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