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Uncle Dick’s exploits

THE WEST — Richens Lacy “Uncle Dick” Wootton’s fame stems from his building and operating a toll road across Raton Pass. This was just one facet of his adventurous life. Wootton was born in 1816 in Virginia, though his father took the family to Kentucky when Dick was about seven years old. He received a fairly good education for the time, but the one thing he knew for sure was that the frontier west was calling his name. At the age of 20 he traveled to Independence, MO, with a view to joining a trapping party heading west into the high mountains. What he did, however, was meet Charles Bent on one of his many trips across the Santa Fe Trail to the metropolises of Kansas City and St. Louis. Bent hired Wootton as a muleskinner for his return trip to his and his brother’s fort on the Arkansas River in Colorado. Wootton was green, for sure. After listening to the other men’s stories about Indian sneak attacks, he was sent out on guard duty one night. Hearing odd noises and assuming the worst was happening, he reacted with random shooting, and

killed himself a mule. If he didn’t tower over the other drovers, he would have been teased no end. Wootton stood at somewhere between six foot four and six foot six inches. He weighed at least 220 pounds. He had a broad face. To counter his menacing appearance, he spoke with the slow, soft drawl of his birthplace. Once in Colorado, Wootton went to work for the Bent brothers. By November 1836 he was in Fort Laramie, WY, as an agent for the Bents in trading with the Sioux. After making a tidy profit on beaver pelts, he joined a party headed for the Pacific Northwest and Canada. He returned to Bent’s Fort after two years, only to learn the beaver skin market had dried up. He thus became a hunter to supply the fort. Wootton had many adventures throughout the west during the passing years. One of his enterprises was raising buffalo. After capturing two calves, he raised them and within a few years, had bred them with cattle. He drove the animals, buffalo and crossbreds, back east, though he trained some to yokes and used them like oxen. Wootton liked to tell stories. One of them concerned the Taos Rebellion in which his former boss, Charles Bent, the territorial governor, was murdered. Wootton claimed he joined the volunteers led by Ceran St. Vrain to quell the revolt in early 1847, and that he saved St. Vrain’s life when an Indian attacked him. It’s a good story, but there are many disbelievers. He also claimed it was he who informed Tom Tobin where to find the murderous Espinosas. Tobin heeded his instructions and “wiped out the gang” (all two of them). Another story was when he discovered an Apache “ambuscade” just in time to save a party of gold prospectors crossing Sangre de Cristo Pass on the Taos Trail. He had quite a few harrowing bear stories, but they never turned out very well for either men or bears. One of Wootton’s biggest problems with his stories was that he could seldom remember names, dates or details. There was no doubt he traveled through the west for some 30 years as a trapper, trader, freighter, hunter, stock raiser, settler and guide, but the details of his adventures kept tripping up his veracity. When later he wrote his autobiography, there were many discrepancies in times, distances and places. He also met some of the most famous of the frontiersmen and explorers. In 1848, he let himself be talked into guiding John C. Fremont on one of his expeditions. When he got a good look at the Sangres in their snowy mantle, he advised his leader to turn back. Fremont didn’t, but Wootton did, and avoided the privations that faced the party when it later got lost in the frozen mountains. One of Wootton’s favorite companions in many of his ventures was Kit Carson, who stood about a foot shorter than he, but whose courage and sensibility greatly impressed Wootton. By 1850, Wootton was living in Taos where he had a trading post. His best customer was the U.S. Army, which contracted with him to furnish beef. The cattle were grazed on his land just south of Raton Pass (or maybe in Colorado). After the Utes stole 500 head of these, he looked for a way to recoup his loss. He hired 31 (or so) herders to assist in driving 14,000 (or 9,000) sheep all the way to California. He earned about $40,000 (or $50,000) on that one. A good story should never be told the same way twice. In 1852 or early ‘53, Wootton joined several others in settling the Huerfano village near the junction of the Huerfano and Arkansas rivers. This was at a time when gossip was rife about the construction of an intercontinental railroad and the men thought it just might follow the Arkansas River westward. There he built a fortified home, or placita. He liked to tell the story that it was he who warned the residents of El Pueblo not to let any Indians into the compound. They did, and they died. Huerfano village, composed of five placitas and numerous cabins and dugouts, was the first permanent settlement in Huerfano County. Wootton took a wagon train of supplies for the Army in 1858 during the “Mormon War”. Returning east, he passed through the future area of Denver and noticed the large number of prospectors. He returned on Christmas Eve with gifts, goods and, even better, whiskey. His generosity with these items caused the recipients to call him “uncle”, and Uncle Dick Wootton was born. In 1859, he was included as a signer of the incorporation papers for the City of Denver. In fact, when delegates gathered on April 11, 1859 to form Jefferson Territory, they met in the hall above his saloon. He stayed in that city long enough to establish a general store, saloon and even a hotel. Because of that same generosity, he often failed to charge “friends” for rooms or supplies, which played havoc with his profit margin. In the fall of 1861 he returned south. Also, as a southern sympathizer, he may have encountered the same enmity among the miners that drove the early prospectors from Georgia out of Denver and environs. This time he settled along Fountain Creek in Pueblo County. Pueblo and Huerfano counties were full of southerners, so he must have felt right at home. He raised crops there until a flood in 1864 washed out his farm and he moved to his land on the Maxwell Land Grant on Raton Pass, and began construction of his famous toll road. Wootton might better be called Dad Wootton rather than Uncle Dick. He married at least four times (some say five) and fathered 20 children, most of whom predeceased him. Uncle Dick died Aug. 21, 1893 in Trinidad.