Nov 15, 2011

Four Hard Men, Four Different Ways: Orrin Porter Rockwell

I'm going to make this entry all about Rockwell's character and his relationship with the indians. There is so much going around on the internet about Rockwell, not to mention the hundred or so novels that have been written about or mention him. Porter Rockwell is a legend just about as big among the LDS people as Butch Cassidy, and therefore, there's a lot of heresay going around out there.

Rockwell is described as soft-spoken, with piercing eyes. He didn't say a whole lot... he was quiet, but lightning-quick and deadly accurate with his bullets. An unnerving picture, which may or may not be colored by the wishful thinking of those who like the idea of the sort of vigilanteism that Rockwell tends to represent in LDS and western accounts. To quote Fitz Hugh Ludlow, "In his build he was a gladiator; in his humor a Yankee lumberman; in his memory a Bourbon; in his vengeance an Indian. A strange mixture, only to be found on the American continent."

Rockwell joined the lDS faith on April 6, 1830 in Fayetteville New York. Just for perspective, that is the same day that the church was officially established. Rockwell was among the first members, and among the first married as a church member (to the first of his 3 wives.)

Rockwell has been described as a man of "contrasts." Generous to a fault. Deadly with a weapon, and he didn't falter when he felt someone needed to be dealt with. A direct quote: "[I}never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot!... He's still alive, ain't he?"

This was in conjunction with the charge made that he attempted to assassinate Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs, but missed, hitting him in the leg instead. The Jury failed to convict him in part because of this testimony.After he was released, Rockwell (emaciated, filthy, with his hair grown long after eight months in prison) showed up at Joseph Smith's christmas party at Nauvoo house. He made quite an entrance. And that was when Joseph Smith made the legendary prophecy about his hair: "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."

Porter Rockwell became a bodyguard for Joseph Smith and the next two presidents of the LDS faith. IN 1834, he was one of the men caught up in the Danite phenomenon, which some accounts say continued long into the church's history, and others say was never authorised or condoned by church leaders, and was quickly extinguished, within a year of its formation. I will write more about that in another post. Suffice it to say, Rockwell's deeds, along with his association with people like William Hickman, give rise to a lot of speculation as to his role in the church and what leaders actually asked him to do.

It is unquestionable that Rockwell murdered several people. When charged with this, he would respond, "I never shot someone who didn't need shooting." He shot men in the course of what he saw as his duty to the prophet and the church, but he also shot people for personal reasons. One of his victims was his old friend, Lott Huntington, another name associated with the Danite legend and often the third to the duet of Hickman and Rockwell in rowdy, sometimes violent exploits.

Lott Huntington was accused of stealing a horse from the Bennion family. The son of the family, Sam, enlisted Rockwell's help in rounding up Lott. Lott holed up in Faust's mail station, Rockwell and his posse surrounded the station, and Lott did well for a while (apparently he was also a 'crack shot') until the horse bolted, leaving him vulnerable on the ground, and at that point, Rockwell "shot him dead."

This is an interesting story to me, because we're talking about two men who were longtime friends and associates. And yet, Rockwell did not hesitate in this instance... to him in that moment, Lott was a horse thief. Therefore he "deserved to be shot," and friendship didn't enter into it.

Rockwell is accused of all manner of violence, including shooting settlers, shooting indians, castrating people... a picture develops of a man who sees justice in black-and-white terms, and himself as a perpetuator of that justice, without need for jury, trial, or argument.

Which, when you think about it... could be seen as s rather frightening thing.

But then there's Rockwell's generosity, his soft side. He eventually cut his hair when Agnes Smith, widow of Don Carlos, the prophet's brother, lay suffering from typhoid fever. Her hair had fallen out due to the fever. So Rockwell gave up his long tresses that he had taken such care of for all those years, so that they could be made into a wig for her.

There are accounts of Rockwell sitting quietly while his grown-up daughters combed and braided his long hair. Rockwell spent a great deal of time, in the earlier years of the Utah settlement, with the Bean family. Eliza Bean also braided his hair on occasion.

George Washington Bean and Porter Rockwell were given the special assignment, in the years 1853-54, to keep track of Chief Walkara, a powerful ute leader who troubled the settlements from time-to-time, and at one time converted to the LDS faith. Bean was interpreter, but Rockwell also engaged in interpretation.

From here:

There did come a relatively tranquil couple of years in Salt Lake, during which Rockwell tended home fires by getting married that third time and working perhaps harder than he had at any of his other jobs to bring down the sparse timber from the steep, dry canyons of the Wasatch. But this quiet time was punctuated by his amiably getting drunk with Walkara of the Utes, and then having to wrestle a bloodied knife away from the war chief when peace talks spectacularly blew up at what was becoming popularly known as the "Walker" War.29

Another incident I thought interesting: when the LDS emigrants were about to move down into the salt lake valley for the firs time, a band of Crow indians stole fifty head of horses from the Church (ie Brigham Young's) herd. Rockwell singlehandedly retrieved 8 of the fifty, but the rest were lost.

Some famous advice purportedly given by Rockwell to Sir Richard F. Burton as he was embarking on an (apparently also now-famous) excursion through the desert: “Carry a double barreled gun loaded with buck-shot, to keep my eyes skinned especially in canyons and ravines, To make at times a dark camp, That is to say un-hitching for supper, and then hitching up and turning a few miles off the road. Ever to be ready for attack when the animals are being in-spanned and out-spanned, and never to trust to appearances in an Indian Country.”

Porter Rockwell was only semi-literate, and so we depend mostly on the journals of others to gain information about his life and actions. This is part of the reason why so much about Rockwell is heresay. But here is an entertaining account that I really hope is true (also from here):

"Camped at Scotts Bluff, a good day's march beyond Chimney Rock, the advanced party of pioneers fell to entertaining itself with the same sorts of mock trials in which we still like to roast our dignitaries. This court summoned the defendant, Rockwell, before one whose name sounds Dickensesque—the Right Reverend Bishop Whipple. The moment could have grown expectant—just before the elders of the wayfaring Church convulsed into giggles as their bailiff did his theatrical best to swell himself—the better to deliver the complaint:
That of emitting in meeting of Sunday last, a sound a posteriori, (from the seat of honor) somewhat resembling the rumble of distant thunder, of the heavy discharge of artillery, thereby endangering the steadiness of the olfactory nerves of those present, as well as diverting their minds from the discourse of the speaker.37"

I believe Porter Rockwell was a man of contrasts, who saw the world as black-and-white--in fact, he had such a concrete idea of morality that, after he cut his hair for the Widow Smith, he "found himself unable" to say no to a drink, and his life, once, to him, so clearly "consecrated" to the defending of the prophets and the church, slowly devolved into dissonance and rowdiness. His attitude toward the Indians was the same attitude he had toward everyone: there were people who needed shooting. There were people who needed, and what you do when people need something, is give it to them, whether that was a bullet, or money or food, or the hair off your head.

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