In 1817, due to several years of crop failure, the Rockwell family sold their farm in Massachusetts and moved to upstate New York. They settled near the town of Palmyra about a mile away from the Joseph Smith Sr. family.
Orrin Porter Rockwell was a childhood friend of Mormon leader Joseph Smith. On April 6, 1830, the 16 year old became the youngest member of the church, being part of the first group baptized the day the church was organized.
As a boy, Porter gathered berries and cut firewood which he would sell to raise money to help pay for the publishing of the Book of Mormon. This was particularly significant because he himself was illiterate and never able to read the book.
DEVOTED FRIEND TO THE PROPHET JOSEPH
In December 1838 Joseph Smith and a few associates were being held in the jail at Liberty, Missouri. The charges against them were spurious and the jail was miserably cold, cramped and filthy. Joseph asked his friend Porter to smuggle in some tools they might use to break out of the jail. Porter had been a nearly daily visitor to the jail, serving as a messenger between Joseph and Brigham Young. He was able to smuggle in tools, and the prisoners made good progress. However, when he attempted to smuggle in a replacement handle for a broken auger, Porter was discovered by the jailer.
Speaking of the hole they had been able to make in the jail wall before being discovered, Joseph said, “It was a fine hole. It will cost the county a round sum to repair it, and for that I am glad.”
On October 27, 1838 Missouri Governor Lilburn Williams Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44. The order, which became known as the “Extermination Order” called for the removal of Latter-day Saints from the state because of their,
“…open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State … the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”
The executive order escalated the tension between Mormons and other residents of Missouri and the Mormons eventually left the state.
On May 6, 1842 a would-be assassin shot former Governor Boggs in his home in Independence, Missouri. Suspicions were immediately cast on Joseph Smith and his unofficial bodyguard Porter Rockwell. A year after the assassination attempt, Rockwell was arrested. After 8 months in prison he was tried and acquitted of the charge. Many of Boggs’ supporters remained convinced that Rockwell was the man responsible.
THE SAMPSON FACTOR
After 8 months in prison, Porter arrived at Joseph Smith’s home in Nauvoo, Illinois. Filthy and emaciated, he was not immediately recognized by those gathered at the home for a Christmas dinner. After his identity was confirmed, the Prophet welcomed him inside. Embracing him, the prophet said,
“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.”
Years later, upon hearing that Agnes Coolbrith Smith Pickett, widow of Joseph Smith’s brother Don Carlos, had lost her hair as a result of typhoid fever, Rockwell cut his hair to make a wig.
Rockwell was in California during the gold rush. He tried his luck at panning for gold and quickly realized he was not going to get rich doing it. Instead, he built a hotel and general store and collected the gold from miners after they had panned it.
THE MAN WHO COULD NOT BE KILLED
Because of Joseph Smith’s prophecy, Rockwell became known as the man who could not be killed. As a result, he became the target of many outlaws looking to make a name for themselves.
As with many legends, the stories get distorted and even run to the absurd. He was not a “hit man” for Brigham Young sent to kill less-valiant Mormons. He was not a vigilante hell bent on avenging victims of the extermination order. He was a pioneer, scout, mountain man, husband, father, hotel owner, storeowner, Deputy US Marshal, and friend.
THE PASSING OF A LEGEND
Rockwell died of natural causes in June 1878. At his death, he had been a member of the church longer than anyone living at the time. He is buried in the Salt Lake City cemetery. His epitaph reads: “He was brave and loyal to his faith. True to the Prophet Jos. Smith. A promise made him by the prophet, through obedience it was fulfilled.”
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You can find Porter Rockwell items at:
Porter Rockwell portraits – public domain
Rockwell grave marker – Wikimedia commons, The Epopt
Pony Express Marker — Castigate Media LLC
Porter Rockwell keychain — Old Nauvoo