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The Fearless Character of One Eyed Charley

By Bryan Kennedy

Myth and legend follow many who have lived their lives in the Old West. Charley Parkhurst is no exception; he was a man born a woman. He attained fame by becoming a stage coach driver who was discovered to be a woman upon his death. The material written on Parkhurst is extremely sketchy. There is a lot of biased and fraudulent material to dig through. Following Charley’s death, newspapers immediately started printing upon the escapades of his life and seem to be the most accurate and reliable evidence. Retelling of Charley’s story throughout the years has added more bits to the myth. He has inspired children’s stories; stories, typically misinterpretations, depicting him as a cowgirl rather than a cowboy. He is credited by many books to have cast the first female ballot. Although this claim of being the first female in the U.S to vote is untrue, he is, though, possibly the first woman to cast a vote in California. Although the mythology of Charley is interesting and compelling, the true story is just as if not more amazing.

The “Girl who Fooled the West” is the common title, which seemed to be a compelling enough story that it took hold and has been revisited by many newspapers up to the present. The New York Times revisited Charley’s story in 1969. In 2008 a book was written called Charley’s Choice. It is a fictional story that includes many of the myths surrounding Charley. Other fictionalizations like One-Eyed Charley, Rough, Tough Charley, Riding Freedom, and COCKEYED CHARLEY PARKHURST are all fictionalizations of Charley’s life directed at children. Charley is also included in many lists of famous cowgirls as an inspiration to youth in books such as Outrageous Women of the American Frontier. Some of these fictionalizations strip away Charley’s identification with the male gender by attributing the female pronoun to him and referring to him as a cowgirl. This is, as you will see, uncharacteristic of Charley. Regardless of the fallacious accounts, these books do show Charley’s impact and heroism, and the interest in him. By all accounts, his heroic status seems well deserved.

Charley’s most likely birth date seems to be around 1812[1]. The consensus of the mythologies is that he was born in New Hampshire[2]. There is no contemporary evidence that gives the account of why Charley decided to abandon his assigned gender and adopt the role of a man, but the most repeated story is that he was working on his uncle’s farm when he and his uncle had a dispute that caused Charley to run away[3]. Many secondary accounts and fictionalizations attribute this decision to a “disappointment in love"[4], but there is no evidence of this reason before 1969. Some other more recent stories claim he ran away from an orphanage[5]. This myth is a popular addition of many recent kids’ books but seems to have no basis in fact. Wherever it was he ran away from, it is clear he was initially on his own as there is no evidence that anyone ever knew him before his decision to take on the male gender[6]. On his own, he drifted to Georgia and took up the occupation of a stagecoach driver. After demonstrating his ability in this field, he was sent to California to stage coach between San Juan and Santa Cruz[7].

Stage coaching was an extremely dangerous job and this no doubt added to Charley’s fame. Many other Old West legends, such as Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill Cody, are said to have driven stage coaches[8]. Charley drove for the banking company J.P Morgan[9]. Stage coach drivers not only transported people, but also gold and mail[10]. The shipment of gold (known as the money box) made stage coaches a lucrative business for robbery with over 347 robbery attempts on JP Morgan lines between 1870 and 1884[11]. The only protection stage coach drivers had was coach gun (this was typically a shotgun with two shots before a reload was required)[12]. Not only was the journey dangerous but, because the stage coaches typically required four to six horses to pull them, this called for expert drivers, also known as “whips”, to drive them over, usually, very tough terrain[13]. Simply by being a stage coach driver, Charley is worthy of the words brave and skilled. Common descriptors of stagecoach drivers of the time agree[14]. Charley not only learned these skills but mastered and became known for them[15].

Charley was always attributed to have a high pitched voice, stood at about five foot six, and being broader across the hips than the shoulders[16]. Whether or not this is true, or the newspapers of the time were trying to attribute to Charley feminine features, is uncertain. Most of the newspaper stories following his death focus on his ability to keep his true sex disguised for so long. This may be why so many newspapers of the time focus so much on Charley’s masculine features. He is described as a “fearless fighter, the industrious farmer, and expert woodman"[17]. All are very masculine attributes of the time. One story which was repeated, following Charley’s death, goes like this:

Once in winter, when the rain was coming down in sheets, as it had been for three days past, and the coach was laboring along through mud almost to hubs, Parkhurst was hailed by a stray wayfarer and told that the bridge across the Tuolumne river was in a shaky condition, and that it would not be wise to risk driving over it. Parkhurst answered never a word, but gathering up the lines with one hand, he cut the swings and wheelers across the haunches with the other, and pushed on. Soon the swollen stream came in sight. It was swashing and roaring like a mill-race. The bridge was next seen, and Parkhurst, clearing the rain from his eyes, perceived that in a very short time there would no longer be any bridge, for it was already shaking on its foundation. The solitary passenger begged of Parkhurst not to venture on the creaking structure, but Charley, setting his teeth together, and gathering the reins in a firm grip, sent the long whip-lash curling about the leaders ears and eyes, with so vicious a swing that giving a wild leap, they plunged forward on to the bridge. The planks trembled under the horses’ hoofs and rocked beneath the wheels. But with a final effort, a cheering cry from Parkhurst and a flying lash, the opposite shore was gained in safety; gained only just in time, though, for looking back at the turn of the road the further end of the bridge was seen to sway in the stream[18].

