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Cross-Dressing and Coach Driving
Gender equality is a hot topic in America, with many universities offering gender politics courses to students. While suffragettes and flappers may be well-known to the American population today, most movement towards gender equality remained near large cities. In contrast, Western America remained relatively free of striking women figures, such as Lucretia Mott, until later when the Wild West was tamed. It is here, in Gold Rush-era California, that a woman defied conventional society and turned to a life blessed with the freedom that men enjoyed.
At the 1848 Seneca Fall Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton revealed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document modeled after the Declaration of Independence that declared the rights of women, triggering the beginning of First Wave feminism in America. In that same year, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, California. People, set afire by the idea of prosperity in the form of gold and cheap land, stampeded west in enormous numbers. As a result, California’s population rose from 9,000 in 1845 to 93,000 by 1850.
Among these dream-chasers was Charley Parkhurst, a man who would become known throughout California for his extraordinary skill with coach-driving. Parkhurst smoked, drank, and chewed tobacco, a bachelor living a free, adventurous life. During his lifetime, no one would ever dare to suggest that Parkhurst was actually a woman, making her gender a posthumous surprise to family and friends.
Charley Parkhurst was born Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst in 1812 in an orphanage in either Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Sometime between the ages of ten and fourteen, she dressed herself as a boy and ran away, donning a disguise that she would keep for the rest of her life. Charley managed to reach Worcester, Massachusetts and began working for Ebenezer Balch’s livery barn. Mr. Balch noticed her connection with horses and taught her how to drive coaches and horse teams. When Mr. Balch moved to Providence, Rhode Island, Charley followed him and began driving for people in the countryside while working at What Cheer stables. A few years after arriving in Rhode Island, the local church began pressuring her to settle down and marry. Charley moved to Georgia for a while to escape possible scandal. Upon hearing of the Gold Rush, she decided to go to California to make her fortune.
At this time, California was mostly rugged wilderness sparsely inhabited by mining towns. Men between ages fifteen and forty made up 77% of the population. Charley drove gold miners and other travelers around the Bay Area and Central Valley for twenty years for companies like Wells Fargo (which was a stagecoach company in the 1800s). While driving, Charley braved many dangers, such as grizzly bears, hostile Native Americans, and hazardous road. To defend her coach, Charley always kept a .44 pistol by her side. During this time, Charley was kicked by a horse while she was shoeing it and lost sight in her left eye. To cover up the scar damage, which frightened potential passengers, she wore an eye patch, causing her peers to dub her nicknames like “One-eyed Charley” and “Cock-eyed Charley.” Despite being blind in one eye, Charley soon became famous for being a polite, safe and adept driver. She worked as an equal among men and was respected by her community as a driver and a person.
When railroads became more widespread, Charley Parkhurst stopped driving to pursue other interests; she ran a stage station and a saloon, raised cattle, farmed, and worked as a lumberjack. Charley retired in 1875 at age 63 to a small cabin on Moss Ranch, which is near Watsonville, California. She spent the last years of her life quietly and rarely went off her ranch to meet people. Charley Parkhurst died either alone or with a close friend on her ranch on December 18, 1879 at age 67 from tongue cancer.
In addition to be a cross-dressing, gun-toting stagecoach driver, Charley Parkhurst may have also been the first women to vote in America. Though documents show that she registered to vote, there is no solid evidence that she actually voted. The papers may have been lost or they may have never existed. If she did vote, she would have voted in the election between Horatio Seymour and Ulysses S. Grant, most probably on November 3, 1868, at age fifty-four, fifty-three years before the 19th Amendment (which gives women the right to vote) was ratified.
After her death, a doctor and an undertaker examined her body, and discovered that whiskey-drinking, gambling Charley “The Whip” Parkhurst was a woman. Most newspaper insulted and degraded her, calling her improper and shameful. Encouraging the horrified disapproval of the public was the rumor that Charley was a mother, since baby shoes and clothing had been found in her trunk. Of all the newspapers that covered Charley’s story, only the Santa Cruz Sentinel praised her, saying “Who shall longer say that a woman cannot labor and vote like a man?”.
Charley kept a foolproof disguise in order to keep her job, dignity, and the respect of her friends and peers. She spoke with a raspy voice and wore an eye patch, which made her seem tougher. Charley also swore regularly, chewed tobacco, drank alcohol, gambled, and went to saloons. When she got into bar fights, she protected herself with a whip. She wore gloves, jeans, heavy coats, loose fitting clothes, belts, and broad hats to disguise her femininity. However, Parkhurst was short for a man at five feet seven or five feet eight. She was also clean-shaven, which was an unusual look for the busy men of California. Charley adored children, often giving them sweets she kept in her pocket next to her tobacco.
While most people admire Charley Parkhurst for her ability to do “a man’s work,” her most notable quality was the tenacity and bravery she possessed. Parkhurst was raised during a time when women were expected to stay home and keep house while husbands went out and made the family income. Deciding to live an independent life of adventure and danger took remarkable courage. Becoming famous for her driving skill took a stubborn belief that women could work just as well as men. She showed women in America that they didn’t have to conform to their assumed position in society. Her legacy paved a way for women to speak up for their rights.
Hall, Daniel M. “The Strange Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst.” Metro Santa Cruz.
March 5-12, 2003. http://www.metroactive.com/papers/cruz/03.05.03/charley-0310.html.
“Charley Parkhurst a Woman.” (Obituary) Santa Cruz Sentinel. January 3, 1880.
MacDonald, Craig. Cockeyed Charley Parkhurst: The West’s Most
Unusual Stagewhip. Palmer Lake, CO: The Filter Press, 1973.