Charley Parkhurst

posted in: History Makers | 4

Did you know Charley Parkhurst (1812–1879)?
Tales of the Old West
Once there was a girl, Charlene Parkhurst, born in 1812 in Sharon, Vermont. Charlene’s parents died, and there was no one to take care of her, so she ended up in an orphanage in Lebanon, NH. Guess the food wasn’t to her liking… at any rate, she ran away, struck out on her own at age twelve. She cut her hair, and adopted masculine clothing, pretending to be a boy. Working any odd job she could find, and sleeping wherever there was cover, she met Ebenezer Balch, a kindly older gentleman who thought he was taking in an orphan boy. Balch taught her about horses, both training and driving them. After a time, she was able to handle a coach and six in Providence, RI.

In 1848, rumors of gold in California circulated. Charley, as she called herself, set out to the gold rush to find her fortune. Still, no one knew her true gender. She boarded a ship in Boston, sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and caught another ship to San Francisco. There she found work as a driver for a freight company. Shortly after her arrival, a cantankerous horse let fly with a hoof that knocked out one of her eyes, leading to the name “Cockeyed Charley”. She moved to a stage coach company, and became known as one of the finest stage coach drivers on the West Coast. She was also called “Jehu” after the Biblical king, from the passage that says “…and the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously.” Among Charley’s “routes in northern California were Stockton to Mariposa, “the great stage route” from San Jose to Oakland, and San Juan to Santa Cruz.Stagecoach drivers carried mail as well as passengers, and had to deal with hold-up attempts, bad weather, and perilous, primitive trails. ” – Wikipedia

The time of the stage coach was brief and colorful in the history of the West. Charley saw changing times, and retired to a cabin in Watsonville, California. She also had a chicken farm in Aptos. In the late 1870s, Charley contracted tongue cancer, and died – probably from smoking, though no one would have known that at the time.

After her death, an inquest discovered her gender, and even that she had given birth somewhere along the way. She was on the voter rolls for the county in 1868 – there is no record of her actually voting. If she had, she would, as her gravestone claims, have been the first woman to vote in the western United States. In the furor surrounding the discovery of her gender, the New York Times picked up the story, and printed this obituary: “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…
Last Sunday [December 28, 1879], in a little cabin on the Moss Ranch, about six miles from Watsonville, Charley Parkhurst, the famous coachman, the fearless fighter, the industrious farmer and expert woodman died of cancer on her tongue. She knew that death was approaching, but she did not relax the reticence of her later years other than to express a few wishes as to certain things to be done at her death. Then, when the hands of the kind friends who had ministered to her dying wants came to lay out the dead body of the adventurous Argonaut, a discovery was made that was literally astounding. Charley Parkhurst was a woman.”

4 Responses

    • Ariel

      There are no less than 3 novels about her. Riding Freedom (easy reader, children’s novel), Whip, and Charley’s Choice. There is also a movie set to begin production Summer 2021.