If you think cross-dressing is a 20th century phenomenon, you are quite wrong. Even in the good old Wild West days, there were certain ladies who preferred to dress as men. True, back then, women didn't have much of a choice when it came to picking an occupation. They could either become wives and mothers or soiled doves and madams. When faced with such a slim choice, it's no wonder some of them took to wearing men's clothes in order to break into men's professions.
One such woman was Charley Parkhurst, the "whip." Stagecoach driving was a men's profession for sure. Expertly handling six horses pulling at that many lead lines required hardiness, skill, and strength. Driver's hands were always full. To use a shotgun or a whip for any reason took great juggling ability and strength. They were quick to sum up a situation and correct a problem before it became a disaster. What woman would even dream of getting herself into that line of work?! Apparently, Ms. Parkhurst did.
Charley's real name has been lost to history. He - or should we say, she - insisted on being called Charley Darkey Parkhurst, and the best historians could come up with is that she was most likely born Charlotte Parkhurst back around 1812. Legend has it that she was most likely born in New Hampshire and raised in an orphanage in Massachusetts. Then, she headed off on her own to work as a stable boy for Ebebezer Balch in Worchester, Vermont. He taught Charley how to drive a team, and there she also learned to smoke, chew tobacco, and drink. All of the smoking and alcohol made Charley's voice raspy enough to conceal her gender. As a coachman with tailored outfits to disguise her feminine shape, she became comfortable in manly ways. She even went to the gold fields like most men of her era did, and she drove stage for the California Stage Lines until 1855. When she got pregnant, she went to the southern portion of the state and, after the death of her child at birth, she settled in Santa Cruz County. Historians think that it was in Redwood City that a horse kicked her in the face while being shoed, causing the loss of her eye. From then on, she wore a patch and was known as One-eye Charley or Cock-eyed Charley. During most of her life, Charley didn't draw much attention to herself. It was only after her death, when it was discovered she was not the man she persuaded everyone she was, that she gained her fame. As a matter of fact, she was probably the first woman to vote in California as she registered to vote in her manly guise in 1867.
After Charley's death, the news of her actually being a woman was so shocking to the people that they started spinning legends about her, and with each telling, those legends got more outrageous. Many people claimed they knew Charley from "way back when" and told their experiences with her as their driver. She did good deeds, helped women in child birth, set broken bones, donated money to the needy, and kissed babies. She was everything to everyone, and legend has it, she even sent Black Bart away empty-handed with his butt full of buckshot. It was said Charley always had a brace of pistols stuck in her belt, but under her large Texas hat, her blue-grey eyes had a gentle glow. These legends continued to be spun right up to the 1970's, when her memory was even used to advance female causes.
It seems Charley retired from her career as a stagecoach driver in her 60's, when the railroad development made drivers obsolete. She died of cancer of the mouth, even though rheumatism laid her up for a long period of time. She was buried in Pioneer Cemetery in Freedom, California where a simple wooden marker stated, "Parkhurst." No one knew with certainty what her real name had been. Today, she has a real tombstone and a small plaque at the Soquel Fire Department.
Did Charley intentionally step into the men's world because prospects of an orphan finding a respectable husband were more than slim? Did she become a stage driver because she wanted to earn her upkeep in a respectable manner? Or was it just a set of circumstances that guided her into that line of work? We don't know, and those who might have known are long gone and forgotten. After all, does it matter? If we knew all the facts of her life, we wouldn't have all the wonderful legends of a kind-hearted woman making it in the tough man's world. We all need some inspiration from a legend or two every now and then.
What other legends about Charley Parkhurst do you know? Please share in the comments.
Although most women in the Old West could be divided into two basic categories - respectable ladies and shady ladies, there were some who simply defied any attempt at classification. One such woman was Poker Alice.
Alice Ivers was born into the family of a conservative schoolmaster in Devonshire, England. If her life had taken a more common turn, she would have made a proper Southern lady in Virginia, where her father moved the family when Alice was still a young girl. She attended an upscale boarding school for young ladies until, in yet another twist of fate, her family moved to Leadville, Colorado following the silver rush.
Once she was away from the respectable South and into the uncharted expanses of the Wild West, Alice's life was bound to take unexpected turns. This petite, 5'4" beauty was sure to catch an eye of many an upstanding man. So, at the tender age of twenty, she was married to mining engineer Frank Duffield, who liked to spend his free time playing cards at one of the many gambling halls. Staying home alone did not appeal to young Alice, so she accompanied her husband on his gambling adventures. At first, she just observed the game and learned, but before long, she would join the fun and become quite an expert poker and faro player.
Only a few years into their marriage, Frank Duffield was killed in an explosion, leaving Alice virtually penniless. In order to support herself, Alice now needed to get a job. An option was to become a school teacher, which would have been quite a respectable profession for an educated, young lady of that era. Instead, she decided to make a living at the gambling table.
A lady at a gambling hall who wasn't of the soiled dove kind was a rarity in the Old West, so Alice quickly made a name for herself, both as a player and a dealer. Young, pretty, and bedecked in the latest fashions, she was a sight for the sore eyes of many a miner. Traveling from one Colorado mining camp to the other, she soon acquired the nickname Poker Alice. Right around that time, while still dressing in her frilly, fashionable clothes, she started puffing on a fat cigar while playing. She also carried a .38 revolver and wasn't afraid to use it. However, she never gambled on Sundays due to her religious beliefs.
