The Horse Queen of Idaho
Kittie Wilkins Raised Horses in a Remote Corner of Idaho and Became World Famous
Kittie Wilkins (1857-1936), Horse Queen of Idaho
She wasn’t a suntanned, masculine-looking, rough-talking, gun-totin’ woman of the Old West; she was feminine, pretty, blond haired with blue eyes and still part of the Victorian Age — wearing long dresses and the latest fashions, rode side-saddle and at first was even against women voting.
But Kittie Wilkins deserves her place in the history of the West by her love of horses — a passion that earned her the title of the “Horse Queen of Idaho.”
It all started with two $20 gold pieces.
Katherine “Kittie” Caroline Wilkins was born in Jacksonville, Ore. in 1857, her parents John R. and Laura (Smith) Wilkins having immigrated by wagon train to Oregon City, Ore. shortly after their marriage in 1853. Kittie had older brothers Elbert and John, and younger brother Samuel.
When she was just two, friends gave her parents two $20 gold coins to be held in trust for their daughter. Years later, her father was building his horse business and spotted a filly he wanted. He bargained the price down from $80 to $40 and paid with Kittie’s two gold coins. When Kittie was grown, she’d often tell that story — probably with a smile.
During her growing years, the family moved many times around the West—first to Placerville, Calif. where the ’49 Gold Rush was still booming, then Florence, Idaho, several stops in Washington Territory, Boise City and northeastern Oregon.
By 1869, they were back in Boise where Dad bought the City Market and advertised “The largest variety and best meats that can be procured in the Territory.”
A month later however, misfortune struck. The J.R. Wilkins’s City Market burned to the ground—along with eleven other businesses. It’s unclear what the family did in the next few years, but they earned enough money to send Kittie to Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden, Utah, and later to Notre Dame College in San Jose. It was a day and boarding school, high school and college, established in 1851 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an order of nuns founded in 1803 by St. Julie Billiart.
Later chartered as California’s first women’s college—the school had the reputation of being the “best school for young ladies in the West.” It was there that Kittie learned to play the piano, and for a high school graduation present, her parents gave her a square Weber grand piano. Not a bad education for a young lady of the Wild West.
By 1876, the peripatetic family was in the gold mining town of Tuscarora, Nevada where they had just found silver and thousands were rushing in. A regional newspaper report noted that John Wilkins was building the Wilkins House Hotel. Then, three years later their hotel also burned to the ground. After that, they turned their attention to the livestock business.
In the early 1880s, they moved to Idaho’s Bruneau country south of Mountain Home and started a horse and cattle enterprise called the Wilkins Horse Company at Bruneau’s Diamond Ranch—that Kittie later inherited. They used a diamond image as its livestock brand.
Official records state: “J.R. Wilkins acquires Wilkins Hot Springs/Kitty’s Hot Hole; 120 acres on Robinson’s Fork (Jarbidge River) of the Bruneau River, 100 yards from Sommercamp house; filed…Owyhee County, Idaho Territory, February 1886; headquarters for range on Wilkins Island, land between West and East Forks of Jarbidge River.”
The livestock grazed on 160,000 acres on a remote rugged plateau at an elevation of 6,000 feet straddling the Idaho-Nevada border. At one time, the Wilkins Company had around 10,000 horses—as well as cattle. Kittie’s natural talent working with horses began to blossom—leaving the handling of the cattle to others.
When she accompanied her father to livestock sales in the Midwest, she learned how to wheel-and-deal in a man’s world. She also could crack the whip over a team of up to 50 cowboys on roundups—riding side-saddle on horseback while wearing a long dress that covered her ankles.
Kittie Wilkins riding side-saddle
Soon newspapers across the country were writing about this unique woman who earned a reputation of being the only female in America whose livelihood was based solely on the horse trade.
In 1887, the San Francisco Examiner was the first to call her the “Horse Queen of Idaho,” while others called her the “Queen of Diamonds” because of the diamond design on their branding irons.
When Kittie came to town, newspapers in Sioux City, Omaha, Kansas City and St. Louis announced the arrival with headlines like “Horses Are Her Delight,” “Ways of the Lady Horse Dealer,” and “The Only One of Her Kind.”