This account from The Wisconsin State Register gives a clear example of the reputation Charley carried. But, even more than being fearless of the journey’s difficulties, Charley is also attributed to being fearless of road-agents (bandits).
One danger for stage coach drivers was the possibility of robbery or murder. Similar to pirates taking over cargo ships, there were always road-agents willing to shoot and kill for money or loot the coach carried. After being robbed once in California, Charley is said to have invited a second attempt. It eventually came on a trip between Stockton and Mariposa where she shot an infamous road-agent named nicknamed Sugar Foot after he attempted to loot Charley’s coach at gunpoint[19]. Due to incidents like this he gained a reputation of being a reliable carriage driver. He would even take on double duty; this meant not only would Charley drive the carriage but also keep his eye on the “treasure box” (the valuable material of the coach) night and day and receiving double the compensation[20]. His roughness was further expressed by his nickname, “One Eyed Charley”, which came later, due to being kicked in the face by a horse and losing vision in the left eye[21]. His career in stage-driving lasted twelve years ending around 1864[22]. This is a highly laborious and skilled job for anyone to take on for twelve years.

Later in his life Charley became a logger and was “highly sought after"[23]. Charley then went on to farming in the summer and logging in the winter[24]. There is an instance where some suspicion comes to Charley’s sexual attraction to women. Charley bought the house of an evicted widow and gave it back to her leading to the suspicion it was done by Charley out of affection[25]. Charley did have the reputation for being a celibate man by his friends and associates[26]. There are no mentions of love interest and an absence of writing from Charley, himself; there is probably no way to ever know.

When Charley made it to his sixties, he started to suffer from rheumatism (pain of the joints and tendons) attributed to the hard labor he was exposed to[27]. Due to the pain, he took up chicken farming for the remaining years of his life[28]. Charley ended up with dying of tongue cancer[29]. He died December 29th, 1879 at age sixty seven. Post-mortem he was found to be a woman and attained fame. Close friends were said to be in such disbelief that they refused to accept this[30]. Whether this may be due to friends knowing, but refusing to call Charley a woman or not knowing and refusing to believe he was born a woman, is up for question. Regardless of his gender expression Charley is, in every sense, a true Old West legend.

References

  1. John V. Young, “The Woman Who Fooled the West,” New York Times, November 2, 1969.
  2. John V. Young, “The Woman Who Fooled the West,” New York Times, November 2, 1969.
  3. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  4. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  5. John V. Young, “The Woman Who Fooled the West,” New York Times, November 2, 1969.
  6. John V. Young, “The Woman Who Fooled the West,” New York Times, November 2, 1969.
  7. “A Strange Story,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, January 11, 1880, 11
  8. “Thirty years in Disguise,” New York Times, January 9, 1880, 2, and John V. Young, “The Woman Who Fooled the West,” New York Times, November 2, 1969.
  9. Chris Christian, “Riding Shotgun,” Popular Mechanics 181, 6(2004): 94-133.
  10. John T. Clark and B.F. Goodell, “Well Kept,” The Wisconsin State Register, January 31, 1880
  11. Chris Christian, “Riding Shotgun,” Popular Mechanics 181, 6(2004): 94-133.
  12. Oscar O. Winther, “Stage-Coach Service in Northern California, 1849-52,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol 3, 4(December, 1934): 393
  13. Chris Christian, “Riding Shotgun,” Popular Mechanics 181, 6(2004): 94-133.
  14. Chris Christian, “Riding Shotgun,” Popular Mechanics 181, 6(2004): 94-133.
  15. Oscar O. Winther, “Stage-Coach Service in Northern California, 1849-52,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol 3, 4(December, 1934): 394
  16. Oscar O. Winther, “Stage-Coach Service in Northern California, 1849-52,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol 3, 4(December, 1934): 392-395
  17. “Thirty years in Disguise,” New York Times, January 9, 1880, 2.
  18. John T. Clark and B.F. Goodell, “Well Kept” The Wisconsin State Register, January 31, 1880; John V. Young, “The Woman Who Fooled the West,” New York Times, November 2, 1969, XX24; “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2.
  19. “Thirty years in Disguise,” New York Times, January 9, 1880, 2.
  20. John T. Clark and B.F. Goodell, “Well Kept,” The Wisconsin State Register, January 31, 1880
  21. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2; “Thirty years in Disguise,” New York Times, January 9, 1880, 2; “A Strange Story,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, January 11, 1880, 11
  22. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  23. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  24. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  25. “Thirty years in Disguise,” New York Times, January 9, 1880, 2
  26. “A Strange Story,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, January 11, 1880, 11; “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  27. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  28. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  29. “Stranger than Fiction,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 10, 1880, 2
  30. “A Strange Story” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, January 11, 1880, 11
  31. “Thirty years in Disguise,” New York Times, January 9, 1880, 2
  32. “A Strange Story,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, January 11, 1880, 11.