Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

March 1, 2023
Desert Odyssey: Porter Rockwell, continued

Even in his latter years, Porter remained active chasing down outlaws and cattle thieves as an article on Dec. 8, 1868 stated that he had captured murderer Chauncey W. Millard in Rush Valley. Possibly feeling the heat for dispatching too many criminals, he brought the prisoner in. He did however make it a point to witness the killer’s execution on Jan. 29,  1869. 

In 1870, the Desert News reported “We understand that O. Porter Rockwell was also out with a party of men in the direction of Simpson Springs (a posse). 

All of these killings, most of which were justified and made Utah Territory a safer place to live, took a toll on Rockwell. As in the case of the Dugway Station incident, Porter had the habit of dumping the bodies of those he “used up” in the desert in dry wells. 

Just west of Lookout Station and down a rather rocky, gravelly ravine about a mile into Skull Valley the road bends north around the point of the mountain and then back towards Government Creek. Near this point the stage company dug a dry well over 100 feet deep. James Sharp believes that this well was Porter Rockwell’s burial plot. 

On the road to Camp Floyd there is another deep well where there was a stage station in the early days. The Salt Lake Tribune, in an article from 1878, stated that Rockwell firmly believed the well to be haunted by evil spirits who delighted upon bringing trouble to him and his horses every time he passed by. As an explanation of all this, Porter told his hired men that in the old well, 5 or 6 men had been buried years ago…..probably by Rockwell himself. 

Some people said that when they would visit Rockwell’s ranch in his later years, they would sometimes see him walking about talking to ghosts. Rockwell was likely chased by his demons, even if they were only in his own mind, and haunted by those he had killed across the Desert, especially when he passed the gravesites of those he planted in the ground. 

Rockwell kept after outlaws until the day he died as it was noted by the Salt Lake Tribune in 1878 that he brought the murderer Wallace Wilkerson to justice. Orrin Porter Rockwell died at age 64 on June 9, 1878. It is said that when his daughter went to his closet to find a suit for him to be buried in, she struggled to find any that didn’t have bullet holes in them. 

One of his friends, George Bean, described Porter in this way and it is a better way to remember him than the alcoholic who was tormented by spirits. Bean wrote of Porter in his journal: “Orrin Porter Rockwell as I knew him was a diamond in the rough. It was great to know his inner self. His honest loyalty to church, country and friends was deep and lasting. He abhorred deceit and intrigue as I did. He was average height, quick in movement, with strong arms and chest and grey eyes cool and searching. He was always well armed since his Nauvoo days although the Prophet Joseph told him to wear his hair long and he would never be killed by an enemy. He held to that promise and on many occasions when he stayed overnight with me, my wife Elizabeth would plait or braid his hair and Porter would comb it into a flare the next morning which emphasized his high forehead and aristocratic air. He raised thoroughbred horses and drove a fine team on his favorite vehicle, the buckboard. His riding horses were the best ever we thought. His mouth was expressive of his moods whether jovial, reckless, worried or pleasant. His humor made his stories stick. We spent many years of dangerous and worthwhile service together.” 

Whether you believe it or not, Rockwell’s promise from Joseph Smith was fulfilled as he was never killed by an enemy. 

Rockwell Country as I call it begins west of Faust Station on the Pony Express Trail and continues out to Simpson Springs. It also includes Skull Valley and the length of Government Creek from where it begins near his old ranch site in between the Sheeprock and Simpson mountains all the way down to present day Dugway Proving Ground where he used to winter range his horses.  

Porter Rockwell’s place in history is unsure. Is he a villain or hero? Murderer or enforcer and punisher of the law? 

That he was a deadly tool used by Brigham Young is believed by many. There was so much to this man, so many sides, a very complex, intriguing, likable, disturbing, individual that has forever left his mark on the folklore and history of the state of Utah.

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.

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