Rockwell: The Mormons’ Avenging Angel

No account of American history is complete without mention of Orrin Porter Rockwell, Joseph Smith’s bodyguard and one of the outstanding figures in Mormon history. Born to Orin and Sarah Witt Rockwell in the early 1800s (the exact date is disputed), Rockwell and his family moved to a farm a mile away from Smith’s in 1819, and the two families formed a friendship that would endure.

When Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, Rockwell lent him money for its printing and publication. He was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 16 on the same day as his parents, making them among the very first members of the Church. He and his family were such staunch supporters of Smith that they moved when he did, following The Prophet first to Missouri and then to Nauvoo, Illinois, in his quest to find a place for his temple. The Illinois move was prompted by an “extermination order” signed by Lilburn W. Boggs, the governor of Missouri, which called for the killing or expulsion of Mormons in the state.

Because Rockwell was nearly illiterate and kept no personal journals, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in the telling of his story, but it is known that he had become an expert marksman while growing up, and later developed a reputation as an enforcer, killing many men – by some accounts, more than 150 – in the course of his life. In his own defense, he once said, “I never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.” Even so, he earned such a reputation as a hit man that he became known as the “Destroying Angel of Mormondom.”

As his legend grew, two camps developed: Those who were afraid of Rockwell and avoided him at all costs, and those who wanted to take him on to boost their own reputations. It was said that Native Americans fell into the former group, believing he could not be killed. But gunslingers of all kinds sought him out to take their best shot.

One day a gunman who had ridden all the way from California to take on the Destroying Angel got the drop on Rockwell from behind, relates Richard Lloyd Dewey, author of Porter Rockwell: A Biography. The man’s gun was a cap-and-ball pistol, where the cap had to be attached in order for the weapon to fire. Somewhere along the trail, the cap had fallen off. Porter told him, “Cain’t shoot me without a cap on yer gun.” When the outlaw looked down to check, Rockwell shot him off his horse.

Another person he was accused of shooting was Governor Boggs, a crime that Rockwell steadfastly denied, saying he “never shot at anybody. If I shoot they get shot! He’s still alive, ain’t he?” But he spent eight months in jail regardless and when released went straight to Nauvoo.

He arrived on Christmas Eve as Joseph Smith was holding a party, and as Smith told it, “a man with his hair long and falling over his shoulders, and apparently drunk, came in and acted like a Missourian.” After a brief scuffle, Smith recognized his old friend, who then became the subject of one of Smith’s prophecies. Smith told him, “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.” Indeed, in the photos of Rockwell that exist, his hair is long and flowing.

From that point on, Rockwell became a fanatical protector of Smith. But he wasn’t there in Carthage the day the mob attacked and killed his leader. When Rockwell learned of The Prophet’s death, he rode through Nauvoo shouting, “Joseph is killed – they have killed him! God damn them! They have killed him!”

After Smith’s death, Rockwell became the bodyguard of his successor, Brigham Young, and later killed one of the instigators of the mob that had murdered his old friend.

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