Well past midnight, everyone in the wagon train was snoring. First night on guard duty, teenager Dick Wootton spotted a stealthily approaching shadow in the chest-high grass. Convinced Indians were about to attack, he propped the large-bore rifle against his shoulder, sighted down the barrel and pulled the trigger. The shadow dropped. Heart pounding, he knew tonight would be memorable since he single-handedly had saved the entire Bent/St. Vrain wagon train from certain death. Except it wasn’t a sneaking Indian. The lead mule, Jake, had wandered off and was simply returning to cam mp. Wootton never did live that down.
In 1836, he began a lifetime as a frontiersman, adventurer, trapper, guide and businessman. Always seeking adventure, “Uncle Dick” Wootton is best known as the tamer of Raton Pass. Wootton fought and traded with Indians, trapped and scouted the Western half of the country. He led wagon trains, herded buffalo, cattle and sheep, farmed and ranched and ran a stage stop in Trinidad, Colorado. He also constructed and operated a toll road across the mountains from Trinidad to Willow Springs (now Raton), New Mexico.
Born Richens Lacy Wootton on May 6, 1816, in Virginia, he was seven when the family moved to Kentucky. At age 17, Richens moved in with an uncle on a Mississippi cotton plantation. But he needed more excitement. Within two years he moved to Independence. Missouri, and signed on as a wagon man. For years he hauled freight for the firm of William and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain, crossing the Great Plains via the Santa Fe Trail. On that first trip, men mistook his name as Richard, so he became Dick. He acquired “Uncle” years later in Denver when he tapped two barrels of his Taos Lightning for appreciative miners.
Through the years, he successfully achieved many firsts, including opening a hotel, restaurant and dry goods at a Colorado gold camp, in what is now Denver. But he’d harbored a desire grander than that. His many trips from Pueblo, Colorado, south into Fort Union and Santa Fe, New Mexico, had proven that a better, faster, safer road was vital to traffic on the Santa Fe Trail. This route was a commerce highway opened by merchant William Becknell who correctly foresaw profits being made in transporting American goods across prairies to appreciative customers in Mexico’s frontier. He used heavy Murphy freight wagons, and within a short time the Santa Fe trade ballooned into a million-dollar-a-year business.
The first official Santa Fe Trail route was surveyed in 1825 by U.S. military patrols, so by the time Wootton took that initial freight wagon train across in 1836, the trail was well-used. Travel had blossomed once Spain, which would not trade with the U.S., lost ownership of Mexico in 1821. Trade increased further in 1848 when the Southwest came under American rule after the Mexican War. Travel and trade from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe exploded. In May 1849, the first stagecoach line began monthly service between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe.
Building the Pass Wouldn’t be Easy
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