindler, pp. 138-139).

Schindler notes that the death of Smith turned Rockwell "aggressive, even belligerent"; he went so far as to appropriate the wife of fellow Mormon Amos Davis at gunpoint (Schindler, pp. 142-143). This at least technically made him guilty of bigamy (polygamy being of course normal Mormon practice at the time), but his first wife, as we know, was no longer with him (Schindler, p. 145). Curiously, I found no mention of the former Mrs. Davis in Schindler's pages after this; she seems to disappear the moment he had won her favors.

When the Mormons began their exodus to Utah (for which see, e.g., "Brigham Young"), Rockwell was given the important task of carrying messages between those already on their way and those who had not yet departed; the logic seems to have been that he would be hard to stop along the way (Schindler, p. 146). Eventually he was captured by Gentiles in Nauvoo -- and found to have so many guns that he could have fired 71 rounds without having to reload (Schindler, p. 147).

Schindler, p. 148, describes this as a sort of publicity stunt. With Rockwell on trial, attention would be shifted away from the rest of the Mormons. The trial was moved to a neutral county, and there were no witnesses against Rockwell (Stegner, p. 90, though he seems to think Rockwell intimidated the witnesses while Schindler gives him a more complex defence). Rockwell went free. He then became one of the pioneers Brigham Young brought along to search for the site of the New Zion (Schindler, pp. 152-153). Rockwell did much hunting and scouting on this trip. When Young selected the site of Salt Lake City, Rockwell was chosen to accompany and protect Ezra T. Benson when the latter was sent to lead the remainder of the Mormon exodus (Schindler, p. 167).

Salt Lake City, of course, was barren, and the Mormons arrived with very little. It was a desperate time. Eventually, an expedition was sent to California to try to purchase much-needed supplies, with Rockwell along as a scout. The planning for this expedition was utterly botched (Schindler, p. 171), and in the end it wasted a lot of money without bringing in much in the way of food. Rockwell, before it was over, had parted company with the commander of the expedition (Schindler, p. 172).

Rockwell soon after went on another expedition to California, to collect tithes from Mormons there (Schindler, pp. 184-185). Rockwell, left on his own while the financial types did their work, apparently tried panning for gold, then brought in whisky for a saloon (Schindler, pp. 186-187). He also won a rifle contest, which resulted in his name (which he had concealed) being revealed (Schindler, p. 190); he barely avoided lynching. Charges of murder would greet him when he returned to Utah, but of course the Mormon hierarchy supported him.

It supported him also when he led a group to settle a contract dispute, and in the complications which followed, ended up executing four Indians (Schindler, p. 196).

In 1854, Rockwell married Mary Ann Neff, who was about half his age (Schindler, pp. 197, 205). She bore him a daughter in March 1855 (Schindler, p. 217), and another in August 1856 (Schindler, p. 238).

Soon after the birth of that first child came another Samson-like incident: He had, until then, worn his hair very long. On a trip to California, he met the widow of one of Joseph Smith's brothers, who had lost her hair due to illness. Having nothing else to do for her, he cut his hair to make her a wig. From then on, he claimed, he could no longer control his urge to drink and swear (Schindler, p. 220). Of course, he soon grew his hair out again.

Despite his reputation in the Boggs affair, Rockwell's career to this point had been relatively tame. But "as the year 1855 came to a close, Rockwell, now a man of forty-two, was entering the most exciting period of his checkered career -- a time when his name would become synonymous with the mysteries and terrors of Mormonism described in the dime novels of the day" (Schindler, p. 223). Though it appears that, at first, he was more sinned against than sinning. He was nearly lynched while carrying the mail between the Mormon colony and the rest of the United States (Schindler, p. 240).

