In honor of the 175th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, LDS Living is sharing a series of articles about early Church history and some of its key figures.
But how much is really known about this mysterious, often paradoxical figure in the Church's history? Here are 9 fascinating facts from Did You Know: 501 Fascinating Facts From Church History you may not have known about this legendary Wild West figure.
1. Every Little Bit Counts
You probably know that when Joseph Smith needed money to publish the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris mortgaged his farm to pay the printer. But you might not know that wasn’t Joseph’s only source of funding. Porter Rockwell was too young to own any real estate at the time, but he was resourceful and hard-working—and his contribution amounted to what might be considered “the widow’s mite.” Every day when he finished his own chores, he picked berries by moonlight and sold them to raise money. When all the berries were gone, he gathered wood and hauled it to town to sell. He gave every penny from both ventures to the Prophet to contribute to printing costs.
2. First in Love
The winter of 1831–1832 in Missouri was a dicey affair, with as many as ten Latter-day Saint families living in each log cabin—something that would have required lots of conviction and plenty of humor. Despite the crowded conditions, Porter Rockwell married the first of his four wives, Luana Beebe, on February 2 in Jackson County. (To be clear, Porter never practiced polygamy.) It was the first wedding of a Church member in Jackson County. (Thomas Bullock recorded the marriage in “A List of Saints in Jackson County,” on file in the Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
3. For a Good Cause
Porter Rockwell’s hair was the stuff of legends, and it was also the object of a direct revelation by Joseph Smith. The Prophet told Porter, “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” (Harold Schindler, Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder [Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993], 108–109). After that, Porter wore his long hair braided and tucked into a bob at the nape of his neck.
But hold on. Porter did cut his hair one time after that, but it was for a magnanimous purpose: when he heard about a widow who was balding from typhoid fever, he donated his flowing locks so a wig could be made for her. The recipient of his charitable act was Agnes Coolbrith Smith Pickett, the widow of Joseph Smith’s brother Don Carlos Smith and the mother of Ina Coolbrith, who later became the poet laureate of California (see Kristen Sonne, “Rockwell’s Colorful History Recounted,” Deseret News, June 21, 1998).
4. A Man and His Guns
At one point when Porter Rockwell was arrested, he was carrying two double-barreled sawed-off shotguns, one strapped to each side of his body; a pair of Colt revolvers; a Bowie knife; and enough preloaded cylinders in his coat pockets that he could have fired seventy rounds without stopping to reload. (That gives “concealed carry” new meaning.)
Carrying enough guns and ammunition to get off seventy-plus rounds before he had to stop and reload meant Porter would have had as many as twelve guns on board, not to mention the ramrods, wadding, and shot. Let’s look at exactly what that means.
Considering that his weapons weighed roughly the same as comparable weapons of our day, his pistols would have weighed about three pounds each. If you tallied up his ten to twelve weapons and all the ammo for those guns, he could have been riding along with as much as forty pounds of steel slapping against him with every gallop of his horse. Add to that the weight of his holsters, all the knives he carried in addition to his guns, and all of the sheaths for those knives.
Later in his life, he scaled down the number of guns he carried—maybe, “like veteran cops, [he was] weary of the chaffing from gun belts and sick of the dangerous nuisance of the guns themselves” (“Concealed Carry Participant, Porter Rockwell’s Guns,” LDS Gunsite, June 9, 2014).
Once he scaled down his arsenal, his favored weapon was the .36-caliber Navy Colt, first produced in 1851. He sawed off the barrel to about two inches—making it easy to drop into a pocket without requiring a holster. He often wore two of the .36-caliber Colts in his belt. (This report of Rockwell’s arming himself so well appeared in the Daily Missouri Republican, May 5, 1846.)
5. Third Time's the Charm
Porter Rockwell was charged with murder or attempted murder on three different occasions. Twice he was acquitted. The third time, he died of natural causes before the charge could be heard in court. (See Danielle B. Wagner, “The Gunslinging General Authority Who Went to Prison on the Prophet’s Orders: 7 Unbelievable Facts about Porter Rockwell,” LDS Living, April 29, 2017.)
