Western Trips

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Most Famous Stagecoach Driver...California's Charley Parkhurst

The Story of Charley Parkhurst

One of the most renown and daring stagecoach drivers of the old west during the 1850's and 1860's was Charley Parkhurst. Sometimes the name was seen as Charlie Parkhurst. The biggest surprise for people who knew Charley for years was that Charley was born as Mary Parkhurst in 1812. The fact that Charley Parkhurst was a woman was only discovered after Charley passed away.

When Parkhurst died in 1879, neighbors came to prepare his body for burial and discovered that Parkhurst was physically a female. In addition to this, the doctor who arrived to examine the deceased Parkhurst stated that Charley had at one point in his/her life given birth.
picture of concord stagecoach
Concord Stagecoach

The Young Charley Parkhurst

Mary eventually ended up in an orphanage after her mother died shortly after she was born. This was also brought about by her father's remarriage. Mary didn't stay there too long. At twelve years of age she ran away from the orphanage and found a job at a stable in Worcester, MA. Reportedly it is at this time that Mary became known as Charley Darkey Parkhurst. Mary was dressed as a boy when she ran away from the orphanage and the tale is that she dressed that way for the remainder of her life.

Charley in California

Charley lived for 20 years in Aptos California near Santa Cruz. Wearing a black patch over one eye, he was referred to as 'one eyed Charlie'. Anytime stories are told about old west legends, a degree of embellishment sometimes is included. The passage of years alone is usually responsible. Other times it happens when newspaper stories mix fact with fiction to help sell papers. It's like the old fish story where the fish gets bigger with each telling of the story.

What we do know is that Charley made her way in 1851 across the entire country to California. That would have made her 39 years old. This was during the time of the California Gold Rush and many thousands just like Charley headed west.

The Charley Parkhurst Legend

charlie parkhurst stagecoach driver
Mural at Soquel Post Office
The legend of Charley Parkhurst also tells us she was a drinking, card and dice playing and cigar smoking woman of the old west.

Charley found herself a job with the California Stage Company as a driver. California stagecoach routes were plentiful. In those days a stage driver was referred to as a "whip". The name certainly is appropriate whereas the driver whips the horses to gain speed. One of her past employers described Charley as being about five-foot-six, slim and wiry. Another difference with Charley Parkhurst's appearance was that in the mid 1800's most men had a beard and/or mustache and Charley had neither.

Charley Parkhurst's fame really came after she died. Her biggest fame of course was the fact that he was a she. It is almost an unbelievable story when you think of a woman driving a stagecoach during the mid 1800's in an often dangerous land. This certainly was not thought to be a woman's work in the mid 19th century.

Charley had a reputation as a very capable stage driver and one of the fastest yet safe whips in all California. She was described as good with a gun and not afraid to use it if necessary.  One tale often told about Charley along these lines was that she sent Black Bart, probably the most infamous stagecoach robber in California history, on his way empty handed when he tried to rob her stage. The story is she shotgunned Black Bart in the rear end when he retreated. If this is true, it's a great story.

Charley drove stage coaches during the California Gold Rush days and allegedly shot and killed at least one bandit during an attempted stage robbery. Stagecoach robbery was not an uncommon event as Wells Fargo history certainly points out.
black bart
Stagecoach robber Black Bart

More Charley Parkhurst Stories

There are historians who contend that several of Charley's close friends knew in fact that she was a woman and that the "surprise" was more a newspapers desire for sensationalism than a major news scoop. Regardless, a woman being a "whip" during the California heydays certainly is a story worth telling in itself. A woman driving a team of six horses pulling a Concord Coach up and down steep grades and doing it for years dressed in jeans and a buffalo skin is quite a good story for the legend books. Charley's exploits reportedly included driving a stage over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Nevada where the silver mining in Virginia City was alive and booming.

Another Charley Parkhurst story is that she was the first woman to vote in California. There are no records to indicate that she voted but some people contend that she would have, as a male, and today there is a plaque on the wall at the Soquel California Fire Station highlighting the fact. If Charley did vote, it would have been at this location. The tale is that there is a document on file around Soquel California showing that Charley did register to vote. The controversy seems to be whether or not she exercised the right, as a male, and actually voted. Women had not won suffrage in the United States until 1920.

When Charley Parkhurst retired in 1870, she tried a variety of ways to make a living. Lumbering, raising chickens and cattle ranching were some of them. Parkhurst died in 1879 and it was supposedly at that time, while examining the body prior to burial that Charley's true gender was discovered. Charley Parkhurst is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Watsonville California just south of Santa Cruz.

Another interesting story on Western Trips is the subject of old west stagecoach robberies and the tale of the first female stage bandit

Here is a map showing all of the stagecoach routes in California during the 1850's and 60's.

butterfield stagecoach station
Butterfield Oak Grove Station
You may be interested to tour the California Butterfield stage route.

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A great side trip to add to your southern California vacation is a visit to the last standing Stage Station of the old Butterfield Stagecoach line. It's one of those rare historic sites off the beaten path. The station is now a National Historic Landmark and is located near Warner Springs California 48 miles north of San Diego in San Diego county. Another National Historic Landmark twenty miles from the Oak Grove station is Warner Ranch. Warner Ranch was a working cattle ranch that also was used as a stop on the Butterfield Stage Line. These are two rare and very interesting California historic landmarks.

(Photos and images from the public domain)