Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder

Orrin Porter Rockwell; Man of God, Son of Thunder by Harold Schindler. From the University of Utah Press:

Was Orrin Porter Rockwell a cold-blooded killer or a saint? In this balanced account, Schindler paints the thrilling portrait of a genuinely colorful individual, a unique man of the frontier west. This electrifying, stunningly illustrated biography of the most mysterious and controversial figure in Mormon history won the American Association for State and Local History’s prestigious Award of Merit.

In his fast-paced and lucid style the author pursues the man behind the legend. Was the devoted bodyguard of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young a stalwart pioneer or a vicious murderer of scores of innocent victims? Schindler’s enlightening answers make truly fascinating reading.

“Harold Schindler has attempted to strip away Churchly whitewash and Gentile vitriol to reveal Rockwell as he was. At once a Mormon and a trained police reporter, Schindler comes well-equipped fro the job. He is dispassionate in an area of American history long marred by partisanship.”—Saturday Review

“One of the best biographies of its kind.”
—The Los Angeles Times

This was the first “real” LDS history book I read, during the time Denise and I were faithful Latter-day Saints. As I remember, it did not shake my faith but changed my view of Mormon history in a positive way and added the ballast that seemed to be missing from those other histories I had read — exciting and well-written, but “thin.” It also brought me to the realization that actual characters and events are often much more interesting and engaging than anything a fiction writer can come up with. I should also mention that the book is illustrated with some very cool pen and ink drawings.

I would conclude that Rockwell was closer to the vicious murderer side of the scale and never really came away with any affection for him. He was colorful, but not in a likable way… more like a maniacal, scary Taxi Driver colorful. To this day, I still cannot travel along the Sevier River and drive through Nephi UT without feeling haunted by the ghosts of the Aiken brothers and other hapless people ol’ Port took down there to “use up.”

Here are some interesting Porter Rockwell tidbits:

  • Rockwell always had “any number of shooting irons and other deadly weapons in abundance on and about his person.” When he was arrested in 1846 at Nauvoo IL, the headquarters of the LDS church, he had enough weapons to fire 71 rounds without reloading and “an array of knives.” These were the days before repeating rifles.
  • After shooting Lieutenant Frank Worrell from a galloping horse with a shot to the abdomen, Rockwell coldly remarked “I aimed for his belt buckle,” and added, “I was afraid my rifle couldn’t reach him, but it did, thank God.”
  • Joseph Smith prophesied over Rockwell at a Christmas celebration in 1843, “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.” It appears to be the only prophecy of Smith’s that came to pass. Rockwell did cut his hair in 1855 — I believe he was in California at the time and, believe it or not, he looked even scarier with the buzz cut. Rockwell died of a heart attack.
  • Rockwell enjoyed a good smoke and a drink. In fact, Joseph Smith once contracted Port to operate a bar at the Mansion House, which was the church headquarters in Nauvoo, as well as Smith’s private residence! This took place when the prophet’s wife was down river. Emma came home to a polished bar with Rockwell setting up drinks, “scrubbed and combed.” Emma gave Joseph the ultimatum, “You are at liberty to make your own choice. Either that bar goes out of the house, or we will!” Joseph saw the light and the bar was removed.
  • Legend has it that Rockwell was once in a tavern where he got into an argument with another customer. The man held a gun to Rockwell and shot him point blank — the bullet slowly came out of the barrel, hit Rockwell’s chest and fell to the ground.


  1. Um, yikes. I remember Dan reading a book about Mormon history and some of the stuff he told me was downright unbelievable.
    The picture of Rockwell you chose creeps me out, Man. Those piercing eyes!
    I heard there is a movie coming out addressing some kind of famous Mormon masacre? I think Jon Voight is in it? Let me find it on imdb and I’ll be back…

    March 27, 2007
  2. Oh yes, it’s called September Dawn. Should be coming to a theater near us soon:

    “A story set against the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the film is based upon the tragedy which occurred in Utah in 1857. A group of settlers, traveling on wagons, was murdered by the native Mormons. All together, about 140 souls of men, women and children, were taken. Amidst this, two young lovers-to-be, one a Mormon and the other one of the doomed settlers from Arkansas, develop a relationship in an atmosphere of suspicion and rancor. ”

    Jon Voight is in it and so are some folks playing Brigham Young and Joseph Smith…will you be seeing it?

    March 27, 2007
  3. pietyhill said:

    Hi Sadie:

    Yes, ol’ Port’s a real charmer. There’s a scarier picture of him, which I may post later this week… it is LDS week here, you know. Yes, I’m looking forward to the film about the MMM… Schindler covers that a little bit, because Rockwell crossed paths with John D. Lee, the scapegoat for the MMM. The Indians, excuse me, native Americans who participated in the massacre called Lee “Yahguts,” or “cry baby” because he wept over the brutality of the attack… I guess he thought they would wipe out the wagon train in a humane manner.

    Mormon history is awesome… it’s right up there with Babi-Baha’i history for brutality, thrills, fascinating characters. Check it out.

