The Real Mountain Charley

Curious Chapbooks & Hysterical Histories

EVERYONE KNEW that "Mountain Charley" Parkhurst was one of Wells Fargo's most colorful stage coach drivers. But until the day he died, no one knew his secret: He was a she. Preview this true story by Ed Sams below.

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Charley Darkey Parkhurst, known in life as Cockeyed Charley and in death as Mountain Charley, was one of the greatest stagecoach drivers of the Old West -- who just happened to be a woman. Weighing close to 175 pounds and just five feet in height, Charley had big arms, but a thin voice and preferred sleeping in stables with the horses rather than going out with the boys. Nevertheless, Thomas Edwin Farish, who rode with Parkhurst in 1870, called Charley, "as good a driver as could be found anywhere." According to well-known western writer Joseph Henry Jackson, Charley was "as skillful, as resourceful and as hard-boiled as any driver in the Sierras." Mary Chaney Hoffman, writing for the American Mercury, elaborates:

    He was Charley Parkhurst, one of the most celebrated whips of the early days. He was known up and down the coast of California, in the mining towns of the Sierra Nevada and wherever the tales of the Argonauts were heard. He was accounted one of the coolest and most daring of all that brave band of stage drivers.

Add to these professional accolades the distinction that Charley was the first woman to vote in a United States Presidential election some fifty-two years before women were granted the right to vote.

Mountain Charley began life as Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, born in Lebanon, New Hampshire, during the year of 1812. Legend has it that she was abandoned by her parents and placed in an orphanage from which she later escaped disguised in boy's clothing. The trick worked so well that the disguise was continued. Charlotte found work as Charley in a livery stable own by Ebenezer Balch in Worchester, Massachusetts, where the runaway earned bed and board cleaning stalls, washing carriages and scrubbing floors: "Anxious to learn all she could about horses, the stable hand grew to understand them by carefully watching every move made by the stage drivers, who drove Concords [stagecoaches] into Worchester." Ebenezer Balch found promise in his young protégé and soon taught Charley the art of driving, first two-in-hand, then four-in-hand, and later six-in-hand horse teams. When Balch bought the Franklin House and the What Cheer Stables, Charley went with him to Providence, Rhode Island, where Parkhurst's reputation was made. In time, Charley Parkhurst became known as one of the best coachmen on the eastern seaboard, and coaches were often hired only on condition that Charley drive. At this time, Charley's "favorite team was the best in the stables, six perfectly matched grays."

Then came the first threat of exposure. One January, at a dance in Pawtuxet, while waiting outside in the cold for the passengers to return, Charley's hands froze. Unable to drive, Parkhurst had to call upon another driver, Liberty Childs, to take over the coach. Liberty Childs is described by MacDonald as Charley's "proud friend." Whether due to the shame of asking for help or the joshing that came from needing it, shortly thereafter Charley left New England and relocated in Georgia, where the young whip enjoyed a reputation of "sure-handed driving." Perhaps Liberty Childs learned Charley's secret when Charley was rescued from the cold. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, throughout Charley's career in Northern California, the doughty driver would be known by the characteristic long-fringed, beaded gloves worn summer or winter that adorned the small, smooth hands that seemed to disgust their owner.

Once in Georgia, Charley drove for Jim Birch, who was getting ready to come west and operate the California Stage Company. Charley came along, saying "I aim to be the best damn driver in California."

Parkhurst arrived in San Francisco in 1851. Nearly forty years old, Charley walked off the gang plank at the pier, wearing gloves to hide a pair of woman's small hands and a pleated shirt to hide a woman's figure. The trip had been an uneventful one, except for Charley's presence on board. The curious figure attracted several admirers. On board the steamer R.B. Forbes from Boston to Panama, one John Morton of Morton Draying and Warehouse Company of San Francisco pronounced Parkhurst, "an agreeable 'companion de voyage' who had been a stage driver in the East and who came to California to drive a stage between Stockton and Mariposa." Even more telling was the comment made by European traveler John Charles Duchow while traveling with Charley in Panama. Craig MacDonald reports that Duchow's journal contains this entry on May 18:

    He calls himself Charles Clifton but passengers on board call him 'Thunderbolt.' He says the reason for passing under an assumed name was that he was an important witness in a case and wishing to have nothing to do with it, adopted a false name to get out of the way. He told us that he's married to a Boston merchant where he is keeper of the American's house. . .. In short, he is a very queer fellow indeed!

If Charley Parkhurst indeed traveled west under the alias of Clifton, as MacDonald believes, then here is the clue to the riddle of Charley's lifelong secret. There was a court case in which Charley was named as an important witness, perhaps even a correspondent. Shortly after death when the secret of Parkhurst's sex was revealed, the San Francisco Call wrote that Charley's life was "a story of a fair maiden in New Hampshire becoming disappointed in love and leaving her native state disguised in the habiliments of the sterner sex." Could it be that a woman had married a prosperous and proper Boston banker, tired of an unhappy marriage keeping house and escaped in men's clothes, a disguise that had always succeeded before? No specifics are known, except that for a short while after driving stage in Georgia, Charley returned up north to New England before heading for California.

Whatever the reason, Charley found a home in California. The early 1850s were still bustling with gold fever, and Charley was a part of the excitement, driving stage coaches through the wildest boom towns of the Gold Country -- Rough and Ready, Grass Valley, and Placerville. By the mid-1850s, Charley tried new routes from Oakland to San Juan Bautista, and by 1856, Parkhurst lived at Searsville in San Mateo City.

