The Steppe Family in America


Following are some introductory excerpts from the book “The Stepp/Stapp Families of America”, by Henry Preston Scalf. Some entire sections from the book follow. All this material came to me from Kenneth Steppe.


Few families have been marked through the last centuries with such salient physical features and mental attributes as have the Stepps. Scores of families were blessed with long life far beyond the Biblical three score and ten. Many lived to become centenarians and if we are to believe tradition, Moses Stepp attained the age of 120 years. They have been solid citizens, actuated by an awareness of civic needs and attracted to the teaching profession and to public office. In Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia they built large, two-story homes laid out beautiful fields and exhibited an agrarian competence. many were pioneers in the western wilderness but they could pick up where pioneering ceased and build from there with stern determination and strong sinews. Families like the Stepps made America great. The Stepps have fought in all of America's wars, beginning with the colonial Indian struggles when the white settlement line was a precarious toehold along Tidewater America. They fought in the Revolution, many like Moses Stepp, distinguished themselves. They served in all the other wars of American history. Many died in these wars four only yesterday it seems, in Vietnam.


The family came to America when Jamestown was still a living memory of the elderly and from the date of 1670 when Abraham Stepp made his first purchase of land in Old Rappahannock, now Essex County, Virginia, they were on the advancing frontier for a century and a half. America had only approximately 114,000 people, Virginia 1/2 of them, when Abraham and Joshua Stepp (Stapp) first settled in their seaboard homes and became the progenitors of a vast concourse of descendents. Succeeding generations of Stepps have thus witnessed every event of American history for over 300 years."





The Stepp family name evolved out of the mists of the past with fewer basic changes in spelling than many others. While it was easy to change a letter or two in the name, it was difficult to make any substantial transition in the orthography without altering it beyond recognition. Illiterate folk or semi-clerks might pronounce or write it as either Stepp or Stapp but almost always the change stopped there. It is a simple name, easy to pronounce and for centuries it has remained almost intact.


Stepp is derived from the Old Norse word Staup, meaning a "dwelling on a steep slope." At the time, centuries ago, when people were assuming surnames, the Norse influence on English or Anglo-Saxon names was pronounced and since a person residing on a "steep slope" needed a name he took the word Staup out of his oral folk lexicon. The transition from Staup to the Anglo-Saxon word "steppan" or "stapan" for "step" was easy. Finally. The words "Steppan" or "Stapan" became Stepp or Stap. This transition was effected probably in a century, certainly not requiring as long as two centuries for the names Stepp, Step, and Stapp were fairly well fixed by the Seventeenth Century, not more than three centuries after the usage of surnames was required by royal edict. Stapp was a familiar name in Yorkshire and Stappe was in common use in Buckinghamshire by 1600 A.D.


The Old English word "Staepe" had an influence on the evolution of the name. In Old English the word means "a dwelling at the stepping stones."


A variant of the Old English name of Staepe appeared first in history in A.D. 1275 when William a la Stappe was inscribed upon the Subsidy Rolls, Worchestershire, England. Robert atte Stappe is listed on the Sussex, England Subsidy Rolls in A.D. 1332. The name, Robert atte Stappe, a cognomen indicating that he was living in a house "by the stepping stones" across a stream. These names exhibit themselves as they first appeared when the demand for surnames became imperative by royal decree. The transition from Staepe to Stappe, then to Stapp, later to Stepp or Steppe was accomplished with etymological ease. Steppe is from tne German, meaning a moor or heath. Staps is a Flemish surname. The probability exists, certainly the possibility, that various branches of the Stepp or Stapp families in America today. While they are of racial kin, have no other ties of consanguinity. (1)


The name Stapp, Stepp or a variant appeared early in the old Brahant Duchy in The Netherlands, having originated still earlier in what is now the Belgian province of East Flanders, according to one researcher of the family's beginnings. (John Stepp. 251 Theresa Road, Bellingham, Mass. 02019). Another researcher on the family notes that in the lowland Scot dialect the word "Stapp" and Steppe" are used as a dialect word for "stave." The word can be defined as a staff. (William Stepp, Mercersburg, Penn., 17236).


