Who everyone thought was a man
Note: this article was originally published in History of Women on Medium.com. You can also listen to a slightly revised version on the episode of my blogcast, Here’s A Thought, released on April 19.
I find this story remarkable enough to post here as well — and since so much of my time right now is taken up with fostering a special-needs puppy, whatever writing I manage to get done has to do double (or triple) duty!
I’m a sucker for Old West stories. I haven’t missed a single episode of the TV show Yellowstone or its spinoffs, 1883 and 1923. There is, of course, a lot that is problematic with much of the Western mythos — just for starters, the whole cowboys vs Indians trope that prevailed for so long.
But those were indeed story-rich times, and a little digging turns up true tales that upend some of the stereotypes. This is definitely one of them.
In Goldrush California, stagecoach drivers were rock stars
During the states’ early, rough-and-tumble years, getting from points like San Jose to Oakland, Stockton to Mariposa, and especially the hair-raising route over Mount Madonna to Santa Cruz, was no joke. Roads were unpaved and uncertain in bad weather, and highway robbery wasn’t just an expression.
Drivers with enough skill, grit, and horse-savvy to maneuver a six-horse team in these conditions were highly regarded. And among the very best of California “whips,” as stagecoach drivers were then called, was Charley Parkhurst.
Also known as One-Eyed Charley, Mountain Charley, and Six-Horse Charley, Parkhurst expertly transported passengers, goods, and gold from gold mining outposts to cities like San Francisco and Sacramento, navigating one-way dirt roads around narrow mountain turns and fording numerous streams.
Known for wearing long-fingered, beaded gloves, a fondness for whiskey, chewing tobacco, and inventive profanity, Parkhurst also fully embodied the term “whip” and could —according to some accounts —slice open an envelope or smack a cigar out of a man’s mouth from 20 feet away. One bandit reportedly lost an eye to Parkhurst’s well-aimed whip.
It was work guaranteed to be hard on the body, and by 1873 when railroads were quickly making stagecoaches obsolete, Parkhurst switched to operating a horse changing station and later raised cattle on a ranch between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Crippled with arthritis by age 64, Parkhurst characteristically resisted seeing a doctor for the stubborn pain in his throat. He died alone on December 18, 1879, of tongue cancer.
Then came the startling revelation
When neighbors learned of Parkhurst’s death and came to lay out the body for burial, they were in for a surprise. It turned out that tough old Mountain Charley was biologically a woman.
A doctor who performed a posthumous examination found that Parkhurst had given birth at least once. One account, possibly apocryphal, said baby clothes were discovered in a small trunk in Parkhurst’s cabin.
In those days, long before the recognition that a person’s gender assignment at birth was not necessarily the one with which they identified, the discovery about Charley created a sensation, receiving national coverage.
The obituary in the Sacramento Bee published a few days afterward read, in part:
“On Sunday last, there died a person known as Charley Parkhurst, aged 67, who was well-known to old residents as a stage driver. He was, in early days, accounted one of the most expert manipulators of the reins who ever sat on the box of a coach. It was discovered when friendly hands were preparing him for his final rest, that Charley Parkhurst was unmistakably a well-developed woman!”
Charley Parkhurst was born Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst
The records of Parkhurst’s early years are muddled and sometimes contradictory. What is clear is that Parkhurst was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1812, and was one of three siblings. Their mother died the same year, and the oldest of the three, Charles D., died the following year.
According to most accounts, the two surviving siblings, Charlotte and Maria, were taken to an orphanage in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Whether this was at the behest of their father Ebenezer is unclear.
Around the age of 12, Charlotte apparently ran away from the orphanage (which was also referred to as “the poorhouse” in at least one account) and began presenting as male. Working in stables — or possibly on an uncle’s farm until they had a falling out — Parkhurst, now Charley, became a skilled rider and handler of horses.
Becoming a stagecoach whip
According to one source, he (using the pronoun Charley would adopt throughout the rest of his life) found work in a stable in Worcester, Massachusetts. Another account says he met another Ebenezer, one Ebenezer Balch, who owned a livery stable in Providence, Rhode Island.
In this version of history, Balch took Charley under his wing and brought him back to Rhode Island, teaching him advanced skills in horse handling and driving. That included driving a coach, beginning with one horse and working up to a team of six. Charley continued working for Balch for several years.
Sources agree that two of Charley’s friends headed to California in 1849, no doubt drawn by the opportunities that abounded during the gold rush that had begun that year. There they successfully established the California Stage Company.
Charley was now in his late 30s and looking for opportunities as well. He sailed from Boston to Panama, and while crossing overland across the isthmus in those pre-Panama Canal days, he was recruited by an owner of a drayage business — the equivalent of a modern-day trucking company — in San Francisco.
It wasn’t long after arriving in California that Charley lost the use of his left eye after being kicked in the face by a horse. That led to the first of his nicknames, “One-Eyed Charley,” and added to his reputation for toughness.
At some point, Charley went to work for his friend who owned the California Stage Company. For the next couple of decades, he drove six-in-hand teams pulling stagecoaches all through Northern California, earning a reputation as an expert whip who drove fearlessly without being a daredevil.
Traveling by stagecoach in those days was no pleasure cruise. The roads were often barely more than trails, steep and twisting through the mountains. A British writer, J.G. Player-Frowd, traveled via stagecoach along some of these routes in 1872.
