Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame: Stepp Family Forges Way For Black Cowboys

Alonzo Theodore “Lon” Stepp, born in 1874 in Berea, Kentucky, to formerly enslaved father Archie Stepp and Anne Blythe Stepp, never set out to be a cowboy, but he came to Wyoming to spend a summer on a ranch in the Fontenelle area and forged a new destiny.

CM
Candy Moulton

July 18, 20238 min read

Esther and Lon Stepp moved to Wyoming in 1898, where he claimed a homestead and worked for the Rathbun Ranch.
Esther and Lon Stepp moved to Wyoming in 1898, where he claimed a homestead and worked for the Rathbun Ranch. (Courtesy, Stepp Family)

Alonzo “Lon” Stepp came of age 25 years after the Civil War that had resulted in his father’s emancipation from slavery. Lon embraced the idea of education and he begged for educational materials. He studied whenever possible working hard to learn reading, writing, and doing “sums.” This paid off when he was accepted to Berea College in 1893.

College was a real turning point in his life. While there he met his future wife Esther Jane Yates, daughter of Harrison Yates, a former lieutenant in the Union Army. They married and quickly started a family with daughter, Helen, born in 1894, and sons John Fee born in 1896 and Gary William “Bill” born in 1898.

At college Lon also met and became friends with Howard Embree, whose eldest sister and brother-in-law, Charlie and Nellie Rathbun, lived on Fontenelle Creek in Wyoming. Howard suggested he and Lon should travel to Wyoming and spend a summer on the Rathbun Ranch learning ranching skills.

Owen Wister did this, too. He came to Wyoming, did some ranch work, learned about cowboying and would ultimately write about the lifestyle in his book Lin McLean and his most well-known novel, the Western classic The Virginian. Wister may have written about cowboys, but he never really became one.

Lon Stepp on the other hand became so proficient at the job of cowboying that he decided to stay on the ranch and leave college. He was soon responsible for all day-to-day operations of the large Rathbun ranch, which had cattle and sheep. Lon was a man who planned for his future so he saved as much money as he could. In about 1898, with a promise of support from ranch owner Charlie Rathbun, Lon returned to Kentucky to get Esther and the children and bring them west.

Stepp felt Wyoming was an ideal place to raise his family. The Wyoming people were friendly, caring, and he hadn’t experienced the racism he had felt in the South. Lon and Esther established their Wyoming home at Opal and Lon resumed working for Charlie Rathbun as his ranch foreman. They would expand the family with three more daughters, Nellie in 1904, Ruth in 1906, and Grace in 1908, and had a third son, Horace Greeley “Dutch” Stepp, born in 1912.

At the suggestion of Charles Rathbun, Lon Stepp filed on a homestead just south of the confluence of Fontenelle Creek and the Green River.

John Stepp riding horse at Stepp Ranch. Among those shown are Bill wearing a cowboy hat on the fence at left, Dutch on the shed, and Lon sitting on the fence at right.
John Stepp riding horse at Stepp Ranch. Among those shown are Bill wearing a cowboy hat on the fence at left, Dutch on the shed, and Lon sitting on the fence at right. (Courtesy, Stepp Family)

After filing on the land, Lon worked for Rathbun, running sheep in western Wyoming and eastern Idaho near Montpelier. Working for Rathbun he would go “on trail” for months at a time, leaving his small homestead claim in the care of the two oldest boys, John and Bill. In addition to riding for the Rathbun ranch, Lon had other jobs to provide for his family. He was a brand inspector in the early 1900s and hired out with his teams of horses and good teamster skills to maintain the county roads. Later he became the assistant Lincoln County assessor and served as postmaster for Fontenelle from 1920 to 1941.

Perhaps due to his many work obligations, Lon Stepp never proved up on his homestead, but his parents had followed him to Wyoming and they claimed their own land. Archie Stepp filed on June 25, 1900, and he received a patent for that homestead on December 5, 1907. Archie then added to his holdings with a nearly 70-acre Desert Land entry.

