Virginia Mountain Man Uncle Dick Wootton
Uncle Dick Wootton was one of Colorado’s foremost Mountain Men. For most of his adult life he ranged around the area which would become Pueblo, Trinidad, La Junta, and Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dick Wootton additionally became one of the best frontiersman/trapper/guides in the West. He fought with, and traded with the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Sioux, Comanche, Ute and Piute Indians. He traveled over almost the entire western half of the country as a trapper and later as a military scout. Over his life he demonstrated an amazing adaptability to survive/thrive in the wilderness and frontier. In addition to being a trapper/trader, he was a scout for the army, drove wagon trains, raised cattle, farmed and ranched, operated a hotel in frontier Denver, operated a stage shop in Trinidad, and constructed and operated a toll road across the mountains from Trinidad to New Mexico.
Born Richens Lacy Wootton on May 6, 1816, he lived with his family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia until he was 7. In 1823 his family moved to Kentucky, where Richens lived until age 17 at which time he went to live with an uncle on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. For almost 2 years he stayed in Mississippi. He then went west to Independence, Missouri in 1836 looking for excitement and adventure.
His first job out of Independence was with a wagon train run by Bent, St. Vrain & Co.. hauling trade goods and supplies to Bent’s Fort in what would become SE Colorado. While at Bent’s Fort, he was given charge of a wagon load of trade goods and a party of about 13 men and sent north to trade with Sioux Indians. This venture was very successful, and Wootton determined to stay in the mountains to make his fortune. For the next several years Wootton would be a prominent trader among Ute. Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapahoe, and Comanche Indians.
Wootton, as part of a party of nineteen men, undertook a trapping expedition across Western United States. The brigade left Bent’s Fort and followed the Arkansas River up to its source, then trapped along the Rocky Mountains northwards up to the Yellowstone country. They then turned westward across what would become Idaho, trapping the Snake and Salmon Rivers. Being well loaded with furs by this time, they continued on to Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Vancouver, where they disposed of a quantity of their furs. The party traveled to southern California and into Arizona. According to Wootton, there were plenty of beaver in this country, but they were not of the fine fur-bearing variety. After nearly two years and traveling five thousand miles, the brigade returned to Bent’s Fort.
By 1840, trapping had become far less profitable. Wootton took a job at Bent’s Fort as a hunter. The primary game was buffalo and his purpose in hunting them was to provide meat for fort employees. Over the years, though, the “skin hunters” hunted the buffalo almost to extinction, hunting them only to provide buffalo robes to an Eastern market. Buffalo leather had also found a use as drive belts for machinery in the nascent industrial revolution. Wootton tried an experiment with buffalo ranching in the vicinity of El Pueblo. He raised buffalo calves and cattle together for three years, then drove his herd east along the Santa Fe Trail to Kansas. There he sold them all for a good profit to a man who then took them to New York.
War between Mexico and the United State commenced in 1846. During the war, Wootton served as an Army Scout, relying on his knowledge of the west and southwest to guide troops across what was still largely wilderness. His responsibilities as scout included locating campsites, river crossings, hunting game, and providing advance knowledge of Indians and hostile troops.
In 1852, Wootton drove a flock of nine thousand sheep to California from southern Colorado, to supply the gold miners in California with food. One hundred of the nine thousand sheep he started were lost, he still had 8,900 when he arrived in Sacramento. The trip took 107 days to reach Sacramento in early October, and then the remainder of the winter to dispose of the sheep. During the early and mid 1850’s Wootton farmed/ranched about 700 acres of land near the present day site of Pueblo, Colorado.
Starting in 1856, Wootton operated a freight train for several years between Fort Union (New Mexico), Kansas City, and Albuquerque. A typical train consisted of 36 wagons, each with 5 pair of oxen. The trip in one direction would take more than one hundred days.
Wootton set up a store in the frontier mining town of Denver 15 1858. In addition to the store, he also owned and operated a hotel/restaurant. He was never successful in the hotel business, for the reason that his philosophy was “just because a man didn’t have money, didn’t mean he didn’t have a right to eat”. As a result, many of patrons were unable to pay for the services.
In 1866 Wootton came to Trinidad with permission from the territorial governments of Colorado and New Mexico to build a toll road over Raton Pass. As most folks thought the work was too hard, Dick hired a tribe of Utes under Chief Conniach to help him. He improved some 27 miles of the toughest part of the road. “There were hillsides to cut, rocks to blast and remove,” he said, “and bridges to build by the score. But I built the road and made it a good one.” He erected a tollgate in front of his house/stage stop/hotel and charged $1.50 for 1 wagon or buggy and 25 cents for a horseman, but he always allowed the Indians to use the road free of charge. His home near the toll road was always open to stagecoach passengers who found a hot lunch and an abundance of good stories waiting at his table. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad bought the right of way from Wootton in 1879 and built the railroad all the way to Santa Fe in 1880, ending the era of the Santa Fe Trail. At first the railroad offered him $50,000 for the road but he turned that down. Instead he sold it them for $1, plus a monthly stipend and grocery money for his wife.
The timing was good for Uncle Dick because he was going blind, a condition that afflicted him several years until a newly arrived doctor tried an experimental surgery on him which was partially successful. Whereas before he lost his eye sight, he could hit a target dead center every time with a rifle, now he could at least hit the barn behind it. But he did pass the last few years of his life in relative ease and comfort in his house high on Raton Pass.
Wootton died in 1893 at the age of 77, having outlived all of his 5 wives and 17 of his 20 children.