In his account of those journeys in his Six Months in California, Player-Frowd recommended that travelers “have as little to do with stages as possible . . . a stage journey is an infliction to be borne in order to travel from one place to another . . .,” citing the endless jolting, the bad food, and the ceaseless monotony.
At least the boredom was relieved at intervals by terror. Player-Frowd learned to admire the drivers. He wrote:
“The Western stage-driver (has) iron nerve and rough coarse manners. Reckless, and daring, he is yet more to be trusted than a less bold and more cautious driver. . . The only way to go down those mountain grades is to rush it. . . (Meanwhile,) there sits the driver, with one foot firmly pressed on the break, his horses well in hand, taking them round the corners.”
Stage robbers were a constant threat
This still being very much the Wild West, stages often carried gold in their strongboxes, which made them tempting targets for bandits. Parkhurst had a reputation for facing down desperadoes and rarely, if ever, being held up.
In 1901, Munsey’s Magazine recounted what allegedly happened when an outlaw tried to ambush Charley’s stage along the Grass Valley route:
“He (Parkhurst) was small, but full of nerve and resource. Once a robber halted him as he was lashing his horses through a mud hole that threatened to bog him down. Parkhurst’s whip was in the air when the robber sprang out of the brush. Down came the lash across the road agent’s eyes. The fellow was picked up a day later, utterly blinded (but) they saved (one) eye so he could see well enough to pick jute during his term in (San Quentin).”
A popular story — disputed in some sources — tells of how Charley brought down the notorious robber Sugarfoot. As his outlaw gang surrounded Charley’s stage and made the usual demand to “throw down the gold box,” Parkhurst cracked his whip to deliberately cause the six-horse team to bolt.
As the coach plunged along, Charley turned and fired his revolver at the robbers. In this account worthy of a black-and-white Western, he plugged Sugarfoot himself right in the gut. The bandit leader’s body was later found alongside the road.
Whether there’s any truth to that or not, Charley Parkhurst was by all accounts well-liked and respected for his reliability in safely delivering passengers and goods to their destinations in even the harshest conditions.
Voting for president
While there is no way to confirm that Charley Parkhurst actually cast a vote in the presidential election of 1868, he was listed on the official voter rolls of that year — more than 40 years before women would have the right to vote in California.
Following the revelation of his assigned gender after Charley died, much was made of him being the first woman to have cast a vote for president of the United States. The fire station in Soquel, California, one of the towns where Parkhurst was a well-known figure, to this day bears a plaque that reads:
“The first ballot by a woman in an American presidential election was cast on this site November 3, 1868, by Charlotte (Charley) Parkhurst who masqueraded as a man for much of her life. She was a stagecoach driver in the mother lode country during the gold rush days and shot and killed at least one bandit. In her later years she drove a stagecoach in this area. She died in 1879. Not until then was she found to be female. She is buried in Watsonville at the pioneer cemetery.”
History doesn’t tell us why Parkhurst decided to live as a man
From today’s perspective, it’s tempting to conclude that Charley Parkhurst was a trans person. Indeed, if Parkhurst were alive today he (or they) might identify as gay or trans.
But there is no way to know that. There were other compelling reasons why a woman of that time might have made such a choice. In Charley’s day, the options for women were decidedly limited.
They could be wives, laundresses, seamstresses, teachers, or sex workers, and that was about it. Women were certainly not apt to be hired as stagecoach drivers, nor were they ever likely to pull in the kind of wages that a skilled whip could.
A 2019 article in KQED News quotes historian Don Romesburg, chair of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University who said of Charley Parkhurst:
“There’s all sorts of reasons beyond perhaps a true expression of one’s gendered self that someone like Parkhurst might choose to live as a man for many years.”
Maybe most remarkable is how well Parkhurst kept his secret
And for how long. There is no record of anyone discovering Charley’s assigned gender during his lifetime, and many of his close compatriots expressed pure astonishment when it was revealed — including some of the tough old sourdoughs who had spent nights camping out with him along the road.
There’s also no record of Charley ever having a girlfriend. Maybe that’s because Charley was in fact a straight woman who chose to live as a man for the autonomy and respect it offered. Or maybe pursuing an intimate relationship with anyone of any gender meant too great a risk of blowing a closely guarded secret.
Some accounts say that near the end of his life, Charley made vague references to some of his close friends to the effect that there was something about him they should know — but he didn’t elaborate further before his death.
In any case, as Romesburg points out, Charley Parkhurst represents an important part of trans history. Whatever Parkhurst’s true gender expression may have been, his — or hers, or theirs — is a story of defying the limitations placed on women, then and now.
Back in Rhode Island, in commemoration of Parkhurst the Providence Journal wrote:
“The only people who have occasion to be disturbed by the career of Charley Parkhurst are the gentlemen who have so much to say about ‘woman’s sphere’ and ‘the weaker vessel . . . It is beyond question that one of the soberest, pleasantest, most expert drivers in this State, and one of the most celebrated of the world-famed California drivers was a woman. And is it not true that a woman had done what woman can do?”
Amazing story, Jan! Charley was a role model in his own way.
I agree — it took a lot of courage to live as Charley did. Thanks for reading, Laurie!
Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this. Makes me wonder how many more situations like this have happened that we’ll never know about!
I know, right? I’m sure there are many more than we’ll ever hear about. Glad you liked it!
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