Steamboat: Wyoming’s Wildest Resident

It’s Cheyenne Frontier Days, so a great opportunity to talk about one of the quintessential Wyoming images: a cowboy on a bucking bronc. Wyoming’s original bucking bronc was a horse named Steamboat. His origin story is a bit murky. Some propose that Steamboat was born on the Foss Ranch in 1896, and that his first owner, Frank Foss, was the railroad station agent at Chugwater. Other accounts place his birth on a ranch somewhere between Laramie and Bosler. Regardless, all accounts agree that Steamboat was a handsome horse, coal-black, with three white feet.

A young Steamboat with cowboy Hugh Clark.
Box 1, Andrew Springs Gillespie papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

His unique name referenced the unusual whistling sound made by his breath. He had broken some of the cartilage in his nose as a colt, possibly while resisting being gelded. When ridden, Steamboat’s whistling grew more pronounced – he sounded like a riverboat giving off a warning. He grew into a 1,100-pound masterpiece of quivering muscle, ready to challenge any rider daring enough to try to “break” him.

It is believed that Steamboat was sold by Frank Foss to the Swan Land and Cattle Company in 1899. Steamboat had already made a name for himself as a natural bucker. His first rodeo was Denver’s Mountain and Plain Festival in October of 1901. He had a signature style of bucking which included sunfishing, with his body twisting in the shape of a crescent. Steamboat developed a reputation for dismounting even the most experienced cowboys. Woe be unto those overconfident riders who underestimated the force and power of Steamboat’s jumps. He had unusual stamina and was described as exploding like dynamite.

Steamboat being ridden by A.S. “Bud” Gillespie.
Box 1, Andrew Springs Gillespie papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In the fall of 1902, Steamboat changed hands once again. John Coble and Sam Moore bought the horse for twenty-five dollars. Later that same fall, it is said that Buffalo Bill Cody, in an unsuccessful bid to buy the horse, offered two-thousand dollars for him. By 1903, Steamboat had become the main attraction at many a rodeo, saved for the most accomplished cowboys. It was September of that year when U.W. Professor B.C. Buffum of the College of Agriculture captured the now iconic photo of Steamboat with cowboy Guy Holt astraddle at the Albany County Fair.

Steamboat being ridden by Guy Holt, September 1903.
Box 35, B.C. Buffum papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Holt was a world champion cowboy, haven ridden the most challenging horses in both the Mountain and Plain Festival and Cheyenne Frontier Days. Historians regularly tout Buffum’s photograph as the best bucking horse image of the era. For his part, Holt reportedly said his back never fully recovered from his terrible twister of a ride on Steamboat.

Other riders had some limited success with Steamboat. Cowboy Otto Plaga rode the horse for a possibly record breaking, and certainly back breaking, eighty jumps in Cheyenne in 1905. But ultimately Steamboat prevailed and unseated Plaga. Cowboy Jake Maring, one of the few who successfully rode the horse, reported that Steamboat shook him so thoroughly that he was unable to eat anything for days after. Steamboat historians like to point out that Maring’s ride was only successful due to the soft mud on the ground that day which hindered Steamboat’s signature bucking.

In his later years, Steamboat was purchased by Charles Irwin for his wild west show. The horse became one of the stars of the show, billed as the “Worst Outlaw in the World – The Horse Which Threw the Best of Them”. Steamboat traveled as far west as Los Angeles and north to Canada. As he aged, he became quite gentle to handle and even appeared in parades, where he is said to have kept step to band music.

Steamboat’s last performance was in the fall of 1914. He had a nearly fifteen-year long rodeo career. Stories of Steamboat’s demise, as with his birth, vary but all agree that he had a nasty run in with some barbwire. His injuries complicated into a case of blood poisoning which ultimately proved fatal. An unsubstantiated legend persists that Steamboat is buried in Frontier Park, the site of Cheyenne Frontier Days.

It would be another seven years before Steamboat’s likeness appeared in association with the University of Wyoming. UW’s first use of the bucking bronc logo dates back to 1921. The baseball team’s equipment manager, Deane Hunton, had seen Professor Buffum’s 1903 Steamboat photograph and was inspired. He modeled the horse and rider silhouette on the photo and created felt patches that were added to the team’s uniforms.

Steamboat and his rider have come to symbolize the untamable spirit of the University of Wyoming, and indeed, the state. Learn more about Steamboat and other wild Wyoming residents at the American Heritage Center.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington and AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.


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