The long-skirted horse lady from Idaho was on her way to becoming a media star of her day.
One report said, “She developed top-notch stock that was specially bred for different markets: Clydesdale and Percheron lines for heavy freight, Morgans for saddle and harness, and so on. Customers included the U. S. Cavalry, and some of her best stock went to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show…
“During all that time,” the report continued, “Kitty not only ran the horse operation, but also handled all the marketing and sales, almost always traveling by herself.”
Wilkins’ letterhead (Courtesy Hank Corless)
She shipped carloads of horses to livestock markets as far as Yukon Territory. Once she sent a single shipment of 30 carloads of horses from Mountain Home to Kansas City.
Reports say it was the biggest horse sale ever made in the West.
Idaho State University Associate Professor Philip A. Homan wrote “Papers throughout the United States, even the world, spread the word about the Idaho girl who was America’s best judge of the quality and the value of horses and who was making a fortune selling them.”
Investing her two gold coins in a filly had paid off.
In 1900, the Boer War was raging and they needed horses. Kittie filled an order for 8,000 head for a buyer in Kansas who sent them to South Africa. Historian Homan—who is writing a scholarly biography about Kittie—says she may have been the war’s biggest supplier of horses.
Off-loading a horse in South Africa for service in the Boer War (1899-1902)
As the 19th century was ending, the horse age was also drawing to a close. Railroads were coast-to-coast, and in 1893 America’s first auto manufacturer was in business when Charles Duryea and his brother Frank founded Duryea Motor Wagon Company. Soon, there were Oldsmobiles, Ramblers, Fords, Cadillacs and others rolling out by the thousands.
Kittie didn’t care much for autos or bicycles—both competing with her beloved horses. She considered cars “ugly” and “unsafe” and believed that women riding bikes was “unladylike.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Wilkins family. In 1885, Kittie’s father filed a squatter’s rights claim on a parcel of land later called Murphy Hot Springs, with water temperatures as high as 149 degrees. It was a welcomed hot tub for their tired ranch hands, but later they lost the property in an ownership dispute.
The last chapter of her remarkable career was a bonanza selling horses to the military for use in World War I. Then motorized transportation took over.
Kittie never married, though there are accounts of a romance with her ranch foreman Joseph Pellessier who was seven years younger, but he was killed in a range dispute in 1909.
In the early 1920s, Kittie moved to a home in Glenns Ferry where she stayed active in charities and with family and friends. “Next to petting my favorite horses,” she once told the Denver Post, “I like nothing better than to sit down at my piano and let my fingers drift along the keys until I have exhausted my entire repertoire.”
Kittie Wilkins at her home in Glenns Ferry, Idaho
Kittie Wilkins died at her home on October 8, 1936. She was 79.
The Denver Post remembered her with a kind word: “Her face glowed with intelligence, gentle humor and glorious health, such as can only be acquired by outdoor life, and that is the life that is led by Miss Kitty C. Wilkins, the wonderful horse raiser of Bruneau, Idaho.”
Buried in Mountain Home, her gravestone misspelled her name as “Kitty” – like the Denver newspaper did. But underneath her name, the spelling is correct: “Horse Queen of Idaho.”
source: Syd Albright December 13, 2015 CdA Press, Special thanks to Associate Professor Philip A. Homan, Idaho State University, for research contribution.
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Katherine Caroline “Kitty” Wilkins
Birth: 15 May 1857 Jacksonville, Jackson County, Oregon
Death: 8 Oct 1936 Glenns Ferry, Elmore County, Idaho
Burial: Mountain View Cemetery Mountain Home, Elmore County, Idaho,
source: Find A Grave
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From Outdoor Idaho
“From the Vault”… Ever heard of Kitty Wilkins, the Horse Queen of Idaho? From our 2005 “Borderlands” show, near the Idaho-Nevada border… the true Wild West, where the nation’s last gold rush took place and also its last stage robbery. It airs this weekend on our 4th free channel. Or just watch it live, online, at your convenience, at
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The world would come to know her as the Horse Queen of Idaho.
Facebook link: Idaho Experience
Updated Dec 10, 2018