On the rainy evening of May 6, 1842, someone shot at Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs through a window as he read the newspaper in his study—and initial reports maintained that Boggs was dead. Let’s just say that not all of the Latter-day Saints were saddened by the news. An anonymous contributor to The Wasp, a pro-Church newspaper in Nauvoo, wrote on May 28, “Boggs is undoubtedly killed according to report, but who did the noble deed remains to be found out” (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945], 323).
Suspicion about “who did the noble deed” quickly moved from “the Mormons” as a body at large to either Joseph Smith or Orrin Porter Rockwell or maybe both. Both of them fled, and the game of cops and robbers ensued. Though he was never indicted for the attempted assassination, Porter was tried and found guilty of jailbreak. And why was he in jail to begin with? Simple: trial by press—his name was advertised in the local newspaper as the person who had attempted to assassinate Boggs. Frontier justice at its finest.
7. Wild with Grief
When news of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom reached Porter Rockwell, he rushed to find Joseph’s son. Weeping like a child, Porter cried, “They have killed the only friend I have ever had!” Riding hard into Nauvoo on the morning of June 28, 1844, Porter shouted himself hoarse repeating, “Joseph is killed—they have killed him! God damn them! They have killed him!” (Anson Call, Life and Record [Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society], 27.)
8. Commuting for the Kill
Porter Rockwell became legendary as the man no one could kill—and one renowned incident involved a bandit who traveled close to a thousand miles for the chance to gun down Porter. When he finally encountered the legend, he made his intention perfectly clear: “Rockwell, I come all the way from California just to kill you!” he declared from the saddle. “Say your prayers!”
Porter remained completely calm. “Well,” he responded, “you wouldn’t try to shoot a man without a cap on your pistol, would you?”
Petrified, the outlaw couldn’t believe his misfortune. Had he truly ridden all the way from California without checking the cap? He thought he had the cap, but decided he’d better double-check, just to be sure. In the split second it took him to look down at his gun—which, of course, caused him to shift his gaze from Porter to the pistol (which did, incidentally, have a cap)—Porter drew his gun from his pocket and blew the man completely off his horse. And with that, as they say, another one bit the dust.
9. Start Shooting, Ask Questions Later
One well-known incident took place on the Main Street of Lehi, Utah, when an outlaw tried to take down Porter Rockwell. Documents from the Lehi City court described what happened on June 25, 1873, as an affray—“the fighting of two or more persons in a public place, and to the terror of others.”
There was terror, all right: a young outlaw named Loren Dibble walked up to Porter in broad daylight, pulled out two pistols, and started shooting. He emptied both guns. According to the testimonies of onlookers—who were undoubtedly terrified—Porter simply stood completely still, staring at Dibble. He was totally unruffled. He didn’t move a muscle.
After Dibble had fired all twelve of the shots from his pistols, Porter drew his two revolvers and started shooting back. He proceeded to empty both of his guns, shooting at Dibble’s feet and making him “dance” to avoid being hit by each of the bullets.
Even that wasn’t the end of it. When Porter had emptied both of his guns, he slipped his revolvers back into their holsters, walked up to Dibble (who by that time was a little rattled), grabbed him by the collar, and shook him like a rag doll. (Details of this incident taken from Jeremy Stiborek, “The Rockwell-Dibble Gunfight,” Intermountain Histories.)
Lead image from en.wikipedia.org
The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well-documented, with beloved stories of triumph and tragedy passed down through the generations. But what of the lesser-known details that have been lost to time? Carefully researched and endlessly fun, Did You Know: 501 Fascinating Facts from Church History takes on the task of both storytelling and myth-busting. Featuring a wealth of anecdotes and antique images, this tribute to the past features historical tidbits gleaned from ancestral stories, timeworn journals, and national news articles spanning centuries. Perfect for history buffs and trivia enthusiasts alike, this fascinating chronicle of the Church is bursting with hitherto unexplored facts just waiting to be discovered!