    March 27, 2007
  4. […] Sadie commented on Orrin Porter Rockwell’s piercing eyes — said he “creeped her out.” I thought we would close out LDS week with a gallery of OPR photos, spanning the life of the legendary frontiersman and gunslinger. If you would like to learn a bit more about ol’ Port and his exploits, check out these links: […]

    March 29, 2007
  5. Blair said:

    It is interesting how someone’s perception is affected by the back ground information the possess and the orientation of the source of that information.
    Porter Rockwell was a US Marshall and had to do many things that were not pleasant. There are many accounts of his kindness, friendliness, and helpfulness to others.
    I look on Port’s photos, and don’t see “creepy” or anything of the like.

    June 19, 2008
  6. pietyhill said:

    Harold Schindler was a faithful Mormon and objective historian/investigator. Have you read the book? He does a great job of sifting through the bogus hatchet jobs on Rockwell and gives the readers a real balanced account of OP’s life… which is still really disturbing.

    Port was a marshall at times, but I’m afraid he was acting under another authority when he used up the Aikens and others. And, yes he was reported to be very friendly to dogs and children, as well as other Mormons (not all, of course).

    In short, he was complex and not one or the other, white hat or black hat.

    June 20, 2008
  7. tim musick said:

    What kind of weapons did Portor Rockwell use ?

    November 19, 2008
  8. pietyhill said:

    You know, I really don’t know specifically what weapons he carried… a rifle, pistols and derringers of some sort.

    November 20, 2008
  9. nolan said:

    that is my great great great grandfather

    August 23, 2009
  10. pietyhill said:

    No way! Are you serious?

    August 26, 2009
  11. Kdo said:

    Port was famous for his long distance marksmanship. One of his favorite rifles was the Hawkins. He also often (nearly always) carried two colt dragoon pistols. While he was complicated and and there are many stories told both good and bad, that can’t be substantiated, the truth is he was a lawman. He was one of the very best trackers in the country. During the California gold rush steeling cattle to sell in the gold field was great sport. Local Indian tribesmen would also steal horses and cattle. When Port tracked thieves he found them. In fact only one fugitive is known to have out run Port. He was found dead in Wyoming killed by Indians within weeks of giving port the slip. Horse and cattle theft was a huge problem and punishable by death in most states. A thief tracked down by Port was now faced with arrest and probable hanging, more times than not he resisted arrest by a single lawman. Porter killed a lot of thieves as the territorial Marshall. Most Marshalls rarely found fugitive rustlers. Most were good to average gun handlers. Porter almost always tracked them down and was an exceedingly great shot (In shooting competitions he would embarrass his competitors). Thus, he killed a bunch of thieves – a hundred or more.

    September 30, 2009
  12. dave said:

    I just saw two guns that belonged to port, and with the guns was a book of mormon and it had bullet holes in it. There was two sets of guns and two sets of books, the second book had holes in it to. I wonder why!

    March 15, 2010
  13. Jer said:

    This book is horse shit. One lie after another concatenated together to make and all consuming lie laced with a few facts.

    I have done considerable studies on the Mormon culture to know the difference. If you love watching TV or reading the News Paper as if it is true, then there is no hope for you. None of us can judge the character of Mr. Rockwell by what his enemies or rumors say.

    Ruthless people have bad feelings in their demeanor and heart. Orrin Porter Rockwell never did. He was a humble, prayerful, cheerful person, a loving father and husband, and an honest business man. I believe if he ever took a man’s life it was only in self defense. One more thing, this book depicts him as not knowing how to read and write. That is bull shit, where as the rest of the book is made up of horse shit.

    This book more reflects the attitude / motives of the author and what he would do or wanted to do. This is a STUPID BOOK AND NOT RECOMMENDED! To read this book is like taking a big juicy cow pie and rubbing it on your face.

    April 29, 2010
  14. Bo said:

    So, which edition of this book did you read? The original? I did my homework… thought he was pretty fair with Port. What exactly did Mr. Schindler get wrong? Just one or two examples would be welcome.


    April 29, 2010
  15. buffalo said:

    Aikens, how can one say he was responsiable. He did not live to have his day in court, however his so called accompliace did and was found innocent in a trail.
    As for disturbing, man I dont know, he was there to protect his people, and would leave everything he had to go and help out, I guess you could call that disturbing. His quote about Worrell, he was ordered to kill him by the sherrif, if you read the accounts, Worrell was chasing the sherriff and trying to kill him, yelled at Port to help him, which he did. I think one must look at his life as a whole, not just bits and pieces, as well as the context of the period in which he lived. To me he is a hero, selfless and faithful.
    AS for the book, I have read it twice now, and yes it talks about the good and the bad of the man, but I do not see how it made him out to be bad human..I guess it is like poetry, you read it and find in it what you want.

    May 25, 2010
  16. Letty Rosendale said:

    This was my paternal Great Great Grandfather. My father had those piercing eyes that really showed when he was displeased with something. My children say I have the same eyes that when I give them “that look” it goes to the pit of their stomach. Porter was indeed a colorful man and I would love to have known him.

    June 3, 2011
  17. Bo Salisbury said:

    That’s amazing. Yes, he would have been interesting to get to know. I would have liked to have met him, when he lived for a short time in California.

    June 4, 2011

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