Uncle Dick” Wootton’s unsurpassed adventure tale spans a broad chunk of the history of the American frontier. As Uncle Dick himself states in the first paragraph of his autobiography,
The man who has been fifty years in active life in any part of the world must necessarily have had some interesting experiences, but the man who has lived for half a century along the border line of civilization which we call in this country the frontier has had fifty years of adventure.
And, true to this statement, Uncle Dick relates with steely calm dozens of adventures that a less daring man would not have survived. He remembers the events of his life in incredible detail, and where his memory fails his talent for storytelling takes over; either way we get an entertaining and historically interesting book.
Wootton moved to the Southwest when it was still under Mexico’s rule and virtually unsettled by white people. In his eyes, the frontier was a wild land inhabited by wild people, and, while he had many battles with Indians, he also had friendships and trading partnerships with them. He describes in great detail many of their traditions and beliefs, including the famous Sun Dance of the Sioux:
They made preparations for the dance by attaching strong rawhide ropes to good-sized saplings, which were bent over until the tops came within eight or ten feet of the ground. When the time came for the dance to commence, an Indian took his place under each of the ropes dangling from the tops of the saplings, his body entirely naked above the waist. With a keen edged knife, two deep gashes a couple of inches apart were cut in the back of the savage and the rawhide rope was passed under the skin from one gash to the other. The rope was securely fastened and the Indian penitente, sometimes lifted clear off the ground as the sapling swayed back and forth, kept up a sort of rhythmic motion until the rawhide cut its way through the flesh and allowed him to drop to the ground.
Over the course of his life, Wootton saw white communities spring up and expand as they wiped out native tribes and the buffalo he once hunted. The changes he saw were dramatic:
There were millions of [buffalo] on the plains at that time. I say millions at a venture, although the fact is it was impossible to make even an approximate estimate of the number we could sometimes see at one time. You might as well have tried to make an estimate of the number of ants in a big Colorado anthill. As far as the eye could reach I have seen the Plains black with them, and it would actually look as if the prairies themselves were on the move…It never occurred to me that I would live long enough to see all the buffaloes killed off.
Yet he does live long enough; towards the end of his life the buffalo are almost gone. Uncle Dick himself contributed to this decimation, killing sometimes thirty buffalo in a single day. In fact he was quick to kill just about anything or anybody; he always slept with a loaded gun within arm’s reach. If anything stirred in the night, he would shoot first and ask questions later. Nighttime sounds variably turned out to be Indians, deer, grizzlies, wolves, or his own horses, and they all met the same fate.
Through Uncle Dick, we learn what it was like to be a white man in the Wild West, whether mountain man, scout, hunter, trapper, trader, freighter, rancher or soldier. He was all of those things, and he had quite a sense of humor to boot.