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Women of the West
The rope-swinging, gun-toting, bow-shooting ladies who settled our land!
When one thinks of pioneer women, scenes from Little House on the Prairie come to mind. Wives and daughters bend over their sewing, or wash clothes in a large wooden tub, while their husbands and brothers are outside farming. Although this idealistic view has become engrained in our culture, it isn’t always correct. Truth be told, pioneer women were as resourceful, hardworking, and tough as their male counterparts. They held jobs, farmed land, drove stage coaches and rode in the Pony Express. Some were even horse thieves! When society’s expectations weren’t satisfying, these ladies blazed their own trail, leaving a colorful legacy – and even more colorful stories – behind them.
One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst
Also called Six-Horse Charley, this woman masqueraded as a male for most of her adult life, fearlessly conducting stagecoaches across the West. She was hailed as the coolest and most daring driver in all California. Fighting her way through bandits and fierce weather, Charley proved herself to be one of the most valuable stagecoach drivers of the 1850s.
Legend says that she grew up in an orphanage, but escaped wearing boy’s clothes. Recognizing that the disguise worked well, she decided to keep it, and Charlotte Parkhurst was renamed Charley. After running away, she found work in a livery stable, and there learned to love horses.
When she was 37, Charley was hired by the California Stage Company, beginning her extensive career as a “whip”. Before long, Charley lost one of her eyes from a horse kick, and gained her new nickname, “One-Eyed Charley”.
Cleverly disguising her body in oversized clothing, and wearing gloves to keep her small hands out sight, Charley did quite well with her masquerade, except for one incident when she came home drunk and let the secret slip. Even then, the confidents didn’t give away Charley’s identity, knowing it would be the end of her illustrious, somewhat infamous career as a stagecoach whip. Thanks to her dexterous way of dressing, along with her scars, eye patch, and dislocated cheekbone, Charley was never suspected of being anything other than a famed coach driver.
Eventually, One-Eyed Charley retired from her work in 1855, and moved to Santa Cruz, California, where she led a relatively normal life. It is said that Charley might have been the first woman to vote in California, while she registered under pretense as a man, but there is no evidence that she actually cast her turned in her ballot.
When Charley died in 1879, at age 67, she had driven for the California Stage Company for approximately six years. It was only after her death that her secret came out, shocking both her former colleagues as well as the Californian communities.
Although Charley was buried in a rather inconspicuous grave, today she has a monument in pioneer cemetery, Watsonville, recognizing her as a “noted whip of the Gold Rush Days.”
Cynthia (Naduah) Ann Parker
The ability to adapt was one of the most important qualities a frontier woman could have, and Cynthia Ann Parker demonstrated this during her amazing, tragic life. She was born in 1827, and resided in Fort Parker, Texas, near the border of Comanche Indian territory. For the early part of her childhood, she lived normally in the harsh frontier environment of the Lone Star State.
Then one day, something happened to change Cynthia’s life forever. A large group of Comanche and Kiowa Native Americans, some 500 strong, attacked Fort Parker. They killed the majority of the populace and captured five women and children. Among them were nine-year-old Cynthia and her brother John, who were eventually split up into different bands of the tribes. The three other captives, two grown women and one small child, were sold later on to kind Indians, who led them home.
Unfortunately, Cynthia and her brother had no such luck. She was taken into one of the most hostile Comanche tribes, the Quohadas.
Four years after her capture, thirteen-year-old Cynthia was seen by two traders traveling along the Canadian River. Although they attempted to buy her from the Indians, she declined them, having already grown to love her new life as a Comanche. Though the traders tried to talk to her, Cynthia had forgotten the English language. She only recalled her name.
Cynthia eventually married Peta Nocona (meaning “Wanderer”), a Comanche war chief. Since Indian chiefs normally had many wives, it was a mark of respect and affection that Peta Nocona married no one else. Naduah, (Cynthia’s Comanche name, meaning “Keeps warm with us”) and Peta Nocona had three children, Quanah, Pecos, and Topsanna. Their oldest boy would grow up to be the famous war chief Quanah Parker.