That didn't last long; the Utah War soon followed, in which the United States tried to guarantee its control over the independence-minded Mormons. The Mormons were sadly deficient in trained military officers; theoretically their forces were commanded by a Lieutenant General (a typical piece of Joseph Smith fiction; he had appointed himself to that rank because it would make him senior to every officer in the United States Army), but their actual forces would have been more suitable to a brigadier -- if they'd had anyone competent even to that office (Schindler, p. 293, quotes Captain Albert Tracy, who observed their formations: "They little seemed to know or heed the modern system of deploying of skirmishing.... [T]he 'corrals' of rock which they had erected... would have been knocked about their ears, and rendered untenable in but a brief time...").

In such a setting, it is little surprise that Rockwell, though he had never commanded troops, was given command of a cavalry company (Schindler, p. 251); he may have been illiterate, impetuous, and not particularly bright, but he was a survivor and knew both horses and weapons.

"Selecting five reliable men, Rockwell set out on the first Mormon action against the United States government" (Schindler, p. 255). He started a panic among the expeditionary force's transport mules -- only to have the mules head back for the Federal lines when the soldiers sounded the Stable Call. To add to the embarrassment, the Mormon's own horses proceeded to follow the Federal mules back to camp, leaving the raiders without mounts (Schindler, p. 256). So they slipped into the Federal lines again, and stole horses for themselves -- only to be told on their return that the horses had earlier been stolen by the Federals from the Mormons (Schindler, p. 257).

Rockwell had better luck later; the Mormon plan was for a "scorched earth policy" to deny the Federals any supplies, an Rockwell was one of those involved in clearing the land of any useful material (Schindler, p. 260). He also was involved in additional raids, depriving the Federals of much livestock; late in the year, he would lead over 600 head of cattle into the Mormon ranks (Schindler, p. 264).

This was the period of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (for which see "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" [Laws B19]). Rockwell does not seem to have had any part of it -- but he did participate in the killing of the Aiken party, a group of (apparently) gentile con artists who had hoped to get rich preying off the Federal army (Schindler, p. 276). It will tell you something about relations between the Mormons and Gentiles at this time that Rockwell, an active guerilla and now undeniably a murderer, was still permitted to preach in church (Schindler, p. 283 n.).

He did find himself again under federal charges. A federal judge with a grudge against the Mormons had induced a grand jury to frame treason charges against much of the Mormon community, mostly unnamed -- but Rockwell was one whose name was given explicitly (Schindler, p. 284). Fortunately for him, he was included in the amnesty which ended the Utah War (Schindler, p. 288). During the negotiations which followed, Rockwell continued to serve as scout, sentry, and messenger for Brigham Young; at the beginning of the negotiations, it was Rockwell who escorted the Federal commissioners into the Mormon camp (Schindler, p. 292). As relations improved, Rockwell -- who became the father of a son late in 1858, then another in early 1860 -- began to look for a way to pick up money, and went back to serving liquor (Schindler, p. 294).

Later in 1860, two men engaged in a scheme to produce counterfeit quartermaster's notes which they could use to requisition supplies. Both would end up dead by gunfire. Schindler, pp. 307-308, seems uncertain just what happened -- but it was possible that Rockwell fired the shots.

It is interesting that it is only on p. 309 that Schindler first mentions Rockwell's slogan "Wheat!" The famous explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, who had earlier visited Mecca and who had an interest in non-standard religion, decided to see what he could learn in Salt Lake City. There he met and drank with Rockwell -- and the Mormon said "Wheat!" because he enjoyed the contents of his glass (Schindler, p. 309). Rockwell is also said to have used the phrase "Old wheat in the mill" in referring to an easy task (Schindler, p. 347), and to have said "Wheat!" when discussing a court case with his lawyers -- seemingly to indicate disinterest in the charges against him (Schindler, p. 365).

In this period Rockwell also worked to track criminals. Schindler, p. 317, describes him winning a shootout with one wanted fugitive, and tells (p. 319) how two of the fugitive's colleagues also ended up dead by gunfire, though not shorty until after Rockwell had turned them in.

