Bronc busting champion Kitty Wilkes won her first title at the Wild West Celebration Rodeo in Miles City, Montana, in 1916. The seventeen-year-old New York native’s straightforwardness and untamed physical daring gave fans the impression she was born and bred into the rugged life of a Wyoming ranch. Few would have guessed she was new to the sport or that winning the top prize would inspire her to excel in other rodeos. From that exciting moment in Miles City on, she was determined to show the world that one need not be “born in the saddle” to be a crack rider.
Katherine Derre, whose stage name was Kitty Wilkes, was born on July 15, 1899. She had a natural talent for breaking horses and parlayed that skill into bronc riding in public showings. Not only did she have a way with wild horses, but she was an exceptional trick and fancy rider. Owners of relay strings were eager to gain her services.
Between the rodeo in Montana in the summer of 1916 and the Pendleton Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon, in early fall in 1916, Kitty honed her bronc riding talent at ranches and rodeos throughout the West. She insisted on using the orneriest animals for training. Outlaw horses were blindfolded and saddled for her to ride. One encounter resulted in the horse bucking Kitty off and bruising her ribs. She wouldn’t allow the horse to beat her, however. She swung back into the saddle, refusing to leave it until the animal finally broke.
Kitty’s nickname was “Diamond Girl” because she had a diamond set in her front tooth. When needed, she would remove the diamond and pawn it for the entry fees to rodeo contests.
Her performance at the Pendleton Roundup in 1916 resulted in her being named the All-Around Champion Cowgirl. Among the many people she met during the roundup was Yakima Canutt. Canutt, who also competed at the rodeo, would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading stuntmen. Kitty and Yakima fell in love and were married in Kalispell, Montana, in 1917.
Kitty was a fierce athlete who hated to lose. It was not uncommon for her to challenge women who out-rode her, and she believed cheated, to a fistfight. In September 1918, she was disqualified from participating in a rodeo in Washington because she hit a rider in the mouth with a piece of wood.
Not content with being the top female bronc rider in the country, she aspired to be the top female relay racer as well. Rodeo fans loved to watch the petite woman fly past the grandstands on her horse, hurrying to meet the next mount waiting to be saddled and ridden to the next point. More than once, Kitty finished part of the race standing on the stirrups trying to get into the saddle. Her grit and resolve often paid off with a win.
The rodeo stars Kitty often competed against were Mabel Strickland, Bonnie McCarroll, and Prairie Rose Henderson.
Kitty Wilkes was eighty-eight years old when she died on June 3, 1988.