After 25 years of living as a Comanche, Cynthia was kidnapped again, this time by Texas Rangers. Despite her fighting and protests, she was sent to live with her uncle Isaac Parker, along with Topsanna, her daughter. It is debated whether Cynthia’s husband was killed in the raid by the Texas Rangers, or died from wounds he received while away fighting during that year.
Over the course of time, Cynthia re-learned the ways of the settlers, but repeatedly tried to escape back to “her people”. After each attempt, she was brought back and forced to live as a white woman. In 1863, her daughter caught pneumonia and died, and with her went Cynthia’s will to live. Shortly after, in 1870, Cynthia Ann Parker, better known as Naduah, stopped eating and died from grief.
Cynthia’s poignant life was an embodiment of the westward movement. The events in her years served to show how Native Americans and whites couldn’t live together peacefully, and foretold of a time when all Indians would be forced to live as the settlers did. Although the end of her life was painful, Naduah will be remembered as the woman who became Comanche, and thrived in difficult circumstances.
Mary Fields, at six feet tall and 200 pounds was not the average western woman. Said to have a need for fistfights and six-shooters, this lady was famed from Montana to Tennessee for her short temper and crack shot.
A former slave, Mary was freed after the Civil War and in 1884, and traveled to Montana. A convent hired her to do heavy work unsuitable for the nuns such as chopping wood, carpentry, and hauling large objects. Her job also required her to bring supplies back to the convent from nearby towns in her cart. During one such outing, Mary’s wagon was overturned by a pack of wolves. Legend has it that Mary kept herself safe with her revolvers and rifle, but even if she didn’t, the audacious woman still managed to survive the night.
Mary’s job at the nunnery came to an untimely end when she shot a co-worker in the behind while he was stepping out of the outhouse. As if that weren’t enough, Mary somehow managed to put holes in the Bishop’s drying laundry during the shootout. Needless to say, the enraged church official fired her, and the accosted man received a raise in his paycheck. The attack was not unprovoked, however, as the co-worker had been complaining profusely to both the Bishop and the townspeople because Mary was earning more money than he.
Mary’s next occupation was a job carrying the United States Mail. Along with her trusty mule, Moses, Mary endured bad weather and dangerous circumstances to make sure the citizens in her area got their correspondence on time. It is said that her efforts carrying mail helped develop a large part of inner Montana.
During her time as a post woman, Mary gained a large reputation for fistfights and shootouts. It was well deserved, as the newspaper The Great Falls Examiner, reported that she had “broken more noses than any other person in Central Montana.”
Retiring from the mail business well after her sixties, Mary settled in small-town Cascade, and began a laundry business. In between washing shirts and breeches, Mary also babysat many of the local children, spending most of the money she earned on treats for them. She also enjoyed tending her garden and giving away fresh flowers.
Although she had mellowed quite a bit, Mary Fields still retained the spunk of her youth. Legend has it that when a man failed to pay his laundry bill, the old lady of 72 marched over to the saloon and knocked him out with one punch, actually doing him a favor in the process by removing a tooth that had been troubling him. Though the truth of this story is doubted, it certainly fits with the other accounts of this gun-toting Western queen.
In 1914, at the grand age of 80, Mary died from liver failure, probably from the hard drinking she had done in her day. Neighbors and friends considered her more as a kindly old lady than a wild, pugnacious rebel, though she was both in her lifetime.
Mary is remembered as “the bull in the Victorian china shop”, for all the laws of society and etiquette she disregarded. One thing is certain: For every rule Mary Fields broke, a door was left open for the young ladies of coming eras.
These three women, and numerous others served our expanding country just as well as the men. Freed from the socially acceptable East, they broke out of their traditional roles and wielded pickaxes, plows, and guns with valor. The Western woman was a new kind of breed, and one that still lives on today.