Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Horsetrading in Petticoats

If someone asked you to describe the best horse trader in North America, who to this day holds to record for the largest horse trade in the USA, what would you say? Most of us think of a cigar-chewing mustached man with a derby. But we would be wrong. The Sioux City Journal of Sioux City, Iowa, described this person as "a tall stately blond, with fluffy, golden hair, large blue eyes that have quite a knack of looking clear through one, regular features and pearly teeth which glisten and sparkle when she smiles, and she has a habit of smiling very frequently. Her lips are red and full, and her mouth and chin denote a certain firmness of manner, no doubt acquired in her peculiar calling."

Her name was Katherine Caroline Wilkins and she ranched in Owyhee County, Idaho, not far from Bruneau. Most folks called her Kitty, although the media assigned various sobriquets to her, the "Queen of Diamonds" (because a diamond on the horse's shoulder was her brand) and "Horse Queen of Idaho" (from the San Francisco Examiner) among them.

Kitty grew up in Nevada. Her parents sent her to school first in Walla Walla, Washington, and then to high school at the College of Notre Dame Convent in San Jose, California. She moved with her family to Owyhee County in the early 1880s, where her family ran herds of 1,000 cattle and 700 horses. At a very early age, Kitty showed a unique talent for judging horseflesh. She was also a proficient horsewoman, capable of doing nearly everything the hired hands did, only in a dress and riding sidesaddle, and an expert marksman.

Another clipping from the Sioux City Journal in 1898:

Inured to a life on the plain since childhood, she is possessed of strength and agility that is wonderful for a woman. She can mount her pony from the ground and cast a riata as well as any of the numerous cowboys in her employ. She is an excellent shot with either a pistol or rifle, and has plenty of nerve to back her up. She is thus equipped to join the hardy Argonauts who are seeking fortunes in the new Eldorado, and under every condition which she will be able to take care of herself.

Kitty Wilkins is the only woman in the country who made her living as a horse trader during her lifetime. She holds the record for the largest horse deal: she sold several thousand horses to the US government for use during the Spanish-American War.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

A Post-Dispatch reporter called upon Miss Wilkins at the National Hotel and found her engaged in the business-like occupation of writing letters. Having heard of "Kittie" Wilkins as a woman who managed her own ranch and marketed its product, the reporter was hardly prepared to meet the tall young woman, dressed in a swell, 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. One might be excused for imagining that Western ranch life would coarsen any woman, no matter what her natural tendencies might be, but one glimpse of Miss Wilkins is enough to completely dissipate the idea. She is a strikingly attractive woman....

'We children were all born on the ranch and grew up in the midst of the wild environment that then existed, and still exists in a measure in that locality. My brothers taught me to ride and shoot, that being a necessary part of a woman's education out there in those days and I soon rivaled them in expertness. My father had, from a small beginning, accumulated a large herd of horses and on one of his trips to market he took me along. After that I always accompanied him and in a few years he said I could sell horses better than he....

'At present we have over 4,000 head on the ranch, divided into several herds according to their grade. They run wild winter and summer. Of late years we have been improving our stock very much by introducing imported stallions, and now I think that I bring the best stock to market that comes from the West. I never ship a blemished animal from the ranch. They are all sound when they leave there.'

Kitty was not only a superior judge of horseflesh, she could accurately judge buyers and always drove a hard bargain. Even so, maybe her most valuable talent of all was her ability to promote herself and her ranch. Newspapers and magazines published over 500 articles about her over 20 years, most waxing eloquently about her beauty and demeanor, while marveling about her success in a man's world. And remember, this was long before women got the vote.

The 20th Century brought new technology and drastic changes in lifestyle. Automobiles swept the nation and within a decade, her business dwindled from hundreds or even thousands of horses in a deal, to one or two sales here and there. The reign of the Queen of Diamonds was over. Kitty Wilkins retired to a small house in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, where she lived a modest life, with most of her money going to charity.

Glenns Ferry, Idaho website
Idaho State University Magazine
Idaho Historical Society Prospector

May your saddle never slip...

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