Ask Us: Top Five Reference Questions about Orrin Porter Rockwell

by Emily Marie Crumpton, Brian Passantino, and Jeffrey Tucker, Church History Library
29 June 2021

We receive many questions about Orrin Porter Rockwell, an early Church member with a colorful history. Learn the answers to the most frequently asked questions here.

The Consultation Services team receives many questions about Orrin Porter Rockwell (June 25, 1813–June 9, 1878), an early Church member variably known as “Porter,” “Old Port,” “the Destroying Angel,” and several other monikers both respectful and derisive. He was an early Church convert, a five-time missionary, a member of Brigham Young's 1847 vanguard company to the Salt Lake Valley, a mail carrier, a peace officer, a US Marshal, a hotelier, a brewer, and a high priest. His larger-than-life Wild West persona has become part of Church folklore: Did he really try to break Joseph Smith out of Liberty Jail?1 Was he truly the first Latter-day Saint to hunt bison on the Great Plains?Would he actually yell “Wheat!” when charging into a fight?3

Many of these stories are difficult to verify, as Porter left few personal records; he could barely read, and he certainly couldn’t write. (For example, a letter in the Church History Catalog attributed to Rockwell was actually dictated to a scribe.) Thus, most stories about Porter are, at best, second-hand accounts, and Porter’s biographers often rely on oral traditions and folklore. Nevertheless, these stories—even the outlandish ones, as many stories about Porter are—can provide valuable insight into what life was like for an early Church member, especially one who dealt with the violence of Missouri, the grueling trek westward, and the harsh reality of pioneer life on the Utah frontier. This, of course, in addition to giving us a glimpse into the life of an incredibly interesting and idiosyncratic Latter-day Saint.

Here are the top five reference questions that the Consultation Services team receives about Orrin Porter Rockwell:

1. What was the relationship between Orrin Porter Rockwell and Joseph Smith? Was Rockwell a (friend/bodyguard/etc.) to Smith?

Porter was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830—the same day the Church was officially organized in New York.4 However, Porter and Joseph had known each other long before then. The farms owned by the Porters and the Smiths near Palmyra, New York, were only about a mile away from each other, and the two families were on friendly terms.5 Joseph was seven and a half years older than Porter.

As he grew older, Porter stayed close to Joseph as the Saints moved through Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, acting as Joseph’s protector. For example, when Joseph was imprisoned with other early Church leaders in Liberty Jail, Porter did his best to care for them, bringing food and water.6

A young Orrin Porter Rockwell, date unknown (PH 5962).

Even as persecution against the Saints increasingly kept Porter and Joseph separated for long periods of time, the two men remained close friends. For example, in 1842 former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs was the victim of an assassination attempt, and Porter was arrested for the crime.7 He would ultimately spend nearly a year in jail without a conviction for the assault (see question #3 below). When he was finally released from custody, Porter had a harrowing journey back to Nauvoo, walking and riding hundreds of miles through the Midwest countryside while dodging vigilantes. Arriving on Christmas Day road-worn and bedraggled, Porter went straight to the Mansion House, where the Smith family was celebrating Christmas with the community. Joseph recorded that “during the festivities, a man apparently drunk, with his hair long & falling over his shoulders, came in and acted like a Missour[i]an. I commanded the capt of the police to put him out of doors in the scuffle. I lookd him full in the face and, to my gr[e]at supprize and Joy untold, I discove[re]d it was orren [Orrin] Porter Rockwell.”8

Those last months of the prophet’s life were increasingly harried, and Porter did his best to stay by his friend’s side. When Joseph fled Nauvoo across the Mississippi River to escape his arrest and extradition to Carthage Jail, Porter rowed the leaky boat while Joseph and Hyrum bailed out water. Later, when the brothers discussed returning to Nauvoo—and facing Joseph’s inevitable arrest—Porter replied, “As you make your bed I will lay with you.”9 Accordingly, when Joseph decided to give himself up to the authorities, Porter rowed the brothers back, then accompanied them on the road to Carthage. Halfway there, Joseph told Porter to return to Nauvoo, concerned for his safety. It was the last time that Porter saw Joseph alive.

Thus, while Porter never served as Joseph’s bodyguard in a modern sense, he was definitely his close friend and protector.

2. Did Joseph Smith really promise Porter that as long as he didn’t cut his hair, he would be protected from harm?

So it would seem. Picking up where we left off at the Prophet’s Christmas party: once Porter’s identity was revealed, Joseph had him recount to the group what happened during his lengthy incarceration. Then, according to legend, Joseph told Porter, “I prophesy, in the name of the Lord, 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.” Everyone at the party was amazed, and Nauvoo was soon abuzz with news of the prophecy, which was reminiscent of the ancient promise given to Samson’s parents.

While writing Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder10—the source often cited when quoting the prophecy—author Harold Schindler tried his best to track down credible documentation of the Prophet’s statement, as the Prophet himself didn’t mention it in his journal when writing about the Christmas party. The best he could find was a manuscript written the morning after the party by a Latter-day Saint named James Jepson.11 Schindler found other journals, letters, and autobiographies referencing the prophecy, but all were second- or third-hand accounts.12 His experience was similar to that of assistant Church historian Andrew Jenson, whose biographical notes on Porter (which include the hair prophecy, courtesy of a letter from an early Latter-day Saint named Elizabeth D. Roundy) are a composite of such sources.

Orrin Porter Rockwell later in life, date unknown (PH 1700 3448).

