On Tuesday, August 22, 1893, Richens Lacy “Uncle Dick” Wootton died in southern Colorado at the age of 77. Mountain man, trader, road builder, and a few other things besides, Wootton packed a lot of living into those 77 years.
The Virginia-born Wootton was about 7 when his family move to Kentucky. In his late teens. He moved to an uncle’s Mississippi cotton plantation, but at age 20 struck out for Independence, Missouri and got a job on a wagon train bound for Santa Fe.
In the next 57 years, Wootton would trade with the Ute and Sioux; trap with Ceran St. Vrain, Christopher “Kit” Carson, and Old Bill Williams; scout for the U.S. Army; operate a trading post in early Denver; and drive sheep from New Mexico to California, to name just a few of his adventures. However, Wootton is perhaps best remembered for two events: His decision not to guide John Fremont through the Rockies in the fateful winter of 1848/49 and the toll road he operated through Raton Pass between 1865 and 1878.
Wootton signed on in early November 1848 to guide Fremont’s fourth expedition in search of a winter railroad route across the Rocky Mountains. But by the middle of the month, it was clear that the coming winter was going to be unusually cold and Wootton warned Fremont not to even attempt to cross the Rockies. When Fremont refused to listen to his advice, Wootton resigned. Old Bill Williams took over in his stead and the party entered the Rockies under his guidance, but Fremont wouldn’t listen to him either. Only 21 of Fremont’s original 32 men made it out alive and two of them, including Williams, would die a couple months later, trying to retrieve records and equipment that had been left behind in the mad rush to escape the snow-bound mountains.
But Wootton lived to have yet further adventures. His toll road through Raton Pass was another inspired decision. He and a partner built 27 miles of roads and bridges along this mountainous stretch of the Santa Fe Trail and important connection between New Mexico and Colorado Territories. They charged $1.50 for wagons and 25 cents for anyone on horseback. Herded livestock cost 5 cents a head, while Indians were allowed free passage.
The road grossed an average of $600 a month and remained operational until 1878, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company track reached the Pass from Trinidad, Colorado. Then the AT&SF bought Wootton’s toll rights in exchange for $50 a month compensation for the remainder of his life and that of his fourth wife, Maria Paulina, who was some 40 years his junior.
When “Uncle Dick” Wootton died in August 1893, he’d lived a full and adventurous life. For more detailed information about this unique mountain man from an author with access to family material, see No Time to Quit: Pioneer America Seen through the Life of Rocky Mountain Man Uncle Dick Wootton.
.Source: Leroy R. Hafen, ed. Fur Trappers And Traders Of The Far Southwest, Utah State University press, Logan. 1997;