Charley Parkhurst, who was also known as One-Eyed Charley, Mountain Charley, and Six-Horse Charley was a female tobacco chewing, cussing, gambling California stage driver who was found dead in bed on December 18, 1879. To the surprise of Charley’s friends, the person they found was not who they thought “he” was. Charley was a woman!
Born as Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst in New Hampshire in 1812, she was raised in an orphanage before she ran away disguised in boy’s clothing. The trick worked so well, she continued the disguise finding work in a livery stable in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Around 1849 two of Charley’s friends named James Birch and Frank Stevens went to California where they consolidated several small stage lines into the California Stage Company. Charley followed them to California and went to work as a stage driver, where she earned a reputation as one of the finest drivers on the west coast. Shortly after arriving, she lost the use of one eye after being kicked by a horse.
During the next two decades, she would drive stages for a number of stage lines, including Wells-Fargo on its stage run from Santa Cruz to San Jose. She wore gloves in both summer and winter to hide her small hands and pleated shirts to hide her figure. Over one eye she wore a patch, giving her a tough-looking appearance. One of her unknowing companions would say of her: “she out-swore, out-drank, and out-chewed even the Monterey whalers.” In 1868, she was a registered voter, making her the first woman to vote in California.
One account says of Parkhurst that when asked how she could make her way through all the dust, she replied “I’ve traveled over these mountains so often I can tell where the road is by the sound of the wheels. When they rattle, I’m on hard ground; when they don’t rattle I gen’r’lly look over the side to see where she’s agoing.”
After giving up driving, she worked at lumbering, cattle ranching and raising chickens before retiring to a quiet life in Watsonville, California. When she died on December 18, 1879, of cancer, her true sex was revealed for the first time to an abundance of startled friends. The San Francisco Morning Call said of her upon her death,
“the most dexterous and celebrated of the California drivers, and it was an honor to occupy the spare end of the driver’s seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins.”
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated October 2019.