The local newspaper reported “The Overland Stage was held up somewhere near Riverbed on the western desert and robbed of $40,000 in gold bullion from California.”
From the late 1840s through the 1870s, Orrin Porter Rockwell was renowned in the Great Basin and throughout the West as a man with whom one did not trifle. He had a reputation as one who always got his man.
Rockwell had been hired to guard the aforementioned gold shipment on a stretch through rough country in Utah Territory. When the stage was seen approaching the place where his work was to begin, Port knew that something was amiss. It came in fast, kicking up a cloud of dust as the lathered horses came to a halt in front of him.
“We been robbed!” said the driver. “Where?” asked Rockwell. “Back on Riverbed Flat,” came the reply. “How come? Ain’t a place for a jackrabbit to hide there!”
The driver reported that the lone bandit had lain in the middle of the road as if he were dead with his horse ground-hitched nearby. When the guard got down to investigate, the bandit got the drop on him and demanded that the driver toss down the express box. He shot the lock off, looked inside, smiled, and told the driver to move on.
No sooner did Port get the details than he was armed, in the saddle, and in pursuit. He arrived at the site of the robbery near midnight, waited for the moon to come up, picked up the outlaw’s tracks, and trailed him into the vast wasteland.
Port had a habit of talking to his horse. “Now, Nig, if an’ you and me had a-robbed that stage, just where would we go to hide out?”
Rockwell tracked the man down but didn’t take him immediately. He knew that the gold was hidden somewhere near the bandit’s camp and that he would never get it unless the bandit himself led him to it.
Rockwell kept him under surveillance for several days until the robber finally dug up the gold. Port went down the canyon, staked out his horse, and waited for the bandit to come along. When he got the drop on him, Port’s hat came off and his long hair fell down over his shoulders.
“Port Rockwell!” was all the surprised thief could say. “Who else did you think would come after you, some school marm?”
He was notorious for his long hair, beard, and his steel blue eyes. Indians and outlaws alike gave him a wide berth when they saw the braided hair and realized who he was. To the Indians, he was “big medicine.”
Well, the outlaw never made it back to face justice. Some say he was killed in an attempt to escape. Others say he got away when Port turned him over to someone else to guard while he got some sleep. Whatever the case, the gold was returned to its rightful owners in its entirety.
It impressed me that Porter Rockwell had $40,000 of someone else’s money in his hands, an enormous sum for the time. The bandit was nowhere to be found and was most likely dead. What was to keep Rockwell from claiming he never found the perpetrator so he could keep the money for himself?
Porter Rockwell had a reputation as a man of integrity. Some considered him a hired killer. Others counted on him to recover their stolen cattle or other property from Indians and outlaws. Some saw him as their protector, the only law they could count on. Others regarded him as an “avenging angel” who would just as soon shoot you as look at you.
Those who knew him claimed his personality was paradoxical, yet for the most part they admired him. One of his contemporaries told the story that one day at dusk Porter was riding past an obscure farmhouse, stopping for a chicken crossing the road before him. Port pulled out his revolver and blew the bird away. Then, smiling, he turned to a seven-year old boy and said, “Tell your mama Porter Rockwell’s here for supper.”
I have studied the man’s life to the extent that it is recorded and I have concluded that Orrin Porter Rockwell, no matter what his reputation as a bad man, was a man of integrity. His friends could count on him for help and knew he would do whatever it took, no matter the dangers and no matter the circumstances. His enemies respected his tenacity, his sense of right and wrong, and his tracking and survival skills.
Bendigo Shafter said, “A lawman is not a restraint, but a freedom, a liberation. He restrains only those who would break the laws and provides freedom for the rest of us to work, to laugh, to sing, to play in peace.” (From a book by Louis L’Amour)
We’ll be hearing more of Orrin Porter Rockwell.
For more information, read Porter Rockwell: A Biography, by Richard Lloyd Dewey