The Coach Driver’s Secret

Strange tale of Charley Parkhurst; Story shocks nation

Inset: An artist’s rendering of stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst.
Inset: An artist’s rendering of stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst.

Stagecoach drivers were among the most celebrated figures of the Old West. They commanded their horse-drawn wooden coaches, packed with passengers and freight, for dozens of miles a day along rough, rugged roads up and down the California coast. Thieving highwaymen and runaway horses or mules were regular hazards; the best coach drivers were both tough and skilled with the whip, determined to get their coach safely to its next destination.

One of the most revered California stagecoach drivers was Charley Parkhurst, known as “One-Eyed Charley,” the result of being kicked in the head by an unruly horse. Chewing tobacco, smoking cigars and not talking much, the short, stocky Parkhurst drove a team of as many as six horses on various routes for nearly 20 years in the mid-1800s, killing at least one bandit who tried to rob the stage.

“There are many who … will remember Charley Parkhurst on the box seat of the stagecoach running from Oakland to San Jose,” wrote the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “others who will remember him driving from Stockton to Mariposa, and again others who will recollect him as sending the dust flying across the road from San Juan to Santa Cruz.”

Health problems forced Parkhurst to retire from the road in the late 1860s. After several years as a saloon owner, farmer and lumberjack, Parkhurst died of cancer of the tongue and mouth at age 67 in Soquel in late 1879. As friends prepared the body for burial, they discovered something remarkable.

Charley Parkhurst was a woman.

As more details came out, the story became even more incredible: At some point in her life, an autopsy found, Parkhurst had given birth. It was said that a trunk discovered among Parkhurst’s belongings contained a child’s red dress and baby shoes. And voting records in Soquel indicated that Parkhurst voted in the 1868 election — the first woman known to have voted in California and the first to vote in a U.S. presidential election (even though women were not yet allowed to vote).

Charley, it turned out, was short for Charlotte. Born in New Hampshire in 1812, she was raised in an orphanage but reportedly ran away disguised in boy’s clothing. She found work in a livery stable and then learned to drive a stagecoach in Georgia before moving to California sometime around 1850 and embarking on her successful stage-driving career. No one suspected her secret. A fellow driver who had shared a room — and even a bed — with Parkhurst said he had no idea she was a woman.

The story of Parkhurst’s secret was a sensation reported by newspapers coast to coast — with many stories taking a sympathetic and even celebratory tone. “That a young woman should assume man’s attire and, friendless and alone, defy the dangers of the voyage of 1849 to the then almost mythical California — dangers over which hardy pioneers still grow boastful — has in it sufficient of the wonderful,” the San Francisco Morning Call wrote shortly after Parkhurst died. “That she should achieve distinction in an occupation above all professions calling for the best physical qualities of nerve, courage, coolness and endurance, and that she should add to them the almost romantic personal bravery that enables one to fight one’s way through the ambush of an enemy, seems almost fabulous.”

“The only people who have any occasion to be disturbed by the career of Charley Parkhurst are the gentlemen who have so much to say about ‘women’s sphere’ and the ‘weaker vessel,’” wrote the Washington Evening Star. “It is beyond question that one of the soberest, pleasantest, most expert drivers … and one of the most celebrated of the world-famed California stage drivers, was a woman.”

The full story of why Charley Parkhurst chose to live her life as a man remains a mystery — as does the fate of her child. But she remains an early transgender icon. As the Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote in her obituary, “Why this woman should live a life of disguise, always afraid her sex would be discovered, doing the work of a man, may never be known. … But there must have been a cause, a mighty cause. Who shall longer say that a woman can not labor and vote like a man?”

Keep reading: It’s a bird, it’s a plane… what IS that thing? In 1896, it was the talk of Sacramento, and it remains a mystery to this day.

Mark Potts was the founding managing editor of Alta.
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