After the Utah War, Rockwell found success managing a mail-carrying outfit as well as running his inn. Schindler, p. 321, writes, "This brief interlude in Rockwell's otherwise violent existence may have been his most enjoyable era, but destiny did not plan a quiet life for Orrin Porter Rockwell." As early as 1862, he was back to fighting Indians (in this case, the Shoshone); he was one of those who lured them into what proved to be a set-piece battle against United States (Schindler, p. 327 -- though Bagley, pp. 252-253, thinks that Rockwell may have been trying to lure the Federals into an ambush).

The result was a slaughter of the natives known as the Bear Creek Massacre, which resulted in the death of at least 250 Indians. But the Europeans came close to destruction themselves due to the weather; the commanders credited Rockwell with saving them by bringing up enough transport (Schindler, p. 331). Indeed, Rockwell and the federal officer became close friends -- so close that some sources claim Rockwell confessed to him of the attempted murder of Boggs (Schindler, pp. 332-333, though it sounds as if he doesn't believe it). He continued to work with the Federals in their Indian wars in the coming years, but managed to father another daughter on Mary Ann in 1863 (Schindler, p. 335).

The Indian conflicts had, however, resulted in the death of one of Mary Ann's close friends; she insisted on leaving the area, so Rockwell moved back to Salt Lake City, then filed a claim on some ranchlands west of Sheeprock Mountain (Schindler, p. 337).

His fame, or infamy, continued to grow. Newspaper reports at this time credited him with forty or more murders (Schindler, pp. 340-341), though this may have been just an attempt to sell more papers.

In 1866, Mary Ann experienced her sixth pregnancy, dying in childbirth on August 24, with the boy dying soon after (Schindler, p. 344). Rockwell then moved again, the better to hand his contract carrying the mail (Schindler, p. 346. It is not clear to me who was watching the children during all this. Rockwell eventually was involved in a dispute over payment, but his lawyers managed to collect in full; Schindler, p. 360). It appears, though, that he mostly sold alcohol, living as quietly as a man in that occupation can do (though he once threw one of his assistant bartenders through a window; Schindler, p. 355. This brought him up before the law). He did manage to get a stake in a silver mine that became the successful Rockwell Mining Company (Schindler, p. 356).

Through it all, he remained intensely loyal to Brigham Young. When Young was charged in a murder conspiracy, and the court tried to set thing up so that he would be found in contempt for not being in court on time, it was Rockwell who rode a race to inform the Prophet of the trap and hurry him back to the court (Schindler, p. 359).

In his later years, Rockwell turned to ranching (Schindler, pp. 361-362). He also, in 1870 or 1871, took a fourth wife (Schindler, p. 360), his former housekeeper, who was 34 years old (he was 59 at the time). She bore him three girls, though the first died shortly after birth.

As long as Brigham Young was alive, he was never brought to account for his previous activities. After Young died, however, Rockwell was charged with the murder of John Aiken and arrested in 1877. Released on bail, he died of natural causes in 1878 (Schindler, pp. 365-366) -- meaning that Joseph Smith's prophecy came true: No bullet did touch him.

I wish I knew what to make of Rockwell. Schindler's biography is unhelpful -- the only assassination he seriously discusses is that of Boggs, and he nowhere says that Rockwell did it (though he does leave the impression of Rockwell's guilt). Rockwell, it is true, shot at a few others, but all in legitimate circumstances. It is, I suppose, possible that Rockwell never did go after anyone else. But it feels as if Schindler is hiding evidence -- his portrait of Rockwell is just too favorable. Rockwell's reputation was surely exaggerated, but presumably it was based on something.

Schindler, p. 362, lists two ballads about Rockwell: This one, which he knew from Burt [Roud #10880], and one beginning "Have you heard of Porter Rockwell, the Mormon Triggerite?" [Roud #10879]. - RBW


  1. Burt, pp. 114-115, "(Old Port Rockwell)" (1 text)
  2. Roud #10880
  3. BI, Burt114


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1958 (Burt)
Keywords: homicide mother orphan
Found in: US