From the pages of the Chronicle

She Was a Man!

by Floyd D.P. Øydegaard
The "whip" Charley Parkhurst, like all the others before and after him, had sun baked, weathered skin, pulled gaunt across thick bones. Most folk ate poorly then and were in many cases suffering from malnutrition. Called "Whips" for their experienced ability with their "six-ups" (six horses) pulling at that many lead lines; stagecoach drivers were a hardy group. Their gauntlet covered scared hands were always full. To use a shotgun or a whip for any reason took great juggling ability and strength. They were also quick to sum up a bad situation and correct a problem before a disaster occurred. Fond of a wad of tobacco to keep calm in such emergencies. Able to speak words of caution with endearing tones and bellow blasphemies to prevent problems while fighting and tugging the animals on track. With clothing as dirty as their bodies, drivers were usually stand-offish. Charley had the added "benefit" of a nasty scar, dislocated cheek bone and/or a missing eye, it was easy to assume he was a typical driver, except Charley was one of a kind! At five foot-seven inches tall, slender yet stocky from the waist down, it wasn't common knowledge that Charley was not a real "man."
Charley Darkey Parkhurst, as he wanted to be called, was most likely born Charlotte in 1812, based solely on her word when she registered to vote in 1867 as 55 years old and local speculation. Legend seems to think she was born in New Hampshire, raised in an orphanage in Massachusetts headed off on her own to work as a stable boy for Ebenezer Balch in Worecester, Vermont. He taught her to drive a team, and she learned to smoke, chew, and drink. Her voice became raspy enough to conceal her sex. As a coachman with tailored outfits to disguise her femininity she became comfortable in manly ways. She went to the gold fields like all men of her era and she drove stage for the California Stage Lines until 1855. Then she got pregnant, went to the southern portion of the state and after the child died at birth she then settled in Santa Cruz County. It was in Redwood City that a horse kicked her in the face while shoeing it, causing the loss of her eye. She wore a patch and was known as "One-eye Charley" or "Cock-eyed Charley" from then on.
For most of her life no one really noticed this "servant of the public" going about her duties as befitted a common folk. So her story wasn't worth knowing until she died and the "truth" demoralized a populace. It was just not proper. With this discovery, Charlie became the most famous driver in California and with all they could discover about her, which in actual documentation only went back to 1868, created another "Legend" which has crept up on her as it will and the facts are mixed in where "needed," but that's what makes this story worth the telling.
The tales told of Charley grew after each telling. So many knew her "when" and told their experiences with her as "their" driver: She did good deeds, helped women in child birth, set broken bones, donated money to needy causes and kissed babies! She was everything to everyone and legend has it she sent Black Bart away empty handed and was the reason he never road a horse; after filling his butt with buckshot! Why Charley always had a brace of pistols stuck in his belt, with his large Texas hat and dark blue, embroidered gloves and those blue/gray eyes that seemed gentle...and so it all went...right up to the 1970's when folk used her memory for female causes.
The San Jose-Santa Cruz stage run was just as dangerous back then as driving country roads today. Head-on collisions with other teams or wild pigs spooking the horses made that narrow strip of dirt road a hazard at every turn.
According to "first hand" accounts by Major A. N. Judd, whose recollections of Charley Parkhurst appeared in the Santa Cruz Surf on October 18, 1917 said she was driving teams a long while and dressed in "a muffler, gloves, great-coat of buffalo hide, and a cap of the same material. Under this she wore blue jeans turned up to reveal the cuffs of a very good pair of trousers." (Blue Jeans were like cover-alls and would protect the finer wool trousers folk preferred to be seen in. Charlie was bulking up for warmth and concealment!)

Major Judd's account adds to her "romanticized legend":
"I suppose that here I should make a distinction between the Sioux, Blackfeet and others in the East, and the Indians that infested the western slopes of the Sierra, for they all had their fling at Charley Parkhurst.

"Old Ben Holiday was the moving spirit in the overland stage line. He had his office at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Monday morning was his busy day in hiring drivers to replace those whose hair had been raised either by fear or by the scalping knife.

"The Indians were not the most fearsome thing to dread, for on the mountain roads were the perils of the steep and narrow grade, so narrow that on some turns the singletree had cut grooves into the banks on the high side, and often the other side was a thousand feet down to the stopping place if the vehicle should go over.

"It was these dangers that also thinned out drivers fast, and the one under discussion that brought Charley into the limelight for the first time."
(Here he tells the tale of the "test" given the drivers applying for the job: instead of showing her abilities at how close she could come near the cliff edge risking the coach and occupants, Charley "out did" the others by being the safest.)

"For three years Charley held that job without an accident, and would have stayed longer, but the Mormons were of a marrying disposition and rather than disclose her secret by marrying a few dames with polygamous proclivities, she left for the Pacific Coast. After a short spell on the Pacheco Pass run, she joined up with the Danforth Porter lines that connected with the Santa Cruz stage line.

"Charley was a great 'whip,' and when she pulled into a stage stop with the beautifully equipped 20-passenger Concord coach drawn by six mustangs as mettlesome as quarter-horses, it was an inspiring sight indeed.

"Every move played its part. One would note with what dexterity she plied the brakes just right in order to stop with the door just opposite the main entrance to the hotel.

"How deftly she whirled the six-horse lash around the stock and carefully laid it up on the deck, all unconscious of the onlookers, and as she wrapped the lines around the foot brake she would turn to hand down the treasure box or mail sack, or perhaps a venturesome female who had insisted on riding with the driver."

Like so many chroniclers of the era, the better you told a story, the better you were, for the telling of it. It is very difficult to believe that anyone could have remembered a crusty old driver on a public conveyance as "heroic" anymore than you would remember the bus driver that takes you from your home to work each day. But that's the way with legends.
Another interesting fact is that Charley was known to be a woman by many of her closer friends in her various communities and it was no big deal until the press discovered the story. The Watsonville Pajaronian of December 29, 1879 (on Charley's death day) stated, "It could scarcely be believed by persons who knew Charley Parkhurst for a quarter of a century." (It usually takes only one person to be "shocked" when the press "investigates" their stories. There's no story if she was a known female.)
It seems Charley retired in his 60's when the Railroads took up the passengers at the "Twelve Mile House" outside of Santa Cruz where Charley was suppose to have had the Sand Hill Station on the Santa Cruz-Los Gatos road.
The cancer of the mouth killed Charlie, even though the rheumatism laid her up for a long spell, while living out her last years near the "Seven Mile House" on Freedom Blvd., near Day Road.
She was buried in Pioneer Cemetery in Freedom where a simple wood marker stated; "Parkhurst." No one was sure what her real name had been. Today she has a real "monument" as well as a small plaque at the Soquel Fire Department.
Some of her last "close" friends were surprised however: It was reported that Charley's partner, Woodward, "waxed profane to the extreme when he learned of the deception practiced on him for so many years." Another chum claimed to have shared a buffalo hide one cold evening with "Ol' Parkie" and now he was wondering with great concern about his other pard "Curly Bill."
Whatever her reasons, she chose not to be a woman and did a great job at being a human being, who just wanted to be left alone.

Stories went that "Sugarfoot" robbed Charley once and on his second attempt, Charley shot and killed the hapless Highwayman.

Write to: Black Bart the Legend at

Page created by

© 1984-2010 Shadows of the Past, Inc.
Want to see my Old West Reenactors Web Site? Touch Shadows of the Past, Inc.

Click to see our Columbia Bookstore WebSite

Pages created by