Famous Men of the Santa Fe Trail

“Tavern-keepers in those days couldn’t choose their guests, and we entertained them just as they came along. The knights of the road would come by now and then, order a meal, eat it hurriedly, pay for it, and move on to where they had arranged to hold up a stage that night. Sometimes they did not wait for it to get dark, but halted the stage, went through the treasure box in broad daylight, and then ordered the driver to move on in one direction, while they went off in another.

“One of the most daring and successful stage robberies that I remember was perpetrated by two men when the eastbound coach was coming up on the south side of the Raton Mountains, one day about ten o’clock in the forenoon.

“On the morning of the same day, a little after sunrise, two rather genteel-looking fellows, mounted on fine horses, rode up to my house and ordered breakfast. Being informed that breakfast would be ready in a few minutes, they dismounted, hitched their horses near the door, and came into the house.
“I knew then, just as well as I do now, they were robbers, but I had no warrant for their arrest, and I should have hesitated about serving it if I had because they looked like very unpleasant men to transact that kind of business with.

“Each of them had four pistols sticking in his belt and a repeating rifle strapped on to his saddle. When they dismounted, they left their rifles with the horses, but walked into the house and sat down at the table, without laying aside the arsenal which they carried in their belts.

“They had little to say while eating but were courteous in their behavior, and very polite to the waiters. When they had finished breakfast, they paid their bills and rode leisurely up the mountain.

“It did not occur to me that they would take chances on stopping the stage in daylight, or I should have sent someone to meet the incoming coach, which I knew would be along shortly, to warn the driver and passengers to be on the lookout for robbers.

“It turned out, however, that a daylight robbery was just what they had in mind, and they made a success of it.

“About halfway down the New Mexico side of the mountain, where the canon is very narrow and was then heavily wooded on either side, the robbers stopped and waited for the coach. It came lumbering along by and by, neither the driver nor the passengers dreaming of a hold-up.

“The first intimation they had of such a thing was when they saw two men step into the road, one on each side of the stagey each of them holding two cocked revolvers, one of which was brought to bear on the passengers and the other on the driver, who were politely but very positively told that they must throw up their hands without any unnecessary delay, and the stage came to a standstill.
“There were four passengers in the coach, all men, but their hands went up at the same instant that the driver dropped his reins and struck an attitude that suited the robbers.

“Then, while one of the men stood guard, the other stepped up to the stage and ordered the treasure box thrown off. This demand was complied with, and the box was broken and rifled of its contents, which fortunately were not of very great value.

“The passengers were compelled to hand out their watches and other jewelry, as well as what money they had in their pockets, and then the driver was directed to move up the road. In a minute after this, the robbers had disappeared with their booty, and that was the last seen of them by that particular coach-load of passengers.

“The men who planned and executed that robbery were two cool, level-headed, and daring scoundrels, known as ‘Chuckle-luck’ and ‘Magpie.’ They were killed soon after this occurrence, by a member of their own band, whose name was Seward. A reward of a thousand dollars had been offered for their capture, and this tempted Seward to kill them, one night when they were asleep in camp.

“He then secured a wagon, into which he loaded the dead robbers, and hauled them to Cimarron City, where he turned them over to the authorities and received his reward.”

Among the Arapaho, Wooten was called “Cut Hand,” from the fact that he had lost two fingers on his left hand by an accident in his childhood. The tribe had the utmost veneration for the old trapper, and he was perfectly safe at any time in their villages or camps; it had been the request of a dying chief, who was once greatly favored by Wooton, that his warriors should never injure him although the nation might be at war with all the rest of the whites in the world.

Uncle Dick died a few seasons ago, at the age of nearly eighty. He was blind for some time, but a surgical operation partly restored his sight, which made the old man happy, because he could look again upon the beautiful scenery surrounding his mountain home, really the grandest in the entire Raton Range. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad had one of its freight locomotives named “Uncle Dick,” in honor of the veteran mountaineer, past whose house it hauled the heavy-laden trains up the steep grade crossing into the valley beyond. At the time of its baptism, now fifteen or sixteen years ago, it was the largest freight engine in the world.

Bill Williams

Old Bill Williams by Alfred Jacob Miller, 1839

Old Bill Williams by Alfred Jacob Miller, 1839

Old Bill Williams was another character of the early days of the Santa Fe Trail and was called so when Carson, Uncle Dick Wooten, and Maxwell were comparatively young in the mountains. He was, at the time of their advent in the remote West, one of the best-known men there, and had been famous for years as a hunter and trapper. Williams was better acquainted with every pass in the Rockies than any other man of his time and only surpassed by Jim Bridger later. He was with General John C. Fremont on his exploring expedition across the continent; but the statement of the old trappers, and that of General Fremont, in relation to his services then, differ widely. Fremont admits Williams’ knowledge of the country over which he had wandered to have been very extensive, but when put to the test on the expedition, he came very near sacrificing the lives of all. This was probably owing to Williams’ failing intellect, for when he joined the great explorer he was past the meridian of life. Now the old mountaineers contend that if Fremont had profited by the old man’s advice, he would never have run into the deathtrap which cost him three men, and in which he lost all his valuable papers, his instruments, and the animals which he and his party were riding. The expedition had followed the Arkansas River to its source, and the general had selected a route which he desired to pursue in crossing the mountains. It was winter, and Williams explained to him that it was perfectly impracticable to get over at that season. The general, however, ignoring the statement, listened to another of his party, a man who had no such experience but said that he could pilot the expedition. Before they had fairly started, they were caught in one of the most terrible snowstorms the region had ever witnessed, in which all their horses and mules were literally frozen to death. Then, when it was too late, they turned back, abandoning their instruments, and able only to carry along a very limited stock of food. The storm continued to rage so that even Williams failed to prevent them from getting lost, and they wandered about aimlessly for many days before they luckily arrived at Taos, New Mexico, suffering seriously from exhaustion and hunger. Three of the men were frozen to death on the return trip, and the remaining 15 were little better than dead when Uncle Dick Wooten happened to run across them and piloted them into the village. It was immediately after this disaster that the three most noted men in the mountains — Carson, Maxwell, and Dick Owens — became the guides of the pathfinder, with whom he had no trouble, and to whom he owed more of his success than history has given them credit for.

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