Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

February 15, 2023
Desert Odyssey: Porter Rockwell, continued

What Porter Rockwell probably looked like around the time of the Lot Huntington shootout at Faust Station.

What Porter Rockwell probably looked like around the time of the Lot Huntington shootout at Faust Station.

“Have you heard of Porter Rockwell? He’s the Mormon Triggerite, they say he hunts for horse thieves when the moon is shining bright, so if you rustle cattle, I’ll tell you what to do, get the drop on Porter Rockwell, or he’ll get the drop on you!”

Old Utah Guidebook 1957

Following the Battle of Bear River, Rockwell seems to have turned most of his attention to his pursuit of horse thieves, cattle rustlers and outlaws. Porter was hated and feared by criminals because, as Richard Lloyd Dewey put it in his biography of Rockwell, he could shoot faster, ride faster, fight better and track them to the remotest corners of the desert. An early Utah newspaper, the Salt Lake Republican reported in print that “He was the worst enemy that cattle thieves ever had in Utah and that If it had not been for the fear they entertained for him, the number of their depredations would have been much greater.”

 Dewey stated that “Porter had an incomparable ability to read tracks. His shrewd strategy, his faculty for noticing everything, his tireless persistence and the painstaking care with which he built up his infallible calculations in which he prepared against every possible contingency, made his success as a hunter of outlaws proverbial” – and as previously stated – they hated him for it. Rockwell was involved in dozens of “man hunts’’ where for whatever reason, whether it be in his official capacity as a deputy sheriff as an employee of Wells Fargo, or whether it just be that the local bishop had referred one of the brethren to seek assistance from Rockwell to recover stolen stock, he would head west out into the desert to get his man. 

Another continuous theme throughout Rockwell’s life was that he was a champion of the common man. He was unselfish with his time to the extreme and would constantly drop all that he was doing to help someone who had difficulty with horse thieves and outlaws. As Dewey put it, “The citizenry constantly depended upon him to return their stolen stock and rid them of the scourges of outlawry.”

It didn’t matter to Rockwell whether the person in need of assistance was Mormon or Gentile, he reacted the same way. James Sharp in his article entitled “The Old Man’s Story” describes Rockwell heading out on the trail in this manner, “Upon hearing about a crime and that the criminals had taken to the desert, Rockwell departed taking with him a horse, blanket, big coat, a double-barreled shotgun, some ammunition, a spy glass and a loaf of bread. Heading out on the trail of horse thieves.” 

If you were an outlaw, the worst possible news you could ever hear was that Porter Rockwell was on your trail because Porter “always got his man.”

On many occasions, Rockwell didn’t ride a horse when tracking criminals as he preferred to ride one of his own buckboards pulled by magnificent horses that he raised himself. Some believe that he had teams of his fine horses strategically positioned at ranches throughout the desert after the fashion of the Pony Express so that when he was trailing outlaws, he could change out the teams, keep going, and eventually overtake them. 

Back in the Old West if you stole a man’s horse, you likely killed him because he would be left on foot without food or water in a wild and possibly hostile country. Due to this fact, lawmen and posses were given wide latitude when dealing with horse thieves and their instructions often read “bring ‘em in Dead or Alive.” This gives important context to how Rockwell operated out in the desert as he attacked his chore of bringing justice to outlaws with reckless abandon. 

Notice how I said bringing justice to outlaws, it wasn’t a mistake because more often than not, he settled matters where he found them and few outlaws were brought back to justice. I sometimes wonder if Rockwell was attempting to even up the ledger by doing good deeds for others who were preyed upon by outlaws? Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that he numbed it all with copious doses of self-medication in the form of hard alcohol. 

In January of 1862, Rockwell was informed that some horses were stolen so even though the hour was late, he took off from the Salt Lake Valley in pursuit, following the tracks of the bandits by moonlight and interviewing people at places they may have been seen. He finally tracked them down, arriving at Faust Station, 75 miles from Salt Lake, around 4 a.m. Rockwell and the men he brought with him staked out and surrounded the station house and waited. 

When the people at the station were sitting down to breakfast just before dawn, Doc Faust came out of the building. Rockwell took him aside and told him to go back into the building and tell the outlaws to give themselves up as they were surrounded. Faust did so but one of the outlaws, a young, brash and brazen desperado named Lot Huntington came out with guns drawn. He stated that he would not be taken alive and that he was leaving and if Porter or anyone else tried to stop him, he would kill them. 

Huntington led his horse from the corral, keeping it between himself and Rockwell, as a shield while he saddled it up. Not having a good shot, Rockwell fired into the air, startling the horse, causing it to rear up and in that instant Huntington was exposed and Rockwell let him have both barrels. The Journal of the History of the Church describes what happened next: “Lot Huntington drew his revolver whereupon he was shot in the belly with 8 slugs cutting the arteries to pieces. Huntington fell with part of his body in the corral and one leg outside the corral. He bled to death in four minutes.’’ This episode will be covered in detail when we talk about Faust Station. 

On another occasion, it was reported that four men had held up a baggage man and beat him severely. Union Pacific Railroad then hired Rockwell to track the criminals down. After his fashion, Rockwell rode out alone in pursuit of the bandits and returned with all four — one badly wounded, and three draped over the saddle. Another company, Wells Fargo, loved to have Porter Rockwell ride shotgun on their stage coaches because as Dewey put it, they believed he was honest and he knew how to deal with outlaws and Indians. 

When there were valuable shipments to be guarded, Rockwell was oftentimes called upon to see the stage through because Indians and “White” Indians as the desert brigands were called, had no desire to face up to Orin Porter Rockwell. 

Rockwell and the Indians of the West Desert had a mutual dislike for one another to put it mildly, as on many occasions Rockwell was sent out after Indians that were accused of committing depredations and Porter acted decisively as judge, jury and executioner on the spot. Rockwell had the reputation as we have seen as a heavy drinker and it was said that he could shoot an Indian for stealing a horse without confession or remorse. As you can imagine, the Indians tried on numerous occasions to kill him and exact revenge but every time they tried, Rockwell ended up killing some of them so eventually, when the Indians in the west desert saw that Rockwell was riding the stage, they left it alone, believing in their own way, the prophecy that Rockwell had divine protection and couldn’t be killed. 

As Rockwell progressed in years, his drinking only became worse. An article appeared in the Union Vedette in 1864 that stated “Yesterday Porter Rockwell was tried before Judge Clinton on a charge of assault and battery preferred by Frank Gilbert. Bad whiskey don’t agree with Porter and we suppose that’s what ailed him. A 25.00 fine was imposed.” 

It was said that Porter always stayed at the Sharp place traveling through on the way to his ranch on Government Creek. James Sharp recalled “Mother said he was always drunk and never ate much. Always in a hurry to catch some horse thief.”

Rockwell is a complex character who is a perfect case study for what Plato described in “The Republic” as the “Duality of Man.” This concept simply states that there are two parts to every person, the good and the bad which helps to explain why Rockwell was a hero of the common man but in that service, he did some very bad things that some may argue, however, were very necessary for the times.

Rockwell was a one-man outlaw wrecking crew and in the pursuit of his official and unofficial duties he laid waste to numerous bandits and was loved by the citizenry for it. All of these killings took a toll on Porter however and as we will see next week in our last article on this complex character, as he was haunted by the ghosts of those he “used up” out in the West Desert.

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.

One thought on “Desert Odyssey: Porter Rockwell, continued

  1. Rockwell was my great, great.grand father. By Emily his oldest daughter. Enjoyed your article. He was a real character a man of purpose lived lived everyday of his life. Dedicated to those around him
    Thanks again for your work to give him credit to his life

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