Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Charley Parkhurst a StageCoach Driver....With a Secret


 Writer and illustrator J. Ross Browne
holds tight as Charley Parkhurst drives the stage

Charley Parkhurst lived an interesting life. He was a stagecoach driver, worked in a livery and was born Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst…yep Charley was a female!

Charlotte was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire about 1812. She was abandoned by her parents and was placed in an orphanage in Massachusetts. When Charlotte was a teenager she ran away from the orphanage and began working in a livery stable owned by Ebenezer Balch in Worcester.

Many people believe that Charlotte began her new identity as a male after her escape from the orphanage. It is not know exactly when the transformation occurred or what her movements were for about 20 years.

“Charley” debut as a stagecoach whip with help from Ebenezer Balch. She worked in Providence, Rhode Island for a while and then landed in Georgia. When She came back to Providence in 1849 she learned of the gold rush on the American River in northern California.

A stagecoach driver and friend of Charlotte’s, James Birch wanted to start up a stagecoach line from the goldfields to Sacramento. He promised her a job and they started on their way to California. The journey took six months. In 1851 she made her way to the goldfields and was employed by birch to drive coaches in the Mother Lode country.

In 1854 Birch organized the California Stage Company. Charlotte “Charley” was a chief driver for Birch. She was familiar with the entire Sierra Nevada foothill country. From Sacramento and Stockton to as far south as Monterrey. She ran the coach line from San Francisco to Oakland.

 One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst
As you can imagine many “legends” and stories came about from her journeys as a stagecoach whip in California.

One story involved a highwayman known as Sugarfoot. Sugarfoot had very large feet and used burlap sacks as shoes. Sugarfoot stopped Charlotte’s coach, stuck a shotgun in her face, and ordered her to throw down the strongbox. Charlotte did, but warned Sugarfoot, “Next time, I’ll be ready for you.”

Charlotte was, she started to wear six-shooters. A year later Sugarfoot and his gang stopped the coach again. But this time she began blazing away at them as they drew up on her coach. She flew down the trail and later when the posse returned to the site they found Sugarfoot dead and two of his gang wounded.

Charlotte was proud to say she never had a passenger suffer an injury while on her coach. She took her job very seriously and was at all times professional. She loved her horses, calling them beauties, and giving them lots of love and care. Charlotte was a good in a fight and put anyone in their place that mistreated horses or other animals in her presence.

In the 1860’s Charlotte retired from driving stagecoaches. She suffered an eye injury while shoeing a horse and had to wear an eye patch. She was then called “One-Eyed Charley”

                                           1889 Great Hot Springs in the Dakota Territory

In her retirement, she led a quiet life of raising cattle and growing vegetables. She died on her ranch from cancer. It was at this time when the physician who pronounced her at the ranch did the autopsy and found out Charlotte’s secret.

Well, the story of Charlotte’s secret life as a man spread like wildfire throughout the west. Her decades long masquerade as a man shocked and baffled many.

Even though she was only five feet seven inches tall, clean-shaven and spoke little, no one questioned her gender. She spoke with a “whiskey tenor” and often wore pleated shirts over over sized trousers and was never seen without her leather gauntlet-like gloves in public.  While on the road she slept in the stable with her horses and never bathed in public bathhouses. She also swore like a long-shore man, smoked cigars, and chewed tobacco.

She gave up a lot to live as a man. Her life was a lonely one she had no close friends or relationships for obvious reasons. So why live as a man? The reason is not know, but there is speculation that she became Charley to earn a decent wage and work at an occupation that offered excitement and challenge.

Between Christmas 1879 and New Year’s Day 1880 Charlotte was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery near Watsonville, California.  Rather an appropriate site for Charlotte, “Charley”…being such an “odd fellow”…

information from the book “Legends of the Wild West” by James A Crutchfield, Bill O’Neal and Dale L Walker


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