Utah's cowbelle: Katherine Fenton Nutter

Story by Angela Hawkins, Public Affairs Specialist. Photo courtesy of the Utah Historical Society.

We live in historic times, built on a foundation hard-won by strong women. Since March is National Women’s History month, it’s the perfect time to reflect on these extraordinary women. One such woman is Utah’s Cattle Queen, Katherine Fenton Nutter. In true history-making fashion, Katherine Fenton was one of many women who joined the workforce in the late 1800s as a telegraphic operator. Born in 1871 in Ceylon, Ohio, the West pricked Katherine’s imagination and drew her to Colorado Springs, where she managed the Postal Telegraph Company office.

Katherine Fenton Nutter profile
Katherine Fenton Nutter

When the Ute land was opened for white settlement with the Homestead Act, Katherine bravely threw her name into the lottery. When her name was picked, she ignored the well-meaning advice of friends and traveled by stagecoach to her new homestead in Ioka, Duchesne County, Utah. As fate would have it, the stagecoach became lost. Fortunately, they stopped at the ranch of the generous Preston Nutter in Nine Mile Canyon (Utah), a homesteader and dreamer himself. A romance blossomed, and although Preston proposed the next year, she held to her conviction of being a homesteader and continued to run the telegraph office in Colorado Springs for three more years while continuing to improve her land. Finally in 1908, Katherine relented and married Preston. While on their honeymoon, they purchased cattle in the East.

While learning to be a mother to two daughters, Catherine and Virginia, Katherine also learned large-scale ranching, kept the account books and wrote the checks. She is famously quoted as saying, “No holidays in this business of farming.”  

Katherine was a vocal supporter of The Taylor Grazing Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1935. She and other cattle ranchers were largely stable; sheepmen were migratory. She would continually find herds of sheep on her fee land, and one time even found her own cows fenced out of her own water trough and dying of dehydration. Eventually encompassing 300,000 acres, strategies created on the Nutter Ranch would help forge the standards of grazing and rangeland health.  

Widowed in 1936, Katherine became the president of Nutter Ranch Corporation. Through her silent reign of the Nutter Ranch, Katherine embraced the changes in administration of public lands in the West. When the government merged the General Land Office and the Grazing Service into the Bureau of Land Management, Katherine, as the long-standing member of the America Cattleman’s Association, helped with the early adoption of the new agency’s regulations and standards throughout Southern Utah.

Even into her 80s, Katherine was still in charge. When at the railhead to inspect her stock and before loading on the cattle cars, she overheard the telegrapher ordering the cars in morse code. Interrupting him mid message she said, “I ordered cattle cars, not sheep cars.”  The surprised telegrapher realized she had deciphered his message as fast as he sent it and caught the egregious error. Katherine’s telegraph skills were still sharp from all those years prior in Colorado Springs.

Katherine Fenton Nutter died on July 17, 1965, at the young age of 94. The Salt Lake Tribune called her “perhaps the last of the West’s cattle queens.”  The Nutter Ranch in Nine Mile Canyon, Utah is an important historical landmark, reminding the present and future generations of the strength of a woman with grand ideas.