The book, ARMORIAL GENERAL, by J.B. Riestap, does not list a coat-of-arms for Stapp but under Steps or Steppe one is exhibited. It is a red shield with three pilgrim walking staffs of gold. The motto, "Gardez La Foi", is French for "Keep the Faith." The coat-of- arms was probably conferred in the Twelfth Century in Flanders. However, the existence or validity of any coat-of-arms for the Steeps, Stapps, Steppes, is best left to the antiquarians.


R.G. Frey, a Stepp descendant who was an instructor in the Department of Philosophy, University of Liverpool, England, in 1971, posed the question of the origin of the name Stepp or Stapp to David Morrison, editor of The Scottish National Dictionary Association, Limited, Edingburgh. Scotland. Mr. Morrison, in a letter from Edingburgh, dated May 27, 1971, noted:


"P.H. Reaney in his Dictionary of British Surnames (1958) gives medieval examples of this surname from Worcestershire and Sussex as early as the 13th century and the English Place-Name Society volumes give examples of Steps as a place name in Devon, Cornwall, and Wiltshore, meaning a river-crossing by stepping stones, a ford. The contexts of the usages as surnames show that these derive from place-names and it seems fairly clear that, as a surname, the original provenance with the South of England, not Scotland, where the word is unknown as a surname.

"In the place-name Stepps near Glasgow, the original significance is uncertain. It might mean a place with stepping-stones though there is no stream of any significance near here, or it could mean a terraced place, a place built on stages on a hillside, which is more applicable to its situation. The word itself is of course the same as English step, of a stair or the like. The conjecture made in the standard work on Scottish Place-Names by J.B. Johnston (1934) that it means a road built on staves seems to me untenable on philological grounds."


In commenting on the origin and meaning of the name, Stepp or Stapp, Mr. Frey wrote:  One thing established quite clearly is this: there were Stepps in England as early as the 4th Century. Too, it is clear, that Stepp and Stapp were used interchangeably at one time and that the surname Stepp were from the word 'step' meaning, as Morrison makes out, 'a river-crossing by stepping stones. Put differently, the surname Stepp came from the place-name 'Step' and the place-name was the result, obviously, of this place being where the river could be crossed."


Legends grow around names and men, especially great men and those associated with them, Persisting in the Stapp families today is a story of the origin of the name Stapf and Frederick I of Germany, called Barbarossa from his red beard. It was a period of high dissension between the Pope and the German kings. Frederick marched an army across the Alps in Italy in 1154 A.D. Guiding the German king and army was a Bavarian, Johannes, who lived in the foothills near Lieben in The Allgau. He had no surname.  Frederick bestowed the surname Stapf upon his guide, a word meaning "one who steps high" while walking or plodding through deep snow. This legend accounts for nearly a score of


variants of the name Stapf, one of them Stap or Stapp. It is a romantic story clinging to traditions of the folk for more than eight centuries but we must accept it only as a folk legend, nothing more, the authenticity of the historical episode that created it impossible to prove or disprove after the lapse of nearly a millenium.




The Stapps or Stepps (the name beginning to be used interchangeably) were impressing themselves upon English records by the Thirteenth Century. Scattered and fragmentary official notations exist. John Stapp, a man of some wealth, in Buckinghamshire, died in 1658. There was a contest over his will, a certain infant, Thomas Warrall, pleading through his fatherf Thomas Warrall, that the signature was not that of John Stapp. The Warrall infant was probably a grandson of John Stapp. John Deering, age 55, grocer, deposed that he was well acquainted with the handwriting of the late John Stapp, having for many years had dealings with him and testifies to the signature on said will." (2)


