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Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst

She chewed tobacco, smoked “two-bit” cigars, and was one of the best “whips” in the West.  Her name was Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst, a woman who, for reasons of her own, masqueraded as a man for almost 50 years. 

Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst was born around 1812 in New Hampshire.  She was placed in a Massachusetts orphanage at an early age and grew up surrounded by poverty and a lack of love.  When Charlotte was about 15, she borrowed male attire and ran away from the institution disguised as a young boy.  Since all the children’s hair was cut short, it was easy to pass as a male.  Charotte obviously discovered that life was much less difficult for men than for women, so she adopted the name of Charles D. Parkhurst, and eventually became known as “Charley.”

Charley applied for work and was immediately hired to clean stables, pitch hay and care for horses.  She was fond of horses and learned how to handle a team, becoming proficient with the reins and became one of the most popular drivers.  Her instinctive talent and skill with the horses earned Charley the title of “Whip.” 

In the early 1850s she arrived in California and soon became known throughout the Sierra as a fearless stagecoach driver.  The early trails of California were no place for a lady…and nobody ever accused her of being one.  Her face was weathered by sun and wind, and brown tobacco stains, from the large chaw she always had in her cheek, could be seen on her chin.

Charley was of medium build and height with a voice that could be described as a whiskey tenor.  She had broad shoulders and was clean shaven with a scraggly moustache.   She wore pleated blousy shirts with wide belts.  Her trousers were expensive, as were her buffalo skin coat, fancy high-heeled boots, broad Texas hat, and the embroidered buckskin gloves which covered small, but strong hands.  The gloves were necessary for the task of handling the teams on her long runs.

She lost her feminine looks when an obliging horse kicked her in the eye.  She was deprived of her sight in the eye and started wearing a black patch.  That’s when she gained the name of “One-eyed Charley.”

Although she drove like a person possessed and would extend her team and passengers to the limits of their endurance, she was still a popular whip.  Her rides were hair-raising, but Charley had a feel for the road that brought her through safely.  On many occasions she would cover 60 miles a day on roads knee-deep in mud or water, and make the return trip as well.

Taken from Women of the Sierra by Anne Seagraves

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8 Comments

  1. I’d never heard of her before I read your blog. What an interesting woman. She obviously loved her freedom.

    Jeanmarie

  2. Isabel Roman says:

    Very interesting. Not just women who dress up as men to become a soldier. She sounds like she really enjoyed herself and what she did.

  3. Great story! Sounds to me like many women of that era weren’t happy with their lot in life as females.

  4. Well, thank you very much for definitively solving a problem I’ve had since forever. I’ve read all the suggested websites and I’ve done the math, and was convinced that there was no way one could travel 50 miles or more in a coach in one day under less than ideal roads. In spite of that, the woman my heroine is based on made such a claim in her diary, and while she was impressed, she didn’t make it sound like the most astonishing thing she’d ever heard. And now I have another example of same, so while it may have been unusual, it was doable.

    Great post, interesting woman!

  5. Glad I could be of assistance Jennifer. It is amazing how women elped settle this country and how so many of them had to do it disguised as a man. I thought Charley was quite a remarkable character and to think she came from an orphanage, too. This is one of the reasons I love writing about women in the west.

  6. tara evans says:

    I found the character Charley Darkey Parkhurst to be so inspiring that I have written a screenplay around her. I definitely fictionalized it after extensive research, but the truth is there and interwoven with the main storyline. “I’ll be damn he’s a woman” is one line in the script. I hope her story gets onto the big screen one day, it was a wild and difficult life to be a stagecoach driver let alone a female driving a stage coach. Kudos to Charley!

  7. I read about her in my history class and i have noticed that she is an insperation to women, what was not included in this article was she was the first woman to ever vote in california. i just wish that she had left more than a chest behind so we could have know waht she felt during this time. all in all i think she was a wonderful woman.

  8. Julie Escobar says:

    I’ve read riding freedom so many times and its all about Charlotte Parkhurst! She is truley inspirational in here attempt to become free on a world ruled by men! I got the book when I was 8 and at the age of 17 now I still read it! If you find and books about her life please contact me because i would love to read anything and everything about this inspirational women!
    sincerely, Julie C. Escobar

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