"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kittie Wilkins, Idaho Horsewoman

Kittie C. Wilkins was a media darling of her time. Her interviews were published in thirty-seven states, as well as Great Britain, New Zealand, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Headlines labeled her “the Idaho Horse Queen,” “the Queen of Diamonds,” “The Only One of Her Kind,” “Horse Queen of the West,” to name a few. And yet, today, this woman who inherited and ran the highly successful Wilkins Horse Company is virtually unknown in the annuls of history.

Kittie’s father, J. R. Wilkins, traveled around the West and engaged in several business endeavors before settling in Idaho in the early 1880s to start a ranching operation in Owyhee County’s Bruneau valley on land situated between the west and east forks of the Jarbidge River. Their livestock grazed what was called Wilkins Island, a remote plateau encompassing 160,000 acres straddling the Idaho-Nevada border. The Wilkins Horse Company was said to be the largest herd of range-bred horses in the West, about 10,000 head. Their “Diamond” brand was well known throughout the United States, as well as in other countries, and their horses were in high demand.

Born in Jacksonville, Oregon, in 1857, Katherine “Kittie” Caroline Wilkins got her start in the horse business at the age of two. On one of the family’s many moves, friends of her parents gave Kittie two gold coins–forty dollars–as an investment for her future. Her father bought a filly with the money and, Kittie often told reporters, “From the increase all my bands have come.”  But Kittie’s education would be more than what she could get on the ranch. Her parents sent her to Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden, Utah, and later Notre Dame College in San Jose, California, which had the reputation as being the “best school for young ladies in the West.”

After school, Kittie returned to the ranch where she began to accompany her father on his trips to the Midwest to market his horses. It quickly became apparent to J. R. that Kittie could sell the horses better than he could, and it wasn’t long before she was running the ranch’s horse operation, handling marketing and sales, and traveling to the railheads and stockyards by herself. She told a Denver reporter, “I will say to you that this horse breeding has fascination. It is in interest something like mining. You are lured on, expecting to strike it rich every moment.” And she did. In 1900, with the Boer War raging and the demand for horses high, she sold 8,000 head to a company in Fort Scott, Kansas, which was said to be the biggest single sale of horses in the West. During World War I, she sold to the U. S. Government for cavalry mounts. Her markets encompassed the United States, even the Yukon Territory. She bred stock for different markets; farming, freighting, saddle, and harness. She bred Clydesdales, Percherons, Morgans, Hambletonians.

Kittie created quite a stir on her travels, and newspaper reporters clamored to find out more about the pretty young woman running a horse raising enterprise – predominantly a man’s world.  She seemed to enjoy the publicity and used it to help market her horses. The “Queen of Diamonds” (named from the ranch’s brand) broke the stereotype of what they believed a lady rancher would be. While most expected an Annie Oakley type, rough around the edges, they found a sophisticated, educated woman who did not attempt to compete with the men. She told a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. “I believe that a lady can engage in this business as well as a man and retain all attributes of character.” She also told the Sioux City Journal, “I have been asked to throw the lasso just once at the various horse markets, but I don’t yearn for that kind of a reputation. There have been several women engaged in the cattle business in the West who have been noted for their daring on horseback and in the stock pens, but while I believe I am able to hold my own with almost anybody in handling a horse when it becomes necessary, I am not going to make myself ridiculous by roping horses for the amusement of men about the stockyards.” She told a St. Louis reporter, “I do not like to see women ride astride. I believe I may say I can ride a well as any woman who ever sat on a horse, and yet I never used anything but a sidesaddle.”

Kittie did not employ commission agents; she handled the deals herself. In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News she said, “My way of doing business is generally to drop into Omaha, Chicago, or Denver and place an advertisement in the papers announcing my arrival. Then the dealers call on me, or I go to see them, and we talk over the situation, you know, just like two men would talk on any business proposition. Finally I make a deal, telegraph to the ranch for the stock, it arrives, I get my money, and there you are. It is all very simple, after all, but it requires a knowledge of the business to make any money out of it. I can tell in making a deal with a man, just by looking at him when he says he’ll give so much cash, whether I can get another cent or not, and if there is any profit to me in his figures the deal closes right there.” She went on to say, “I wouldn’t want to be a horse trader ... I can’t bear to dicker and haggle over the price of anything. I ask as much as I expect to get when I’m selling horses, and, as a rule, I get it.”

