By June of 1844, amid renewed violence and threats once again coming against the Saints, the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper set up to inflame the area against Joseph Smith and the Church in general began circulating. On June 10, 1844, the Nauvoo City council voted to demolish their press for printing libel. Among the destroyers was Rockwell.
Word came that a mob was looking for Joseph Smith with the intent to kill him and sack Nauvoo. Joseph Smith concluded that he must either submit to arrest again and the possibility of being killed, or begin exploring the possibilities of moving the Saints once again, this time to the Rocky Mountains. He left Nauvoo with his brother, Hyrum Smith, and Rockwell and crossed the Mississippi River planning to explore the Rocky Mountains that summer. Joseph’s wife Emma and others from the community accused Joseph of cowardice and abandonment, encouraging him to give himself up to the Governor who had promised Joseph protection. Despite Rockwell’s dissent, on June 25th 1844, Joseph Smith with his brother and Rockwell returned to Nauvoo. Joseph agreed to disarm the city’s militia, gave himself up with a prophecy that he was going to his death, and left Nauvoo for Carthage Jail. He specifically directed Rockwell not to come to Carthage and not to let himself be taken by anyone. Two days later, Joseph was dead. In a sworn statement made by Rockwell, that same afternoon he overheard a group of men speaking to Governor Ford. Rockwell heard one of them say “the deed is done before this time” , after which they fell silent upon seeing Rockwell enter. Rockwell did not yet know what this meant, but finding later that it was the same day that Joseph was killed he interpreted this to refer to the killing. Rockwell was distraught.
Soon the Saints we expelled from Nauvoo and Rockwell accompanied the newly appointed prophet Brigham Young in the first company of Saints to enter the Salt Lake Valley, stopping for the winter in Council Bluffs Nebraska. He served as a tracker, scout, postmaster, hunter and livestock tracker along the way. He even submitted to arrest in an orchestrated stall tactic to allow all the Saints time to escape Nauvoo. Reflecting his growing fame, many of the Saints personal journals mention Rockwell showing up uneventfully in their camps.
Many years later when well-known journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow came through Utah he met Rockwell. He described Rockwell as “the most interesting man and problem I ever encountered in Utah.” He also records a physical description:
His personal appearance in itself was very striking. His figure was of middle height, and very strongly made; broad across the shoulders, and set squarely on the legs. His arm was of large girth, his chest round as a barrel, and his hand looked as powerful as a grizzly bear’s. His face was of the mastiff type, and [in] its expression, fidelity, fearlessness, ferocity. A man with massive lower jaw, firm mouth, good humored but steady and searching eyes of steel-blue. His hair, black and iron gray in streaks, was gathered just behind the apex of the skull and twisted in a hard round bunch…He was very obliging in his manners; placable, jocose, never extravagant…No one would take him on sight for a man of bad disposition in any sense…In his build he was a gladiator.
During the considerable time Ludlow spent with Rockwell, including a guided tour of the countryside, the only terrorizing Ludlow witnessed was Rockwell, mocking his own reputation, threatening to subjecting him to a real Mormon dinner of sausage and scalding hot gravy and pancakes. Ludlow’s impressions contradicted the popular myth and he comments that Rockwell was “one of the pleasantest murderers I ever met….A strange mixture, only to be found on the American Continent.” Yet, not one to let personal experience ruin a good story, he flagrantly embellished Rockwell’s murderous reputation, gratuitously accusing him of more than forty murders. Rockwell did not appreciate this. Apparently, Ludlow was well aware that sensationalism sells.
During the rest of his life in Utah and surrounding areas, he demonstrated loyalty and honesty towards Brigham Young as well as strangers passing through Utah. When groups came through Utah and asked Brigham Young to help them rectify an injustice, frequently he referred them to Rockwell. Whether livestock had wandered, been stolen or a group needed guidance, Rockwell proved talented, honest, and effective at finding solutions. He returned livestock, captured outlaws, carried mail and guided groups in the mountains and wilderness that was the Utah territory. On more than one occasion his skills were invaluable to Brigham Young.
A great example of the genius of Rockwell occurred in 1863 when he escorted General Connor to Pleasant Grove, Utah, through an area of active Indian hostilities. William H. Seegmiller, on his way to Salt Lake to meet with Brigham Young, disdainfully noted Rockwell socialized with the troops late into the night, as if he had had too much whiskey. To his surprise, early the next day Seegmiller witnessed a sober and well-dressed Rockwell reporting to Brigham Young on the Indian situation in Pleasant Grove. He concluded. “Rockwell lived a double life in the interest of his friends and God’s cause on earth. I will ever remember him with esteem.”
Though he struggled to live according to all the new doctrines taught in the church, Porter Rockwell’s life was not the popular myth that was so feared in the American West. He was an immensely loyal, hardy and effective supporter of the church to which he had committed his life. Significantly, the only time Rockwell shed blood was in self defense, despite the persecutions that surely traumatized his early adult years. On his gravestone is engraved: “He was brave & loyal to his faith, true to the Prophet Jos. Smith, a promise made him by the prophet thro. Obedience was fulfilled.”
LDS leader Joseph F. Smith eulogized, “He had his little faults, but Porter’s life here on earth, taken altogether, was one worthy of example and reflected honor upon the Church. Through all his trials he had never once forgotten his obligations to his brethren and his God.” While Americans seems to love a bloody outlaw story, the real Porter Rockwell, a remarkable protector and defender, was loved by the Saints both during his lifetime and today.
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