In 1870, Kittie Wilkins built and empire that encompassed a large area of Southern Idaho, northern Nevada and eastern Oregon. She became an outstanding rancher and expert dealer in horses and often was called "The Horse Queen of Idaho," or "The Queen of Diamonds," due to her diamond brand.
Kittie was born in 1857 in Jacksonville, Oregon. Her parents, John R. and Laura Wilkins, were an ambitious couple who visited many boomtowns of the west before settling in Challis, Idaho, where they began raising cattle and horses. During her early years Kittie lived in several western states. John and Laura, however, never neglected their daughter's schooling. While her father taught her the horse trading business, Kittie's mother made sure she attended the finest schools. She grew into a well educated woman who could ride the range, carry out a shrewd business deal, or sit at the piano to entertain guests.
Kittie always claimed she got her start as a small child when two of her father's friends each gave her a $20 gold piece to invest. When her father became involved in the stock company, he used the money to buy Kittie a filly, which started her in business. She soon acquired her own herd that numbered between 700 and 800 horses. Kittie was an expert horsewoman, it was said she could ride anything with four feet on the ground, or anything with one foot on the ground and three feet in the air.
By the time she was 28, the Wilkins Company had moved to the Bruneau Valley of Owyhee County, Idaho. Although the outfit consisted of Kittie's father and her three brothers, she was the undisputed head of the company. She claimed every unbranded mustang on their range, which ran from the Humbolt River in Nevada, to the Snake River in Idaho, and from Goose Creek County in Idaho to the Owyhee River in Oregon. Kittie had the hardest working outfit west of the Mississippi River. Her boys were riding almost constantly as the ranch broke and shipped 154 horses every two weeks. The Wilkins riders became known as the finest in the world.
Kittie rode the open range with her cowhands, roping and saddle-breaking. The newspapers described her as a striking, blue-eyed blonde who rode a palomino the color of her hair. Seated upon a saddle that was mounted in silver and gold, Kittie was one with her horse as he flew over the rough terrain, rounding strays into the holding-corrals.
When traveling to the Eastern stockyards, Kittie took two trunks, one for here work-clothes and the other for her fancy outfits, which were worn with flair. Although she raised more than one eyebrow, the talented lady personally watched over her own horses, disdaining the idea that women were limited to playing the piano and attending tea parties. The herd was more important to her than the whispered gossip of others.
Because she was totally feminine, Miss Wilkins never failed to create excitement as she entered the marketplace. While selling her horses, the lady pulled her golden hair up under a hat and dressed in skillfully tailored mannish attire, something that was unheard of in that era. Whatever her attire, however, Kittie knew her business. She found a way to move the abundant wild mustangs of the West to the horse-hungry markets of the East.
One time she brought 3,000 head with her to St. Louis, Missouri and auctioned them off herself turning a tidy profit. It was rumored that the beautiful woman could make a better deal than her male counterparts and in 1891, Kittie Wilkins was the only female in the United States whose sole occupation was horse dealing.
Once the horse trading was over, Kittie changed her male attire and met the press wearing the most stylish fashions. In 1895, during an interview, a reporter told his friends he was hardly prepared to meet the tall young woman "dressed in a svelte, tailor-made costume, her blonde curls surmounted by a dainty Parisian creation, who greeted him with perfect self-possession and invited him to be seated."
He said she was a strikingly handsome woman. In 1904, at the age of 46, Kittie visited San Francisco. During her stay, she was a guest of the city and awarded, "The Palm for Beauty," which meant she was the toast of the town.
Often a cowboy who rode over the large Wilkins spread looking for a job, was surprised to find that "Kit" Wilkins was a she not a he. At first many of the men weren't sure they wanted to work for a female. However, once they realized the beautiful lady could not only handle her horse, but would also ride beside them, they always hired on. All of her "boys" were paid $40 a month and board, and they were strong, rough riders. Kittie ruled with an iron hand. If a cowboy got out of line, he was immediately fired. In a magazine article, one her "hands" wrote: "If a man weren't a good rider when he went to work for Kit Wilkins, he was a good rider when he left of he wasn't riding at all-unless in a hearse."
