Charley Parkhurst was found dead in bed on December 18, 1879. But to the surprise of Charley's friend's, the person they found was not who they thought he was. Charley was a woman! Parkhurst, aka: One Eyed Charley, Mountain Charley, Six-Horse Charley,was a female tobacco chewing, cussing California stagecoach driver.
There is some controversy of her actual name and place of birth. Some say it was Mary Parkhurst born in 1812 in Sharon, Vermont. Others argue it was Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, born in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Regardless, she was raised in an orphanage before she ran away disguised as a boy. The ploy worked so well, she continued using the disguise the rest of her life.
Charley weighed close to 175 pounds and stood about five feet in height. Young Charley had big arms, but a thin voice and was said to prefer sleeping in stables with the horses rather than going out with the boys. Nevertheless, Thomas Edwin Farish, who rode with Parkhurst in 1870, called Charley, "...as good a driver as could be found anywhere."
After leaving the orphanage Charley found work in a livery stable in Worchester, Massachusetts. Later she was employed by "What Cheer Stables" in Providence, Rhode Island for the next couple of years.
Around 1849 two of Charley's friends, James Birch and Frank Stevens, decided to head West for California. Charley tagged along.
In California, James and Frank consolidated several small stage lines into the California Stage Company. Charley went to work for them as a stagecoach driver. It didn’t take long for Charley to earn a reputation as one of the finest drivers on the west coast. However, shortly afterwards she lost the use of one eye after being kicked by a horse. Since that day Charley wore an eye patch, giving her a tough looking appearance.
Over the next two decades she drove stages for various stage lines, including Wells Fargo from Santa Cruz to San Jose. To protect her secret she wore gloves to hide her small hands and pleated shirts to hide her figure.
One of Charley’s peers would later say Charley "… out-swore, out-drank, and out-chewed even the Monterey whalers." People described Charley as a fierce driver, who was never afraid to use a gun. Another interesting fact was, in 1868, she became a registered voter and was the first woman to vote in California.
Parkhurst was quoted as saying: "I'm no better now than when I commenced. Pay's small and work's heavy. I'm getting old. Rheumatism in my bones -- nobody to look out for old used-up stage drivers. I'll kick the bucket one of these days and that'll be the last of old Charley."
Parkhurst retired from driving some years later in Aptos, California and worked at lumbering, cattle ranching and raising chickens before settling down to a quiet life in Watsonville, California. When she died of cancer, her true sex was revealed for the first time to the amazement of all who knew her.
The San Francisco Morning Call said of her upon her death, "…the most dexterous and celebrated of the California drivers and it was an honor to occupy the spare end of the driver's seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins."
Upon her death neighbors came to lay out the body for burial and that is when her deep secret was revealed to the world. The examining physician, called in by neighbors, not only established Charlie was a woman but had been a mother as well. A trunk in her house contained a baby's dress.
However, communication being what it was in those days, these choice little tidbits traveled somewhat slower than the news of her death. As a result the San Francisco Morning Callreported on December 28, 1879:
"He was in his day one of the most dexterous and celebrated of the famous California drivers ranking with Foss, Hank Monk, and George Gordon, and it was an honor to be striven for to occupy the spare end of the driver's seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins of a four-or six-in hand..."
In 1955 the Pajaro Valley Historical Association erected a monument on Charley’s grave site which reads: "Charley Darkey Parkhurst (1812-1879) Noted whip of the gold rush days drove stage over Mt. Madonna in early days of Valley. Last run San Juan to Santa Cruz. Death in cabin near the 7 mile house. Revealed 'one eyed Charlie' a woman. First woman to vote in the U.S. November 3, 1868.”
Mary Chaney Hoffman, writing for the American Mercury, wrote: “He was Charley Parkhurst, one of the most celebrated whips of the early days. He was known up and down the coast of California, in the mining towns of the Sierra Nevada and wherever the tales of the Argonauts were heard. He was accounted one of the coolest and most daring of all that brave band of stage drivers.”
Lorraine on December 19, 2014:
Alastar Packer from North Carolina on March 21, 2011:
Have read quite a few stories about women who passed for men during their lives; but here's another one never heard about! Thanks JY!