Photograph: Kittie Wilkins. 2006.16.376. Courtesy of the Owyhee County Historical Society

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Kittie Wilkins

Idaho's 'Horse Queen'

While growing up in southern Idaho, Philip Homan often heard from his parents about an Idaho woman rooted in the 19th century who loomed large not only in his family lore, but also in the final pages of the Wild West.

At the dawn of the automobile age, Katherine Caroline Wilkins was selling horses by the thousands from her Owyhee County ranch. In fact, Homan says she was the only woman of her day whose sole livelihood was selling horses. Her brand was a diamond on each horse's shoulder, and so large was her operation—the Wilkins Horse Company at Bruneau's Diamond Ranch—that she acquired the moniker "Queen of Diamonds." Headlines from San Francisco to Denver to New York proclaimed her status.

The story of "Kittie" Wilkins, who lived from 1857 to 1936, lay in the back of Homan's mind for decades. Eventually, he could resist the pull of her untold story no longer, and the research began. Then one day an amateur historian in Boise gave the Idaho State University reference and cataloging librarian a box containing letters, journals and other personal papers that had belonged to Wilkins. Homan's benefactor had purchased the lot at a yard sale in Mountain Home.

With that resource at hand, and support from the nonprofit organizations Nevada Humanities and Colorado Humanities, Homan is well on his way to assembling the story of one of the most famous women in the annals of the American West.

Little known today outside of Owyhee County, where Homan's mother grew up, Kittie Wilkins made Idaho the horse capital of the United States at the time, prompting the San Francisco Examiner to crown her the "Horse Queen of Idaho" in 1887. At just 30 years old, she seemed to have mastered not only the horse trade, but public relations and marketing as well.

Newspapers in Sioux City, Omaha, Kansas City and St. Louis would announce her arrival at local stockyards and hotels with headlines such as "Horses Are Her Delight," "Ways of the Lady Horse Dealer," and "The Only One of Her Kind."

Wilkins owned thousands of horses, and sold them by the carload in livestock markets along the Union Pacific Railroad. She once arrived in St. Louis to sell 3,000 head, and shipped 30 carloads of horses at one time from Mountain Home, Idaho, to Kansas City. It was said to be the biggest horse sale ever made in the West.

Homan has identified upwards of 500 news articles and feature stories about and interviews with Wilkins, in newspapers in 35 states, Washington, D.C. , and Great Britain, The Chicago Tribune, the New Orleans Times- Democrat, the Atlanta Constitution, the Washington Times, the Baltimore American, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, and the Boston Advertiser spread the word about the young woman from Idaho who was making a fortune selling horses.

The "Horse Queen of Idaho" became the very model of the Westerner, and her life story the epitome of the West.

Wilkins died in Glenns Ferry on October 8, 1936. She was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Mountain Home a few days later, beneath a modest stone bearing a simple inscription in which her name, birth and death dates are followed by the words, "Horse Queen of Idaho."

Homan says the box of Wilkins' papers that he was given contains a number of unpaid bills and applications for public assistance. Apparently, he says, Kittie spent her wealth in her later years on charity.

Because of his own family's early settlement in Owyhee County, Homan grew up familiar with the story of Kittie Wilkins, although he was raised in Twin Falls County.

"While working with her horses on the 71 Range," he says, "Kittie frequently visited my great-grandmother, who had homesteaded a ranch on Flat Creek in southern Owyhee County and was raising her five children alone after the death of my great-grandfather in 1911. Kittie gave their young son Paul his first horse by asking him to choose a colt in her herd and having one of her buckaroos lasso it."

The Wilkins family ran the Wilkins House hotel in Tuscarora, Nevada, in the late 1870s before settling in the Bruneau Valley of Owyhee County. A center of Tuscarora social life, the Wilkins House burned on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1878. Kittie's square Weber grand piano, a gift from her parents upon her return from high school at the College of Notre Dame in San Jose, California, was saved.

Homan also is writing an article on the Wilkins House, adding to the few resources about hotels in the Old West and to the small body of literature on Tuscarora. Nevada Humanities has also asked him for articles on Kittie Wilkins and on the Wilkins House for the Online Nevada Encyclopedia.

In summer 2007, Homan spent a week at the Elko County, Nevada, courthouse and the Northeastern Nevada Museum & Historical Society in Elko. He also spent a week at the Nevada State Library and Archives in Carson City, and at the University of Nevada and the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.