Richens Lacey”Uncle Dick”Wootton
Of all the mountain men uncle Dick Wooten had a unique and prolonged association with frontier Colorado territory.
Born in 1816 in Virginia, he would begin his odyssey in the Frontier West, as a wagon driver in Independence, Missouri.His many adventures in the West are well related in a biography first published in 1890 by Howard Lewis Conrad.
In that book, Wooten relates the details of mountain man life, many months and the thousands of miles traveled, hunting, trapping, and dealing with Indians. Although the mountain men clearly preferred trading with the Indians, they often had lethal confrontations. It was rare that an outfit of mountain men would go up to the Rockies, and return with a full complement of men. The battles with the Indians were lethal, with really no quarter given on either side. The mountain men made it a point to scalp the Indian dead,knowing that this disfigurement worried the Indians and how they would go to the afterlife. The Indians would do the same to the mountain men, or worse.
Viewing the savagery through the narrative of a man who lived it and participated in it; i.e., a first person account, is quite different than examining the same issues through the eyes of historians 150 years removed from the times.
Even the legendary mountain man has to start somewhere. In 1836, just a little bit shy of 19 years old, Richens Lacey took his first journey into Indian territory in the Frontier West as part of a wagon train. He describes in detail how the wagon train would set up its camp. The position is of the wagons, the stock, and general camp organization. On his first night on guard duty, he hears a strange sound, is concerned it may be an Indian, and ends up shooting the lead mule of the wagon train. Although they missed the mule, his compatriots had a good laugh at his expense.
Uncle Dick essentially lived from the opening of the Frontier West to the closing of the Front tier West in 1893. He lived more than long enough to hear discussions about “the noble Indian”, the Indians tragic loss of lands, and the savagery of the white man. In the biography by Conrad, Wooten addresses these issues and controversies directly. He points out that prior to the white man, Indians constantly engaged in tribal warfare, and contrary to opinion would annihilate the other tribe if they could. Torture, abduction of children, were commonplace. Wooten observed these practices over many years, and is not shy about pointing it out.
In spite of the mule it wasn’t very long until Wootton had a chance to redeem himself. At Pawnee Fork where it flows into the Arkansas River, the wagon train was in the heart of Comanche territory. I think it’s worth taking a few direct sentences from Wooten’s discussion of this battle.”Of all the mean Indians I ever had anything to do with, the Comanches were the meanest”. “Mind I’m not saying that there are, or ever were any good live Indians.” “They were all mean then, just the same as they are now, only some were meaner than others. ” He goes on to describe a Comanche force that numbers 250 strong, swooping down on the camp, shooting arrows, throwing lances “and screaming like Wildcats”.
The Comanches charged through their camp, with their faces silhouetted by the moonlight. Still, they were unable to make the mules and the other stock run off. “We made it too hot for them though, and when they finally retreated, they left three good Indians, where they had fallen from their horses. You understand, when I say good Indians, that I mean dead ones. Some people might not agree with me on this point, but I think I know what I’m talking about. If I don’t, I ought to, because I’d been among them long enough.”
I’m going to come back to the subject of Wootton’s view of American Indians, and contrast that with the image of the Plains Indians depicted in the art of Howard Terpining. I consider Terpining to be the greatest of all living Western artists. His 30 year career painting Indian subjects, and creating masterworks is really unparalleled. A great man and a great artist. His depiction of the Plains Indians are quite a contrast from Wootton’s descriptions. Wootton seems to find very little redeeming characteristics for the Plains Indians. He found them more admirable in their native state, than in the reservation period, but the overall am impression is uncomplimentary.Two great men, two accomplished men, two opposite pictures portrayed of the American Indian.
From the battle at Pawnee Fork, Wootton began to develop his reputation as a frontiersman.
Wooton I believe was a realist and dealt with people including Indians better one on one than in general. From reading his autobiography I found him starkly honest. He saw differences in each tribe he dealt with. He was befriended by the Arapaho and traded with Sioux, Cheyenne,and probably Comancheros. He traded once with the Comanche and vowed to never again for the risk was too high and he felt they did not have honor. He spoke well of many Indians based on encounters he had, even had hand to hand combat that ended in truce. And there he was living in Indian territories under so many circumstances, trapper, guide, settler, businessman,and often alone; and this as these people were losing their lands. The intensity of life for people then can only be imagined by us, or truly felt where such violence is still commonplace in today’s world. In that setting strange alliances for survival are made. I have a deep admiration and respect for Dick Wooton. Though I do believe there was a strain of racism in him, I think that s something all people must confront and I believe he confronted it. He knew the buffalo were disappearing and he knew the Indians were victims of time and must succumb. He knew there was no stopping the Whiteman. Thank you for allowing me to share my “quick write” on my thoughts about Uncle Dick Wooton.