Although she traveled alone, she never encountered rudeness from the men she dealt with. She admitted that she did attract attention and the occasional teasing remark. She told the Boston Advertiser, “I am the only woman in a crowd of two hundred or more horse dealers. Sometimes people come out to the stockyards to see in me a new curiosity, and there are a few who try to flirt or make sport of me. I just walk up to a group of such men and, looking them squarely in the face, say, ‘Do you gentlemen wish to look at my horses?’ That generally makes them blush and look ashamed and ends all further desire on their part to play the gallant.”

Kittie always remained a lady and did not pursue the rough end of ranching. She always gave credit to her father and brothers for that. She was clear to clarify to reporters that she was not a “cattle queen,” leaving that end of the operation to the men. She preferred horses because they did not take as much care as cattle and brought more money. She was an advocate for range horses. She told the New York Herald, “the baby treatment is all right if you merely want to produce phenomenal and fancy-priced trotter and race horses that are good for nothing else. But if you want a thoroughly sound and hardy stock with the lung power that is one of the first essentials of all-round usefulness, then the range system is the only one to employ.”

Despite her life surrounded by men, Kittie never married, although she had plenty of prospects. It is believed she was engaged to her ranch foreman, Joseph Pellessier, when he was killed in 1909 over a water dispute. She had no children of her own but supported a Salt Lake City orphanage and adopted several children and raised them on the ranch. Young men learned to rodeo at the Wilkins company, and a few of the ranch’s buckaroos became national champions on the rodeo circuit. One of her hired hands was quoted in a magazine article as saying, “If a man weren’t a good rider when he went to work for Kit Wilkins, he was a good rider when he left or he wasn’t riding at all – unless in a hearse.”

In 1904, gold was discovered on the Jarbidge River, and a gold rush ensued. It turned Wilkins Island into a highway overnight, forcing the Kittie’s ranching operation into a decline. Coupled with the growing popularity of the automobile and the railways for transportation, her days of horse trading were slowly being phased out as demand for her horses dwindled. She spent her later years in Glenn’s Ferry and gave much of her remaining wealth to charities. She died in 1936 of a heart attack and is buried in Mountain Home, Idaho. When reporters asked her about her “unusual preference for a rural, western life as a single woman in Idaho,” she merely replied because it was “the most independent life on earth.”

*There are a number of articles about Kittie Wilkins, but the most comprehensive study of her life is being conducted by Philip A. Homan, Associate Professor at Idaho State University. His articles, “Queen of Horses,” Part I and II appear in Idaho Magazine, October 2008 and December 2008.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Idaho’s Little Polly Bemis

Former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus once said, “The history of Polly Bemis is a great part of the legacy of central Idaho. She is the foremost pioneer on the rugged Salmon River.”

The tiny Chinese slave girl who came to the gold town of Warren, Idaho, in 1872 has been the subject of numerous articles, books, and even a fictionalized film of her life, Thousand Pieces of Gold. One might ask what it was that put her in the annuls of history. She didn’t discover anything, didn’t invent anything, didn’t rule anything, didn’t kill anyone. She did however save a man’s life–twice–and her small acts of kindness turned her own life around. In an age when Chinese people in mining camps were looked down upon and forced to take the most menial jobs, Polly was beloved by everyone.

There are various versions of how Polly ended up as a song and dance girl in the saloons of Warren. During an interview by Countess Gizicka for Field and Stream in July, 1921, Polly Bemis tells it in her own words: ‘My follucks in Hong Kong had no grub. Dey sell me, slave girl. Old woman, she smuggle me into Portland. I cost $2,500. Don’t looka it now! Old Chinese man, he took me along to Warrens in pack train.”

In that same interview, Gizicka describes Polly as, “not much over four feet, neat as a pin, wrinkled as a walnut, and at sixty-nine is full of dash and charm.”

