Famous Men of the Santa Fe Trail

“The following morning at daylight Jim called at my tent to bid me good-bye, and seemed very sorry for what had occurred the day before. He stated that this was the first time since his return from New Mexico that he had allowed himself to drink whiskey, and when the whiskey was in him he had ‘nary sense.”

James P. Beckwourth

James Pierson Beckwourth

James Pierson Beckwourth

Among the many men who have distinguished themselves as mountaineers, traders, and Indian fighters along the line of the Santa Fe Trail was one who eventually became the head chief of one of the most numerous and valorous tribes of North American Indians, — James P. Beckwourth. Estimates of him vary considerably. Francis Parkman, the historian, who I think never saw him and writes merely from hearsay, says: “He is a ruffian of the worst class; bloody and treacherous, without honor or honesty; such, at least, is the character he bears on the Great Plains. Yet in his case, the standard rules of character fail; for though he will stab a man in his slumber, he will also do the most desperate and daring acts.”

I never saw Beckwourth, but I have heard of him from those of my mountaineer friends who knew him intimately; I think that he died long before Parkman made his tour to the Rocky Mountains. Colonel Daniel Boone, the Bents, Kit Carson, Lucien Maxwell, and others ascribed to him no such traits as those given by Parkman, and as to his honesty, it is an unquestioned fact that Beckwourth was the most honest trader among the Indians of all who were then engaged in the business. As Kit Carson and Colonel Boone were the only Indian agents whom I ever knew or heard of that dealt honestly with the various tribes, as they were always ready to acknowledge, and the withdrawal of the former by the government was the cause of a great war, so also Beckwourth was an honest Indian trader.

He was a born leader of men and was known from the Yellowstone to the Rio Grande, from Santa Fe to Independence, and in St. Louis, Missouri. From the latter town, he ran away when a boy with a party of trappers, and himself became one of the most successful of that hardy class. The woman who bore him had played in her childhood beneath the palm trees of Africa; his father was a native of France and went to the banks of the wild Mississippi River of his own free will, but probably also from reasons of political interest to his government.

In person, Beckwourth was of medium height and great muscular power, quick of apprehension, and with the courage of the highest order. Probably no man ever met with more personal adventures involving danger to life, even among the mountaineers and trappers who early in the century faced the perils of the remote frontier. From his neck, he always wore suspended a perforated bullet, with a large oblong bead on each side of it, tied in place by a single thread of sinew. This amulet he obtained while chief of the Crows,1 and it was his “medicine,” with which he excited the superstition of his warriors.

His success as a trader among the various tribes of Indians has never been surpassed; for his close intimacy with them made him know what would best please their taste, and they bought of him when other traders stood idly at their stockades, waiting almost hopelessly for customers.

But Beckwourth himself said: “The traffic in whiskey for Indian property was one of the most infernal practices ever entered into by man. Let the most casual thinker sit down and figure up the profits on a forty-gallon cask of alcohol, and he will be thunderstruck, or rather whiskey-struck. When it was to be disposed of, four gallons of water were added to each gallon of alcohol. In two hundred gallons there are 1600 pints, for each one of which the trader got a buffalo-robe worth five dollars. The Indian women toiled many long weeks to dress those sixteen hundred robes. The white traders got them for worse than nothing; for the poor Indian mother hid herself and her children until the effect of the poison passed away from the husband and father, who loved them when he had no whiskey, and abused and killed them when he had. Six thousand dollars for sixty gallons of alcohol! Is it a wonder with such profits that men got rich who were engaged in the fur trade? Or was it a miracle that the buffalo were gradually exterminated? — killed with so little remorse that the hides, among the Indians themselves, were known by the appellation of ‘A pint of whiskey.'”

Beckwourth claims to have established the Pueblo where the beautiful city of Pueblo, Colorado, is now situated. He says: “On the 1st of October, 1842, on the Upper Arkansas River, I erected a trading-post and opened a successful business. In a very short time, I was joined by from 15 to 20 free trappers, with their families. We all united our labor and constructed an adobe fort 60 yards square. By the following spring, it had grown into quite a little settlement, and we gave it the name of Pueblo.”

Uncle Dick Wooten

Richens Lacey “Uncle Dick” Wootton

Richens Lacey “Uncle Dick” Wootton

Immediately after Kit Carson, the second wreath of pioneer laurels, for bravery and prowess as an Indian fighter, and trapper, must be conceded to Richens Lacy Wooton, known first as “Dick,” in his younger days on the plains, then, when age had overtaken him, as “Uncle Dick.” Born in Virginia, his father, when he was but seven years of age, removed with his family to Kentucky, where he cultivated a tobacco plantation. Like his predecessor and lifelong friend Carson, young Wooton tired of the monotony of farming, and in the summer of 1836 made a trip to the busy frontier town of Independence, Missouri, where he found a caravan belonging to Colonel St. Vrain and the Bents, already loaded, and ready to pull out for the fort built by the latter, and named for them.

Wooton had a fair business education and was superior in this respect to his companions in the caravan to which he had attached himself. It was by those rough, but kindhearted, men that he was called ” Dick,” as they could not readily master the more complicated name of ” Richens.”

When he started from Independence on his initial trip across the plains, he was only 19 years old, but, like all Kentuckians, perfectly familiar with a rifle, and could shoot out a squirrel’s eye with the certainty which long practice and hardened nerves assure.

The caravan, in which he was employed as a teamster, was composed of only seven wagons; but a larger one, of which were more than 50, had preceded it, and as that was heavily laden, and the smaller one only lightly, it was intended to overtake the former before the dangerous portions of the Santa Fe Trail were reached, which it did in a few days and was assigned a place in the long line.

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