An interesting footnote to the prophecy is that later in his life, Porter regularly traveled to California to collect tithing from the Latter-day Saints living there. On one such trip, Porter met Agnes Coolbrith Smith Pickett, the widow of Joseph Smith’s brother Don Carlos. Agnes’s hair had fallen out due to a severe bout of typhoid fever. Moved with compassion, Porter volunteered to have his long hair cut to make a wig for her. Even though it was for a good cause, Porter felt guilty for violating Joseph’s prophecy; from then on, he would blame his insurmountable weakness for whiskey and swearing on that one time he cut his hair.13

3. Did Porter shoot Lilburn W. Boggs?

On October 27, 1838, Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44, which instructed state authorities that “[t]he Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary […]. If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so to any extent you may consider necessary.”14 In the weeks that followed, many Latter-day Saints were subjected to horrific violence designed to drive them from their homes.

Thus, when Boggs was shot three and a half years later on May 6, 1842, suspicion fell on the Latter-day Saints, with many assuming that the attack was motivated by revenge for the so-called “Extermination Order.” John C. Bennett, a former Latter-day Saint who had become antagonistic toward the Church—and vengeful toward Joseph, in particular—encouraged these rumors in a letter published in the Sangamo Journal, an Illinois newspaper:

In 1841, Joe Smith predicted or prophesied in a public congregation in Nauvoo, that Lilburn W Boggs, ex-Governor of Missouri, should die by violent hands within one year. From one or two months prior to the attempted assassination of Gov. Boggs, Mr. O. P. Rockwell left Nauvoo for parts unknown to the citizens at large. I was then on terms of close intimacy with Joe Smith, and asked him where Rockwell had gone? “Gone,” said he, “GONE TO FULFILL PROPHECY!”15

Based on this and other statements from opponents of the Church, Porter was arrested on August 8, 1842, and charged with the attempted murder; Joseph was charged as an accessory.

Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs (Photo courtesy Missouri Historical Society).

After being left in the care of the Nauvoo city marshal, who released them, both men went on the run for several months out of fear for their lives. Joseph surrendered himself on December 26 and appeared on January 2 before a judge, who quashed the warrant for Joseph’s arrest and ordered him released.

Porter, however, did not fare as well. Arrested as a fugitive on March 6, 1843, in St. Louis, Missouri, he would be passed from one county jail to another until his eventual release on December 13, 1843. Though a grand jury ultimately chose not to indict him for attempted murder, he was convicted of jailbreak since he had briefly escaped from one of the jails in which he had been held. (Porter argued that since he escaped through an unlocked door, he technically wasn’t breaking out of jail. The jury didn’t buy it, although they merely sentenced him to “five minutes imprisonment in the County Jail,”16 perhaps owing to the many months he’d already been locked up.)

Despite his acquittal, the question persists today: did Porter take the shot that nearly killed Boggs? On one hand, Porter’s defense strategy was highly unusual, with his testimony sounding nearly as incriminating as it was exculpatory. For example, when Porter was asked if he shot at Boggs, he supposedly replied, per folkloric sources, that “I’ve never shot at anybody. If I shoot, they get shot. He’s still alive, isn’t he?”17 This, combined with contemporaneous statements given by Porter’s enemies, has led some modern commentators to conclude he was guilty.18

Others, though, have pointed out that Porter avoided conviction at a time when anti-Latter-day Saint sentiment in Missouri was at a fever pitch. The evidence against Porter must have been extremely weak; otherwise, the hostile jury would have seized on any possible opportunity to convict.19 Also, historian Monte B. McLaws has pointed out that Boggs was embroiled in a reelection battle for his old state senate seat at the time of the attack, and there were plenty of non-Latter-day Saints with motive to harm him; moreover, McLaws points out that statements from John C. Bennett were highly biased and, as such, are potentially unreliable.20 Thus, McLaws concludes that Porter was likely innocent.21

4. Did Porter practice plural marriage?

No. Several anti-Latter-day Saint publications during Porter’s life accused him of practicing plural marriage, but such accounts have not been corroborated. Porter was, however, married three times:

  • Luana Hart Beebe (October 3, 1814–March 6, 1897), married February 2, 1832; divorced June 26, 184522
  • Mary Ann Neff (August 5, 1829–September 28, 1866), married May 3, 1854
  • Christina Olsen (December 6, 1836–April 14, 1911), married sometime in 1870

His second wife died from complications of childbirth. His third marriage would only last eight years before he passed away. He had nine children with his first wife, eight with the second, and four with the third.

5. How did Porter die? What were the circumstances surrounding his death?

Despite his dangerous lifestyle, Porter died of natural causes on June 9, 1878, only a few days shy of his 65th birthday. The previous night, Porter had taken his daughter Mary to a performance at the Salt Lake Theater. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until, late that night, he began complaining of chills and nausea; the next afternoon, he fell unconscious, and doctors were unable to revive him.

Orrin Porter Rockwell, circa 1875 (PH 1700 3448).

Three days later, nearly 1,300 people attended his funeral, held at the Fourth Ward building in Salt Lake City. Then-Apostle Joseph F. Smith gave the eulogy, pointing out that Porter had been a devoted friend to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; he further added that Porter “had his little faults, but […] [t]hrough all his trials he had never once forgot his obligations to his brethren and his God.23

Porter was buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. His gravestone was damaged in a windstorm that ripped through Salt Lake City in the fall of 2020.24

Top image: Orrin Porter Rockwell, circa 1862 (PH 200).