The Chinese man who bought Polly (her real name might have been Lalu Nathoy) ran a saloon in Warren. Some accounts say that he helped her gain her freedom. Charles Bemis, better known as “Charlie” befriended her when she arrived in Warren. He owned a saloon and a boarding house. She eventually became his housekeeper and ran the boarding house.

In 1890 Charlie got into a gambling dispute and was shot. Polly stayed by his side, nursing him back to health. Four years later they got married. A friend of the couple claimed it was a marriage of convenience. Polly wanted to establish legal residency and Charlie needed someone to take care of him. The couple moved seventeen miles from Warren on the Salmon River and filed a mining claim. Their place was accessible only by river.

Charlie’s health started to decline, and in 1922 when their house was ravaged by fire, it was said that Polly saved his life again by getting him to safety. They stayed with some miners named Klinkhammer and Shepp who lived across the river. Charlie died shortly after the fire. Klinkhammer and Shepp built a new home for Polly on the old site and looked after her. She stayed there until her death in 1933 at the age of eighty.

Polly’s friendliness made her popular with all who knew her. She possessed a gritty determination and good humor to survive her life as a “slave girl” and turn a bad situation into a life of meaning, respect, and love by all who knew her. In 1988 her cabin, the Polly Bemis House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and made into a museum. She was also inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in 1996.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

First White Woman to Cross the Sierra Nevadas

One of the first white women to undertake the perilous overland journey to California was Nancy Kelsey. In the spring of 1841, she and her husband, Benjamin, joined the Bidwell-Bartleson emigration party in Sapling Grove, Missouri. This was a small group of brave souls consisting of thirty-five men, five women, and ten children. The group included Kelsey’s brothers and Nancy’s single sister (who married during the journey).

Nancy was 17 when she and Ben decided to make the journey after reading a letter by John Marsh who had gone to California by ship through the Strait of Magellan. They had two children, but their youngest child, a newborn boy only eight days old, died before they left Missouri. This left them with their one-year-old daughter, Martha Ann. One account states that Nancy became pregnant again en route only to lose it shortly after its birth in California.

Their journey was in trouble right from the beginning. They started late, May 12, and they did not have a map or a compass, no guide, or guidebooks. Those who had gone into California overland were mainly trappers. There had never been a wagon train attempt to California, and there was no known “road” over the Sierras. All they had were vague directions, and, in the end, help from the Indians.

They followed the Platte River to Fort Laramie (present day Wyoming) and onto the South Pass over the Rocky Mountains. Here, seven men decided to return to Missouri. Those remaining continued on to Fort Hall. Here the party split up again when part of the group broke off to take the more traveled road to Oregon. This group included Nancy’s sister and her new husband, and both of Ben’s brothers and their families. Those who chose California had no guide and very little information. About all they knew was that at the Great Salt Lake they were to not go too far south or north, but to head directly west, following the Mary’s River–if they could find it.

They did find what they believed to be the river, but by August 26, the group was getting low on food and hopelessly lost. They had to start killing their oxen as game was scarce. By mid-September they had abandoned all their wagons in western Nevada and set out on foot with the livestock they had remaining.

In an 1896 interview with her daughter, Nancy said, “Of course we did not where we were. The party scattered here to find the best way to descend the mountains. I was left with my babe alone, and as I sat there on my horse and I listened to the sighing and moaning of the winds through the pines, it seemed the loneliest spot in the world. The descent was so abrupt that an Indian, who had come to us on the mountain, was allowed to lead my horse for part of the way. At one place an old man of the party (George Hanshaw) became so exhausted, or nearly so, that they had to threaten to shoot him before he would proceed.

“At another place four pack animals fell over a bluff and we never tried to recover them. They had gone so far that it was no use to think of it. We were then out of provisions as we had eaten all of our cattle. I walked barefoot until my feet were blistered. For two days I had nothing to eat but acorns. My husband came near dying of cramps and it was suggested we leave him out, but I protested and declared I would never leave him as long as there was life. We killed a horse and stayed over until the next day when he was able to go on.”

