Katherine “Kitty” Wilks was born in New York City in 1899. City-born, she was a cowgirl extraordinaire. She was the All-Around Champion Cowgirl at the Pendleton Round-Up in 1916. That’s where she met Yakima. They were married a year later in Kalispell, Montana.
In 1917, when Mr. and Mrs. Cannutt came to compete in the state fair rodeo in Boise, in was a big deal. Yakima had just won his first of four All-Around Cowboy crowns at Pendleton.
Yakima didn’t do so well, but Mrs. Yakima, as she was sometimes called, won the cowgirls’ bucking contest and came in second in the women’s half mile race. That was in September. In October, the pair went to Weiser.
At the Weiser Annual Harvest Carnival and Oregon Trail Round-up. Frank McCarroll of Boise broke his arm while “saddling a wild broncho for Kittie Wilkes Cannutt,” according to the Idaho Statesman. Yakima “made two splendid efforts without success and suffered a nasty spill in front of the grandstands” while trying to bulldog a steer. None of the cowboys got one down that day, including Frank McCarroll who competed with his left arm in splints.
Yakima was down again when, “In the bucking horse contest Yakima Cannutt, who won the championship at Pendelton a few days ago had a bad fall when Ontario, the horse he was riding, fell. Cannutt came up with the animal, however, and finished his ride in splendid form.”
The marriage of Yakima and Kitty didn’t last long. They divorced in 1920. But In 1921 at the state fair rodeo Kitty Cannutt was still using the surname, and she was a sensation in the women’s relay race. But it was another woman who had the fans on their feet. With the subhead “Plucky Girl Refuses to be Invalid” the story in the Statesman said, “Lorena Trickey set herself square with the crowd when, after being badly injured when her horse crashed into the grandstand fence, she ran away from the Red Cross attendants and in a thrilling climax, nosed out Kitty Cannutt in the cowgirl’s Roman race amid the wild cheers of the grandstand.”
On the final day of the 1921 rodeo, the paper reported that, “With the attendance swelled by what looked like all the school children in the world, the Idaho state fair’s roundup finished Friday afternoon with some of the most exciting events of the week. Fair weather put the crowd in a jovial and ‘peppy’ mood.”
“Yak” Cunnutt took “first coin” in bulldogging ($400), with Frank McCarroll of broken arm fame coming in second. Kitty had to settle for third in the relay standings.
Kitty Cunnutt was sometimes called the “Diamond Girl” or “Diamond Kitty.” Why? Because she had a diamond set in one front tooth. It was flashy, and it was readily pawned when Kitty needed some cash.
Kitty Cunnutt remarried in 1923 and dropped out of public life. Yakima got into film-making as a stuntman, and became easily the most famous of that rough breed. He won a special Oscar in 1967—the only stuntman ever to receive one—and was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1975.
Cannutt may be most famous for directing the chariot scenes in Ben Hur. His son, Joe Cannutt, was the stuntman injured during the filming of one of the scenes. And, no, there wasn’t anyone killed making that movie, though rumors persist.
Note that sources can’t settle on the spelling of some of the names, Kitty, Kittie, Katy, Wilks, Wilkes, Cannutt and Canutt. I’ve just gone with what was reported during the Idaho rodeos.