Orrin Porter Rockwell was a frontiersman, Utah pioneer and plainsman, and reputed Mormon “*Destroying Angel.” This controversial and colorful figure was characterized in newspapers and journals of his day as a notorious gunman and religious zealot. He was born in Belcher, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, in 1813 and was one of the early converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As a settler in Jackson County, Missouri, in the mid-1830s, he was caught up in the so-called Mormon War of 1838, in which Missourians acting under an “extermination order” issued by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs drove the Mormons from the state. It was during this turbulent period that Rockwell became identified with the “Danites,” a band of Mormon stalwarts who organized for the defense of fellow church members against their antagonists. In 1842 Rockwell was accused of the attempted assassination of Boggs, the man who had ordered the expulsion of the Mormons four years earlier. Boggs survived the shooting, and after months in Missouri jails Rockwell was freed when no indictment was brought against him. It was on his return to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the church had relocated, that Rockwell became the subject of an astonishing prophecy by Mormon leader Joseph Smith on Christmas day of 1843. Smith said that as long as Rockwell remained loyal and true to his faith, he need fear no enemy: “Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee!”
Joseph Smith’s death at the hands of a mob at Carthage, Illinois, spurred a Mormon exodus from Nauvoo. It was during this time of upheaval that Rockwell shot and killed Frank A. Worrell, who was menacing Hancock County Sheriff Jacob Backenstos. Rockwell had been hastily deputized only moments before the shooting, a fact which made the incident no less sensational when it was learned that the dead man had been the militia lieutenant in charge of protecting Joseph Smith when the Mormon prophet was assassinated the year before.
The Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young, crossed the plains to Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Rockwell was one of the territory’s earliest lawmen–deputy marshal for the provisional state of Deseret in 1849. When President James Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming to replace Brigham Young as Utah’s governor in 1857 and ordered a large contingent of U.S. troops to escort the new chief executive to his mountain offices, Rockwell was among the number of Mormons chosen by Brigham Young to harry and harass that “Utah Expedition,” which Young considered nothing less than an invasion “by a hostile force who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction.”
In November 1857 Rockwell was involved in an attack on a half-dozen Californians known as the Aiken party, who were attempting to reach U.S. troops wintering at Fort Bridger. Twenty years later, Rockwell would be indicted on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of John and William Aiken.
By the spring of 1858, Brigham Young agreed to amnesty terms offered by President Buchanan, and the Utah Expedition, commanded by Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston, proceeded to establish Camp Floyd south of Great Salt Lake City. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Colonel P.E. Connor, who was ordered to Utah with the California Volunteers to “protect the mails from Indian depredations,” hired Rockwell as a guide and scout for infantry and cavalry in an action against a band of Shoshones at Bear River near present Preston, Idaho, in January 1863.
During his lifetime, Rockwell attracted the curious, the celebrity seekers, and the myth makers. To journalists, authors, and world travelers he was as well known as Brigham Young. He became a legend as a rough-and-ready frontiersman, a scout, a marksman, a man of iron nerve and a man of unswerving loyalty.
Orrin Porter Rockwell died of natural causes on 9 June 1878 in Salt Lake City, while awaiting trial on Aiken murder charges. Rockwell’s notoriety followed him to the grave, and grew, unencumbered by fact. The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized that he “participated in at least a hundred murders . . . .” He has remained in the eyes of the public one of the best known of the early Mormon settlers of Utah.
See: Harold Schindler, Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder (1966; second edition 1983); and Frank Esshom, Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah (1913).