They finally crossed the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley, north of Sonora Pass, and with the help of some Indian scouts reached John Marsh’s ranch on the San Joaquin River in November.

This journey was just the beginning of a long and adventurous life for Nancy, her husband, and their children. She and her husband lived in Napa Valley when the Mexican War broke out (1846). Her husband joined up with John Fremont to fight for the cause. Nancy and two other women made the famous Bear Flag for the Bear Flag Revolt.

She said, “I have enjoyed riches and suffered the pangs of poverty. I have seen U. S. Grant when he was little known; I have baked bread for General Fremont and talked to Kit Carson. I have run from bear and killed most all other kinds of smaller game.”

Nancy had a total of eight children and lost two. Over the years, she and her husband moved to Mexico, Texas, and back to California. Her husband died in 1889 and Nancy spent her final years in Santa Barbara County where she was known as a midwife and herbalist. She died in 1896 at the age of 73.

Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel.
"Pioneering the West Took Courage and Grit," The Union Democrat.
Lake County Time Capsule: Nancy Kelsey, a Pioneer Story.
Nancy Kelsey, Wikipedia.

You might also be interested in my historical saga, Raveled Ends of Sky, depicting strong women in an 1843 overland journey based on true events.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

New Direction: A Woman’s Role in the American West

I don’t believe I’ve ever written a wimpy western heroine. At least, I’ve certainly tried to make all my female protagonists bold and strong and more than ready to take on all challenges and adversaries. They might face hardships and get knocked down, but they will always find a way to get back up and be victorious.

As I mentioned in my last post, which was also about a very strong woman – my mother – I’m going to be taking a new direction with this blogspot. I will be writing about the woman’s role in the pioneering and settlement of (mainly) the American West. This, folks, can encompass everything from how women ran their own businesses to what type of hat they wore. There will be stories of specific women who made history, but also what women dealt with in their daily lives.

Women took a big role in the making of this great nation, but their accomplishments and their hardships were usually swept under the rug and didn’t get mentioned in the history books. Where there were men, there were usually women, keeping things going in the background, keeping the home fires burning and dealing with a different form of adversity. Women were oftentimes left widowed to face the hardships alone and raise children. But with the opening of the American West came opportunities never before open to the "weaker sex," and many women took advantage of seeking their fortune without the help of a man.

If you're interested in reading posts on this topic, I hope you’ll sign up to receive my blog posts via email (if you haven’t already done so).

Friday, February 19, 2016

Taking the Next Step

My Mom, 1940
It’s been a long time since I posted anything on my blog. As my mother would say, “What will people think?” Well, sometimes I don’t care what people think. Especially when the death of that same dear woman is the reason I’ve been mostly absent from the world of writing for over a year.

Life–and death–sometimes throws us into a tailspin. A year ago my dear mother died at the age of 94 from an inoperable form of cancer. She was strong and determined to the very end, just as she had been her entire life.

When my father died eighteen years ago, also of cancer, I found myself writing The Daughters of Luke McCall to somehow get myself past the grief. The book was intended to be funny and lighthearted–opposite of the pain and sorrow I had experienced from watching him die. I remember laughing through the tears while I wrote that book. It was somehow cathartic.

I couldn’t do the same thing after my mother’s death. Perhaps it was different because when my dad passed, my family and I still had her to hold onto. When any loved one dies, it leaves you with a hole in your heart and in your life that can never be filled. When it's a parent, you are still their child, no matter your age at the time of loss. Sometimes it takes a long time to step back into the world of the living and pick up where you left off.

Last summer, even though I couldn’t get my head around creating anything new, I put one of my older romances out as an ebook. It was something, a baby step. As for writing blog posts, nothing came to mind. And now, just today, I finally finished a book I had started so long ago that it’s embarrassing. (At least it's finished until I decide to revise again!) This one took me in a different direction from my other books. Nothing like stepping out on a limb!

As for posting to this blog–it’s going to take a different direction, too. More on that next time. The important thing to any setback in life is to eventually pull yourself up by the bootstraps and take the next step, leap the next hurdle, and move forward. It's what my mother would do.