Many of Kittie's riders hired on as apprentices, and, under her guidance, became excellent cowboys. A few of them went on to fame in the Wild West Shows and others performed in rodeos. High Strickland became a Champion of the World several times; Jess Coates rode before the King and Queen of England in a Command Performance, and Walter Scott became part of Buffalo Bill Cody's show, and then became known as Death Valley Scotty.
Kittie was king to her crew and earned their admiration as a skilled rider. She was not afraid of the unbroken horses and would enter the pens and manage the most unruly. She knew more about pedigrees than most women did about stylish clothes.
With all her wealth and beauty, however, Kittie never married. It had been rumored she loved only one man. He was her top foreman and superintendent and they were reportedly engaged to be married. Unfortunately, he was killed while trying to remove and intruder from the Wilkins spread and Kittie was true to his memory the rest of her life.
Kit raised her horses on "Wilkins Island", a high plateau between what was then called "Kittie's Hot Hole" and the mining area of Jarbridge, Nevada. The Hot Hole was a natural hot springs at the bottom of a gorge, and today is known as "Murphy's Hot Springs." The Island was the company's headquarters where Kittie's "hands" built a corral that held the horses until they were shipped on to the eastern markets.
Kittie's Letter Head
As Kittie rode the range and worked beside her cowboys, they shared a special camaraderie. Often, after a hard weeks work, she and her hands would ride into town and visit the local tavern for a bit of rest and frivolity. On one of these occasions, the Wilkin's boys were so carried away with their fun-making that someone "accidentally" opened the corral gate and the entire herd of captured "dollars" escaped.
Mrs. Alice Hicks, of Mountain Home, Idaho, remembers both Kittie and the tavern, as her father, Elijah Fletcher, once worked for the Wilkins. In a letter, she described a day in which she and her brother rode into town with their father to buy beef. Kit was standing in the door of the tavern and she greeted Elijah in a friendly manner saying, "Hello Lige, come on in and join the boys." When her father left the children sitting in the wagon, Mrs. Hicks recalls being a bit upset because at that young age she considered a tavern a den of "sin."
Although respectable women of that period didn't enter a tavern, it must be remembered that Kittie Wilkins was not an ordinary woman. She was always a lady, but she lived by her own rules.
Kittie had a lively personality and was a polished publicist. Her news releases were consistent and timely. She never deviated from her original tale of how she got her start with the two $20 gold pieces. Kittie's beauty and her success stories made headlines from San Francisco to St. Louis. Reporters admired her and the public enjoyed reading about the charming woman who many called "The Golden Queen".
Her generosity extended beyond the welfare of the cowboys who rode beside her on the ranch. Kittie supported an orphanage in Salt Lake City, Utah, and she donated to a Catholic academy near San Francisco. When the boys were old enough to work, they were hired as hands for the Wilkins Company. Several of the girls were taken into Kittie's home to assist with the housework, and a few she sent on to further their education. Numerous letters of appreciation from those who Kittie helped are on file, along with her property deeds and old records.
As time passed and Kittie grew older, she may have tinted her hair a bit, but she never lost that inner spark that made her so special. When she died of a heart attack in 1935, at the age of 79, no one thought of Kittie as an old woman.
She is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Mountain Home. There is a modest stone bearing a simple inscription in which her name, birth and death dates are followed by the words, "Horse Queen of Idaho."
Although Miss Wilkins was one of the best known women of her generation, there has been very little written about her. Bits and pieces of Kittie's colorful life have come from old newspaper articles, a few paragraphs here and there, and through the courtesy of the Elmore Historical Society in Mountain Home, Idaho.
this is an excerpt from the book "Daughters of the West", by Anne Seagraves.
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