“He was brave & loyal to his faith, true to the prophet Jos. Smith, a promise made him by the prophet thro. obedience it was fulfilled.”
–Orrin Porter Rockwell’s epitaph
“Port” or “Old Port” were nicknames that were attached to Rockwell as the years went by but from my research I don’t see where Porter slowed down at all. His legendary stature as the Chief of the Danites and the supernatural aura surrounding the claim that he could not be killed by an enemy as long as he didn’t cut his hair and remained loyal to his faith, made him a known character throughout the West.
As previously stated, Porter also occasionally served as deputy U.S. Marshal and when he was on your trail as a desperado, you were in trouble. The story is told of one western bad man who stumbled into a saloon on a dark, cold, blustery night and the conversation went like this: “I got somebody after me” he told the bartender, “Can you help me?” “Don’t know” was the laconic reply “Who’s after ya?” “Port Rockwell” said the desperado. “Well then, I can help ya” the bartender grinned, “I can notify your next of kin”.
Notoriety was something that Rockwell never sought as it was a curse because a notch on a gun for Rockwell would be a high prize for an aspiring gunfighter or bad man. Richard Lloyd Dewey, in his Biography of Rockwell relayed the following story, a variation of which likely happened several times to Porter as he went about his business in his later years.
The story goes like this: One day Rockwell was riding out from Salt Lake City to his Skull Valley Ranch and he was stopped by a stranger on the road.
The stranger casually asked “Are you Mr. Rockwell?”
The stranger leaned forward gracefully on his saddle upon hearing the affirmative answer.
“Thought so” he said easily. He then said “Say I’ve heard tell that as long as you don’t cut your hair, no bullet can touch you. Is that true?”
Rockwell answered with a bewildered grunt. At that instant the stranger jerked out a .45 Colt cap and ball pistol from its holster and pointed it at Rockwell. The surprised old man was taken completely off his guard. The stranger’s face had suddenly grown hard.
“Well,” he said grimly, “I’ve come clear from California to kill you”.
For Rockwell to draw now was suicide. He had been covered before the idea of danger had entered his head. The average man paralyzed with fright and surprise would simply have shuddered and taken what was coming to him. But as quick as Rockwell’s hands were, his wits were quicker. Rockwell simply asked, “You wouldn’t try to shoot a man without a cap on your pistol would you?”
The Killer grimaced at his gun, held out to kill, to see if all the caps were in place — just the briefest hesitation — but in that split second, Rockwell’s hand flashed to his own weapon. The would-be murderer suddenly jerked tense, a surprised expression over spreading his face. The heavy revolver slid out of his nerveless grasp and he presently slumped gently down out of his saddle.
Another crazy episode Rockwell was involved in occurred out near Dugway Station and the great west desert storyteller James P. Sharp told it this way: “After descending Dugway Pass, a lone woman passenger on the stage awoke and found the horses standing still. She investigated and, not finding the driver, gathered up the lines and drove to Simpson. Port Rockwell was there. She was a noted character and was known to carry a revolver and was also known to be able to take care of herself under any and all conditions. Port examined the gun and found one empty shell in it, listened to her story, and let her continue east while he went to investigate. When he found the driver’s body about 1 mile west of the Dugway Station, he loaded it in the buckboard, drove it to the old well and dumped it down.
When he returned to Salt Lake, the stage coach officials demanded he arrest the woman. They said he had been taking things into his own hands a bit too much and they wanted a change. He refused. Then they demanded he bring the body in so they could investigate. He told them it was too hot to attempt to haul a body that distance but if any of them wished to investigate, he would be glad to go back with them and lower them down the well and let them carry on all the investigating they wanted alone with the body. No one wanted to go. Why didn’t Porter arrest the young lady? You see this particular stage driver had been seen with a young squaw at Fish Springs and Port had warned the stage driver that sooner or later the old Buck would catch up with him.”
It had always been said that Porter always got his man but there is one instance I am aware of where this perfect record is in question. It will be told in detail in a future article but the basic premise is that Porter was hired by Wells Fargo to meet a California gold shipment at Faust Station and escort it safely through Salt Lake City. When the stage arrived at Faust, the driver and messenger reported that they were robbed out on Dugway Flat near the Old River Bed. Porter interviewed them for a while and then in typical fashion, gathered the basic necessities and headed out west along the Overland Trail.
Porter arrived at the scene of the crime well after dark and found the strong box with the lock shot off where the stage men said the incident occurred. It was pitch black that night so Porter waited for the moon to come up and then he picked up the man’s tracks and followed them across the desert and finally found the man camped along Cherry Creek on the backside of the Sheeprock Mountains.
Porter watched him for several days so he could determine where the outlaw had hidden the loot and then he arrested the man and took him to either his ranch house on Government Creek or the Horace and Libby Rockwell place at Lookout Pass, several stories disagree on that point. Either way, the man escaped during the night and Rockwell was fit to be tied. He put up $1,000 of his own money for information leading to the capture of the thief and followed his trail all the way to Wyoming but couldn’t come up with the man. It was however said that when Rockwell returned, he was wearing the man’s boots so I guess we will never know if the man got away or not.
In our next story we’ll continue the tales of “Old Port” Rockwell.
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Desert with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.