Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

February 7, 2023
Desert Odyssey: Porter Rockwell – Part 3

“I’ve never shot AT anyone, if I shoot, they get shot” 

– Porter Rockwell defending himself in court against prosecutors.

By the time the Army had settled in to Camp Floyd, Rockwell had attained legendary status through incredible acts of bravery that were witnessed by many and through fantastic tales spread around campfires of gentiles, soldiers and teamsters that described Rockwell as the veritable destroying angel or “chief” of the Danites. His notoriety was such that he caught the attention of one of the most famous explorers of the day, Sir Richard Burton. 

Burton, a man who had by this time served with the British Army on nearly every continent and gone on incredible expeditions to India, Africa and forbidden parts of the Middle East, was fascinated with the “Great American Desert” so in 1860, he crossed the USA, spending a bit of time in Salt Lake City. As a result of the journey, he published a book called “The City of the Saints.” It provided what may be the best description of the West Desert during the time of the Pony Express and of Orrin Porter Rockwell. Burton was a fantastic writer who drew on his breadth of education, travel, and experience to write interesting prose that was sprinkled with humor and satire. 

Burton met Porter on his way to Camp Floyd in the summer of 1860 and described Rockwell in the following manner: “Porter Rockwell was a man about 50, tall and strong with ample leather leggings overhanging his huge spurs, and the saw handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse. His forehead was already a little bald and he wore his long grisly locks after the ancient fashion of the USA, plaited and gathered up at the nape of the neck. His brow puckered with frowning wrinkles, contrasted curiously with his cool determined grey eye, jolly red face, well touched up with paint and his laughing good humored mouth. The Officers called him Porter and preferred him to the Slimy Villains who will drink with a man and then murder him. “

The last part is intriguing as Burton stated that many of the officers in the federal Army at Camp Floyd were on a first name basis with Rockwell and that some of those men probably even liked him. Again, Rockwell had the uncanny knack and ability to get along with anyone and could be friends with anyone as long as you didn’t cross him, insult the prophet, or god forbid — steal a horse. It is also interesting that when the U.S. Federal Marshal Dotson was trying to serve a warrant for Rockwell’s arrest and take him into custody for the alleged murder of the Aiken Party, Gov. Cummings, refused to order the Army at Camp Floyd to provide soldiers to back up Marshal Dotson, which the marshal knew would be necessary to take Rockwell into custody. 

Burton continues: “Rockwell invited us to join him in a ‘Squar’ drink, which means spirits without water. The mode of drinking was peculiar. Porter, after the preliminary sputation, raised the glass with a cocked little finger to his lips, with the twinkle of the eye, ejaculated “Wheat!” that is to say “Good,” and drained the tumbler to the bottom. Of these ‘Squar Drinks’ we had at least four, which however did not shake Mr. Rockwell’s nerve, then he sent out for more.” 

Here we find reference again to Rockwell’s favorite motto, “Wheat.” Whether or not Burton was familiar with the parable of the “Wheat and the Tares” is not known but it seems as though Rockwell used the phrase in good humor as well as in battle and possibly also to give a hint to gentiles passing through that there may eventually be a harvest where final separation would be required so they should watch what they do. 

Rockwell was well known for his capacity to handle his liquor. This fact would surface over and over again throughout the rest of his life. As he got older, Rockwell  likely medicated himself with alcohol to cover up pain of loss and possibly escape torment from the memories of things he had either witnessed or done. 

Burton continues: “When he (Rockwell) heard I was preparing for California, he gave me abundant good advice. To carry a double-barreled gun loaded with buckshot. To keep my eyes ‘skinned’ especially in canyons and ravines. To make at times a dark camp, that is to say, un hitching for supper, and then hitching up and turning a few miles off the road — ever to be ready for attack when the animals are being in spanned and outspanned, and never to trust to appearances in an Indian Country.” 

Another thing I find interesting about Rockwell is the fact that he hated most of the West Desert but he loved the corner of it where he would eventually carve out his ranch on Government Creek.  Maybe it was due to the fact that the desert held many dangers for a man like Rockwell who carried on a dangerous existence. Most of his experience with the desert was chasing down criminals. The resultant showdowns with the same in those lonely remote places that ended up with the demise of the outlaws in the desert wastes. 

Burton noted something peculiar as Rockwell gave his advice: “I observed when thus speaking, Porter’s eyes assumed the expression of an old mountaineer, ever rolling as if set in quicksilver. For the purpose of avoiding “White Indians”, the worst of their kind, he advised me to shun the direct route, which he represented to be about as fit for traveling as hell for a powder magazine. Porter comforted the men by saying either the Indians would not attempt to attack us and our stock — ever a temptation to them — or that they would assault us in force and wipe us out.” 

Porter probably was concerned with the safety of these men who were about to head out into the Great American Desert by telling them some key and useful information but he was also toying with them as evidenced by his final twist where he states casually that they will either be left alone or wiped out. He also touches on a theme that likely has not received enough attention over the eons and that is the fact that most depredations and outrages committed out west along the trail in those times were committed by “White Indians,” which is something we will take a closer look at in future articles. 

As happened many times in the early History of Utah, the federal Army departed the area, in this case, abandoning Camp Floyd as the onset of the Civil War approached. It wouldn’t be long however until another force of federalized soldiers marched across the desert from California to, as some in the federal government put it, “Keep an Eye” on the Mormons and subdue them by force if necessary. This new Army was made up of California volunteers and it was led by Col. Patrick Edward Connor. Connor was a fiery leader and vehement anti-Mormon. When he led his regiment across the desert he hoped it would be to the battlefields of Virginia where he would achieve glory against the Confederacy, but alas, he was directed to go to Utah and establish a military post. Even though Connor had a caustic relationship at best with Brigham Young, for some reason, Young allowed Porter Rockwell to once again imbed himself with his adversary. In January of 1863, Rockwell served as Connor’s guide where he led the Army up to the Cache Valley and the Battle or “Massacre” of Bear River. 

This battle dealt a stunning, and completely crushing blow to the Shoshone Indians in the dead of winter. Rockwell is credited with making it possible. It is unknown whether Rockwell participated or had anything to do with the unspeakable carnage that ensued after the main battle was settled but he did return to a hero’s welcome in Salt Lake City with Col. Connor, even riding in the same carriage all the way. 

I haven’t found any mention of Connor describing Rockwell but one of his officers, Chaplain Anderson, gave the following description: “Tradition says that he was in other days, Chief of the Danites. Whether Porter is the veritable BlueBeard and blood-stained hero of 1000 and 1 tales one hears, I can’t say. If so, that part of the business is…in his expressive language…played out…He is now the most affable of men — generous, attentive and kind to all. A most hospitable host and has a good liver and “my eyes” a good drinker. Fond of his whiskey which he says is made of wheat, and is always ready to do the “Squar” thing.” 

Again it seems that Rockwell found favor with the officers of the federal Army and this was no doubt to Brigham Young’s approval as he likely gained valuable intelligence through these relationships. 

In next week’s article, Rockwell will settle his Ranch on Government Creek in Skull Valley and cement his reputation as an other worldly gunfighter and man hunter in a series of shootouts and confrontations at Lehi, Faust, Riverbed and near Dugway Station.

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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