Genealogists are inclined to believe this John Stapp of Buckingham was the ancestor of the American Stapps and since this hazardous assumption is entertained his will is examined here in some detail. It was dated December 12, 1657 and proven April 3, 1658 in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, which had overriding jurisdiction in all England with sole jurisdiction in certain other instances. Stapp had acquired considerable properties in Newport-Fagnell. To his wife, Mary, he left his dwelling house in Newport-Pagnell and "all my barns, stables and garden orchard and yard in Newport." His widow was to receive a house in London and "five tenements with yard garden orchard.... in Surry." She received a tract of twenty acres in Buckingham. To "Joan Peet, wife of Marke ? Peet of "Ellington in the countie of Huntington" he gave one hundred pounds of good and lawful money of England to be equally divided and given unto her and John Peet her sonne and Elizabeth Pette her daughter and Martha Peet her daughter or to as many of them as shall be living at the time of my wife's decease." Mary Stapp was made executrix and George Stancliffe, the testator's brother-in-law, and Thomas.... were named to assist her. Stancliffe witnessed the instrument.


Four decades after the demise of John Stapp we encounter a John Stepp (note spelling) as master of the ship "William & Ann," 180 tons, out of Fowy, England. In the period between Dec. 2l, 1699 and March 25, 1700, Stepp was entering the "Potomack" River, his business not stated but probably to gather a cargo of tobacco for his native country. June 21,1699 to May 18, 1700 he was operating in the "Lower District Potomack." Between Nov. 17, 1700 and June 6, 1701 he shifted operations to the Lower James River. On this latter entry he was not the master but a co-owner. (3)


Evidently the early Colonial Stepps or Staps were closely associated with shipping for in addition to the documentary evidence there are many traditions to that effect. In Campbell County, Virginia. a Steppe (Step) descendant preserves the tradition that one of the early Stepp immigrants was a sea captain from Scotland but they do not affirm he was Scotch.


His ship was the Princess Ann. Arriving in America he liked the country so well he decided to sell his ship and become a permanent resident of the new land. His name is lost to the Cambell Steppes (the "e" added as in so many familiest like Clarke for instance) but they know he had a desscendant, John D. Steppe, who married an Emma Layne and reared twelve children. John D. Steppe fought in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier. (4)


A John Stepp lived in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire in 1683-87, Mr. Frey found in his researches: "He was a seaman who stayed on land for a time to recover from wounds received at sea. He married an Elizabeth Downey. A late entry in a Bible in the possession of a Mr. Weatherhead shows that Stepp and his wife sailed for the Americas." The possibility, perhaps the probability, exists that this John Stepp was the master of the William & Ann who was shipping out of Fowy to America.




The name Stepp or its variation has impressed itself as a place name in other countries and in several of the American states. There is Stepps, a residential center in Cadder Parish, North Lanark, Scotlana, five miles northeast of Glasgow. In Germany there are two villages named Steppach. One is four kilometres east of Augsburg and the other is eight kilometres north of Hochstadt.


At Hendersonville, North Carolina, there is Stepp Road that honors the Stepp residents of the locale. The section was settled a century and a half ago by the Stepps and today one quarter of the county residents are Stepps. They are ministers, attorneys, undertakers, businessmen and of course hundreds of the common yeoman who do no disservice to the name by their humble vocations, Not far from Stepp Road is Stepp Mill Road, indicative that at one time it led to an old mill operated by a Stepp miller.


It was inevitable that the Stepp family, being one of the oldest of the Colonial families, would have numerous postoffices, villages and hamlets named for them. Steppville, Cullman County, Alabama, is an instance. It was named for John Thomas Stepp who descended the Tennessee River valley prior to the Civil War and established a plantation on the present site of Steppville.


It is in the Tug River valley betWeen West Virginia and Kentucky that the Stepp name became common as place names. Stepptown, W. Va., is a small, unincorporated village of 350 population in Wayne County, twenty-three miles down Tug River from Williamson, West Virginia. It was named for "River Jim" Stepp, a settler and descendant of Moses Stepp, Revolutionary War soldier.(5)


As the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the old soldier spread out through Martin County, Kentucky they imprinted the name Stepp Branch on various streams. One of them is at Oppy, Kentucky, fourteen miles south of Williamson but there are several others on the topographical sheets for Martin County.