During this time, Charley received an injury and a celebrated nickname of "Cock-eyed Charley." Mabel Rowe Curtis reports that in Redwood City, "he was kicked in the face by a horse he was shoeing. The accident cost him his eye and ever after he wore a black patch over it, earning him the sobriquet of 'One-Eyed Charley'." Lee adds, "From then on people called him 'One-Eyed Charley,' but not in his presence, of course." There are various stories explaining how Charley lost the left eye, but all sources agree that the horse that caused the mishap was Charley's lead horse Pete. The bland episode of the horse kicking Charley while being shod turns lurid in one retelling that had a nail misfire and take out the eye. Another more romantic explanation for Pete's behavior is a rattlesnake. According to Patty Stoker, the horses became skittish and Charley had stopped the coach to soothe the lead horse Pete, when a rattler shook its tail, frightening Pete and causing him to kick Charley.

This injury did not end Charley's love of horses or desire to ride the western stage. In the 1860s, Charley was back driving the stage from Tahoe to Placerville and Sacramento to Mariposa. A respected driver throughout Northern California, Charley was entrusted with special missions by Wells Fargo. According to Mabel Rowe Curtis, "Such was Charley's fearlessness and attention to duty that Wells Fargo once sent him to New York with a quantity of gold which he delivered safely."

Finally, in the late 1860s, Charley retired from riding the stage. In the Monterey Peninsula Herald, Parkhurst was quoted to say: "I'm no better now than when I commenced. Pay's small and work's heavy. I'm getting old. Rheumatism in my bones -- nobody to look out for old used-up stage drivers. I'll kick the bucket one of these days and that'll be the last of old Charley."

Settling down as a land owner in Santa Cruz County, Parkhurst ran a stage station and ranch as well as working as a lumberjack during the winters, earning as much as five dollars a day when younger men earned only three. It was here in Santa Cruz County where Charley had another risk of exposure. Sometime during the 1860s, while working for Andy Jackson Clark, Charley came home "stone drunk," and Mrs. Clark asked her seventeen-year-old son to put Charley to bed. According to Ms. Helen T. Tarr (Clark's granddaughter), the boy returned in a dither exclaiming, "Maw, Charley, ain't no man, he's a woman!" Mabel Row Curtis writes, "Those good people, sensing Charley's humiliation if confronted with the fact that he was unmasked, never mentioned it to a soul until after Charley's death."

In 1879, Charley succumbed to cancer of the tongue. Legend has it that the old stagecoach driver died alone, but actually Charley was tended by the Harmons, who were neighbors, and by one Frank Woodward, with whom Charley had raised cattle and gulched wood. In a letter to the Register Pajaronian, George Harmon relates that his father Charles came close several times to being told the secret of Parkhurst's life, but each time the old-timer drew Harmon close to the sickbed, the invalid would wave him away, saying it would keep. And so the secret was kept until Charley's death. Even Frank Woodward, the business partner and longtime companion, seemed shocked to learn Charley's true biological sex. Reports were that Woodward "waxed profane to the extreme when he learned of the deception that had been practiced on him so many years." However, news of Charley's secret identity traveled remarkably slowly, giving the local papers a chance to eulogize and give tribute to this remarkable character. On December 28, six days after Charley's death on the twenty-second, the San Francisco Morning Call wrote:

    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. . .

Later newspapers sounded a less fond, more perplexed note after a Watsonville doctor discovered that Cock-eyed Charley was a woman. Not only did the attending physician proclaim Parkhurst "a graciously endowed female," but "further examination revealed that old 'Cock-eyed Charley' had given birth to a child." Immediately, some gentlemen of the press proclaimed Charley a hermaphrodite, but "the coroner's findings disagreed." The Watsonville Pajaronian wrote on January 8, 1880:

    Rumors that in early years she loved not wisely, but too well, have been numerous and from the reports of those who saw her body, these rumors receive some color of truth. It is generally believed that she had been a mother and that from that event, dated her strange career.

In a similar vein the Santa Cruz Sentinel opined:

    A mother she is represented to have been, and it may date back to that proud eminence from which virtuous women alone can fall, fall by the deception of some man monster, but there must have been a cause, a mighty cause.

Some editors seem to take personally Charley Parkhurst's life of disguise. One editor in Rhode Island wrote rather acidly:

    Charley Parkhurst died of a malignant disease. She could act and talk like a man, but when it came to imitating a man's reticence, nature herself revolted, and the lifelong effort to keep from speaking, except when she had something to say, resulted at last in death from cancer of the tongue.

The Yreka Union wrote less dramatically, but perhaps more reasonably, "She may have been disgusted with the trammels surrounding her sex, and concluded to work out her fortune her own way." Furthermore, in the town where Charley first found fame, the Providence Journal wrote: "Charley Parkhurst was one of this city's finest stage drivers. The only people who have any occasion to be disturbed by the career of Charley are the gentlemen who have so much to say about 'women's sphere' and the 'weaker vessel'."

The San Francisco Chronicle threw up its hands at conjecture and offered this comment as a fitting epitaph: "It is useless to waste time in conjectures as to what led the dead to take up the cross of a man's laboring life."

Whatever the reasons that caused Charley Parkhurst to pursue this unique career, the remains of this famous stage driver were buried in Watsonville's Pioneer-Odd Fellows cemetery. In 1954, after the old cemetery had grown into neglect, the Pajaro Valley Historical Association discovered the Parkhurst plot, and Charley's remains were removed and reburied with an historical marker erected in 1955.

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MOUNTAIN CHARLEY on the WEB

American Western Museum: Charley Parkhurst

Highway 17 Stagecoach Lines: Charley Parkhurst