Steamboat rides on

This September1903 photograph depicts the horse Steamboat being ridden by Guy Holt, great-grandfather of writer Candy Moulton's husband, Steve, at the Albany County Fair in Laramie. Moulton Family Collection/courtesy

CHEYENNE - Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the loss of one of Wyoming's most storied figures.

Steamboat the horse, arguably the most famous bucking bronco of all time, was put to death Oct. 14, 1914, after suffering from a then-incurable blood infection.

It was the end of one of the most storied careers in rodeo history - in Wyoming or elsewhere - but it also was the start of a legend that has remained with the Cowboy State to the present day.

Born in 1896 on a ranch outside of Laramie, Steamboat earned his name from an injury he sustained at a young age.

"He was a ferocious fighter, even as a colt, and in one of his struggles being corralled by cowboys, he broke his nose," said Mike Kassel, curator of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum. "It didn't heal quite right, and every time he got his wind up, he would huff and chug like a steamboat whistle."

Steamboat went through a handful of owners before finding his way to the rodeo circuit. He was purchased by the Swan Land and Cattle Company in 1900, then sold to local ranchers John Coble and Sam Moore in 1902.

But it was the following year, when Steamboat was purchased by rodeo entrepreneur Charles Burton Irwin, that his career would begin in earnest.

"He was the owner of the Y-6 Ranch north of town," Kassel said. "He was a fabulous promoter of Cheyenne Frontier Days and was even the owner of his own Wild West show."

Irwin frequently used cowboys, including his own family members, in his shows, and he also served as stock contractor for CFD. He quickly recognized Steamboat's ferocity, and when the mighty horse took to the arena in 1903, it didn't take long for the crowds to notice the same.

"Most guys, they just went off, and in those days they didn't have bucking chutes, and they didn't go for eight seconds," said Candy Moulton, an Encampment resident who wrote a book about Steamboat in 1992. "They would buck, and if you rode him, you had to ride him to a standstill."

Kassel said that while Steamboat was docile around his handlers, the moment someone tried to saddle him, he was off and bucking.

"He was known to do amazing acrobatic tricks when he had somebody on his back - there was a legend that grew up around him that he was almost impossible to ride," Kassel said. "So he became, I would say, the first well-known animal athlete in the rodeo world. People would go to the rodeo just to see this animal perform because they'd heard he was so bad."

For the next 11 years, Steamboat traveled the rodeo circuit, drawing crowds eager to see the most ferocious horse known to man. In all that time, he bucked off dozens of riders, though a spare handful were able to withstand the horse's power and speed.

But that list of successful riders is, itself, the stuff of legends. Contemporary newspaper accounts varied on who did or didn't manage to stay on top of Steamboat.

For example, the Oct. 14, 1914, edition of the Wyoming Tribune reported that in 1906 Dick Stanley of Portland, Oregon, became the sole rider to ride Steamboat to a finish, and only "under conditions which heavily handicapped" the horse.

But the following day, the Laramie Republican newspaper called that account "a sad mistake," claiming that Frank Stone rode Steamboat successfully at the Albany County fairgrounds, "the horse absolutely becoming helpless under the continual scratching of the veteran horse breaker."

Kassel said such disputes only help add to Steamboat's legend, and each part of the state has its own stories about who may have bested him.

"Almost every time a cowboy won on Steamboat, an immediate controversy popped up, like maybe the horse was too tired, or the ground was too muddy; there had to be extenuating circumstances for it to even be possible," Kassel said. "Otherwise that guy riding him, they'd still be waiting for him to come down."

Steamboat's career came to an end in 1914 after he suffered a leg injury while on the road in Salt Lake City. The injury is commonly believed to have been caused by barbed wire, and it quickly became infected. In the end, Steamboat's life wound up crossing paths with that of another historic Wyoming figure, the infamous hired killer Tom Horn.

"They brought him home to Cheyenne on the 14th of October, and they had to put him down," Moulton said. "Charlie Irwin had been a big supporter of Tom Horn - he had Tom Horn's gun - and so the story goes, he took the gun and had one of his nephews shoot Steamboat."

According to the Wyoming Tribune, in his last moments, and despite his suffering, Steamboat faced his death head on, "with head up and a trace of his old fire in his eyes." But what became of Steamboat after his death has faded into mystery, leaving behind several theories.

"Some claim he was buried at the Y-6 Ranch," Kassel said. "The newspaper accounts say he was buried more or less where he fell at the Cheyenne Stockyards, and there was discussion then of bringing him up to the CFD stadium, but there's no corroboration that ever happened."

Another popular theory is that Steamboat was, in fact, interred on the grounds of the CFD stadium, behind the old wooden grandstand. But despite her love of the old horse, Moulton posits a much less glamorous theory.

"I think it's the Cheyenne city dump," she said. "Even though Steamboat was pretty famous, I just don't believe they took the time to dig a pit at the Cheyenne Frontier Days arena and that they were able to bury him and pat it down so nobody could tell he was there."

Regardless of his final resting place, Steamboat's memory still lives on. During World War I, uniforms for the Wyoming National Guard serving in Europe featured a horse and rider symbol designed by 1st Sgt. George N. Ostrom and based on his horse Red Wing.

Then, in the 1920s, Steamboat became the inspiration for the logo used on University of Wyoming athletic uniforms. The logo was based on a 1903 photograph depicting the horse being ridden by Guy Holt - the great-grandfather of Moulton's husband, Steve.

But Steamboat became most intimately associated with the symbol in 1935, when artist Allen True was tasked with designing a logo for the new state license plate. True came up with what is now known as the Bucking Horse and Rider using reference photos that depicted Steamboat bucking various cowboys.

The logo was trademarked by the state in 1936 and became the first image ever used on an American state license plate. But exactly who is depicted as the rider in the logo remains in dispute.

"A lot of people say it's Guy Holt, it's Clayton Danks, and on down the line, but the truth is - and I truly believe this - I don't think it's any particular cowboy," Moulton said. "Allan True said in his own writings it was no particular cowboy on there."

Kassel agreed that True left the rider's identity deliberately vague. Yet to this day, there's little dispute as to who the horse is.

"Everyone thinks it's their own rodeo legend on the horse, but if you ask them next 'Who's the horse?' everyone says 'Old Steamboat,'" Kassel said. "Whether Mr. True intended it or not, Steamboat has become the horse on our license plate."

For Moulton, it's a perfect symbol for Wyoming's people and for the frontier culture that still persists today.

"Steamboat epitomized the spirit of Wyoming - strong, independent, fiery," she said. "I really think he does represent that whole heart, and that we're still one of those states that's considered rather wild."

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