Soon, Alice left Colorado and traveled to New Mexico, New York, then back to Colorado, to finally end up in Deadwood, South Dakota. There, she met a house painter named Warren G. Tubbs, who often sidelined as a dealer and gambler. Now, Alice routinely beat Warren at gambling, but that didn't stop him from falling for her. Matter of fact, that might have made her even more attractive to him. They married, had seven children together, moved out of Deadwood, and homesteaded a ranch near Sturgis. Her hands full with helping run the ranch and raising children, Alice spent little time at gambling halls during this period in her life. Unfortunately, the peaceful ranch life was just not meant to be. Warren somehow contracted tuberculosis and died from pneumonia, leaving Alice and the children to fend for themselves.
Forced once again to make a living, Alice hired George Huckert to manage the ranch while she returned to gambling halls. Huckert was simply smitten from the get-go and asked Alice to marry him several times. She finally relented, and was quoted saying, "I owed him so much in back wages; I figured it would be cheaper to marry him than to pay him off." Unfortunately, Huckert soon died, and Alice found herself widowed for the third time.
Alice's downfall actually started a couple of years before Huckert's death, when she bought a house in Fort Meade with the intention of turning it into a gambling hall. She followed through on her plans, and opened a gambling hall on the first floor with a brothel on the top floor. At one point, a bunch of soldiers were raising ruckus in the hall, and she fired a shot to calm them down. As the luck would have it, that shot went through two soldiers, killing one of them. She was arrested and the house was closed down. At her trial, the shooting was ruled accidental, and Alice was acquitted. However, the authorities decided to start keeping a close watch on her ever since then.
By that time, Alice was in her 60's, and she kept getting arrested for drunkenness and running a brothel. She had also quit wearing her fashionable clothes, and now wore old men's clothing. Photos of her one would most often come across in the historical collections show a gray-haired elderly woman in man's clothes, with a fat cigar in the corner of her mouth. Quite the far cry from a petite, blue-eyed beauty she once was.
Poker Alice met her demise quite unceremoniously at the age of 79, when she succumbed to complications from a failed gall bladder surgery. She was buried in Sturgis, South Dakota, but her legend lives to this day. She claimed to have won more than $250,000 at the gambling tables, all without cheating, and she was reported to have said, "Praise the Lord and place your bets. I'll take your money with no regrets."
Although we don't recommend Alice's kind of religion, we sure do agree that life without regrets is something to strive for.
Who is your favorite or your most despised Wild West character?
Tell us in the comments below.
"I do not know much about her early life. I guess nobody else does but herself," were the words Buffalo Bill Cody used once to describe Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane.
What we do know is that she was one of the most infamous women of the Wild West. Her bawdy language, excessive drinking, and tobacco chewing didn't make her the poster child for what a lady should be, but she was quite handy with a gun, and that's what earns you respect in the Wild West. The story goes that the name Calamity Jane stuck to her because she used to tell men not to offend her, or they'd be courting calamity.
Apart from trying her hand and other body parts at being a cook, a nurse, a prostitute, a miner, and an ox-team driver, believe it or not, Calamity also had one other occupation uncommon for women of that era. In the 1870's, she was a military scout in the Dakota territories, although some have disputed this calling it Jane's own embellishment of her life story. Some accounts say that she saved the life of a captain in a fierce battle with Indians near Goose Creek Camp, while others claim that she never saw a single battle. It has been said that she once saved lives of six passengers on a stagecoach traveling from Deadwood to Wild Birch, yet others believe that to be an urban legend. Oh, wait! It should have been a prairie legend - Dakota territory had no urban areas back in the 1800's.
This original cross-dresser was notorious for being loud and obnoxious. She cursed and drank most men under the table, but she was also known for being kind and compassionate, especially toward the sick and the needy. Residents of Deadwood, South Dakota still praise her for nursing the sick through a smallpox outbreak.
During her rough life, Calamity Jane traveled from her native Missouri to the Dakota territories, becoming somewhat of a celebrity in the same league with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok. Matter of fact, Calamity greatly admired Wild Bill, even to the point of infatuation. Although she claimed that she and Bill were married in 1873 and had a daughter together, historians say there are too many discrepancies in Jane's life story for this one to be true. However, when she died, the men who buried her decided to play a posthumous joke on her and Bill, burying her in a grave next to his, just because he "had absolutely no use" for her while he was alive.
Calamity Jane found her eternal rest - if such is granted to outlaws - at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota, where her notoriety turned into kind of a romantic admiration as time went by. These days, if you travel through the Black Hills of South Dakota, you can drink a local wine named after her, drive down streets named after her, and even stay in a lodge named after her. Whatever you do, just make sure you don't go courting calamity.
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the mind and hands behind hART Sense Design. I am a designer and hand-maker of one-of-a-kind and limited edition jewelry and accessories for artistic, chic cowgirls, boho babes, and lovers of all things western.
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