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.
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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