In 1912, Lon purchased his father’s homestead land. He enlarged the ranch by 750 acres when he purchased Daniel and Alice Robertson’s land in 1922. Another land acquisition took place in 1931. Lon herded sheep for Rathbun, but he started a cattle herd of his own and joined the Wyoming Stock Growers Association where he was the only African American member for many years.

While Lon was the brand inspector, he had one notable adventure. When he found out that a string of stolen horses had been taken through the area, he rode off in pursuit of the men who had them. It took him a week to catch them, place them securely in jail, and return the horses to their rightful owner.

Lon was known to be quite a bronc rider. Don Studt told the following story about him:  “Yep, old Lon was quite a man. He could out ride just about anyone. One time some young twerps decided they would get the best of Lon, so they planned a riding contest for the next gathering. Each one of those youngsters picked out a soft bucker. Ole Lon was getting the wildest bucker.  Ole Lon just sat up there and let ’er buck. He rode that horse for quite a while and then jumped off, swept off his hat and took a bow at those youngsters. I don’t think they ever challenged him again.”

The sons of Lon and Esther Stepp were good cowboys, too.

Dutch, John, and Bill Stepp.
Dutch, John, and Bill Stepp. (Courtesy, Stepp Family)

John Fee Stepp was born in Kentucky, but after coming to Wyoming as a child he worked on his father’s homestead and cowboyed for Lyon Rathbun. William Gary “Bill” Stepp also was born in Berea, Kentucky, and learned cowboy skills as a boy in Wyoming. The youngest Stepp son, Horace Greeley “Dutch,” was born April 16, 1912, in Wyoming on the Stepp Ranch. These three sons and their father were all inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2020 as a family nomination.

John not only helped with the family ranching operation, but he also filed on a homestead receiving the patent for 130 acres along the Green River in Sweetwater County in 1924. Like his father before him, he joined the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

Even though John and Bill worked hard on the ranch, they found time to go to rodeos on ranches and in nearby towns where they rode broncs and roped. Riding broncs was more than just a side hobby for the Stepp boys; they were paid $15 a head for breaking other ranchers’ horses. When one of the Stepp family draft horses went to bucking and could not be used for pulling equipment, the family took him to Big Piney where they could use him at the rodeo. No cowboy rode the horse called “Step and a Half” but when the horse was done bucking, one of the Stepp boys would walk out in the arena, catch him, and lead him home. 

One summer, Bill helped his dad maintaining the roads by driving the teams of horses on the equipment. Bill expected to be paid, but when there was no mention of money, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Bill placed a C.O.D. (collect on delivery) order for a new saddle from the Sears & Roebuck catalog, never mentioning it to his father. After some time, the long awaited “pay” arrived. Lon paid the C.O. D. charges, handed the package to Bill, and said, “I believe this is yours.” 

The youngest son, Horace Greeley “Dutch,” began riding and working the range as a young boy and he was also a musical prodigy. When he first played the family’s organ, he was so young that he was still learning to talk. He became so excited by the music that his family said they couldn’t understand his words and he was speaking “Dutch,” which led to his nickname. Music came easily to his brothers, too, and the three became the Stepp Family Jazz Band often playing for dances throughout the Green River Valley.

While attending the Christian based Berea College Lon studied some theology, so in Wyoming he led his family in Sunday services that their ranch neighbors also attended. Lon and Esther first taught their children in their home, but later he built the Stepp-Olson School house to serve his children and others in the ranching community.

In 1963, the government forced the Stepps off their land in order to develop the Fontenelle Reservoir. Their legacy spread, however. Bill and his wife Geraldine helped the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center in Denver, Colorado, (www.bawmhc.org) with an exhibit featuring the family as black homesteaders and cowboys. A paper about the family, “Steppin’ Up:  An African American Family rooted in Wyoming Agriculture,” by Scotty D. Utz in 2006 led to a multicultural curriculum at the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture: "Agriculture: Rooted in Diversity."

Research for this article was provided by Jonita Sommers.

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Candy Moulton

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