The other day I was doing some heads-down research for my current work in progress. The subject of my quest was stagecoach accommodations but, as often happens when I do research, I got sidetracked by a tidbit I stumbled upon. What caught my eye was an intriguing reference to a stage-driver by the name of Charley Parkhurst. “One-eyed Charley”, as the popular driver was called, led a very colorful and singular life.
Charley was born in New Hampshire around 1812. Orphaned while very young, Charley was sent to an orphanage, escaped from the orphanage at around age 12 and found a job as a stable boy. There it was discovered Charley had a way with the horses and was promoted from stable boy to handling teams and eventually progressed to driving coaches. Charley’s skill was such that patrons were known to specifically request the young driver by name.
In 1851 Charley moved to California following the opportunities that opened up with the gold rush and soon earned a reputation as being one of the safest and fastest drivers around, easily handling the ribbons for a team of six. According to one source looking back over Charley’s career, “. . . in more than twenty years no highwayman had dared to hold up a stagecoach with Charley Parkhurst on the box, for the first two who tried it had been shot dead in their tracks.”
At some point, Charley lost an eye as a result of being kicked by a horse. Not deterred by the mishap, Charley wore a black eye black patch from then on, and thus obtained the nickname “One-eyed Charley.” From all accounts, though a fair and honest person, Charley was no saint. The colorful driver’s habits included, smoking cigars, chewing tobacco, indulging in moderate drinking, card playing and other forms of gambling, and swearing volubly when the occasion called for it.
Eventually, when rheumatism (a common condition among long-time drivers) began taking a physical toll and the railroad expansion took more and more of the overland business, Charley retired. Never one to remain idle, the former stage-driver, now past sixty, turned to raising cattle and occasionally hauling freight for neighbors.
All of the above points to a vivid life lived fully and with gusto. But the most astounding thing about Charley wasn’t revealed until it came time to lay the body out for burial. It turns out Charley was a woman! Her real name was Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. For the most part, co-workers, business partners, neighbors and even close friends were absolutely flummoxed by the news. In fact, Charley had fooled everyone to the extent that she was allowed to register to vote in the presidential election of 1868, long before women were awarded that privilege.
Reading this remarkable story had the writer in me imagining story after story to account for what had led Charley to lead such a curious life.
Had she taken the disguise as a child in order to land the stable boy job and found herself trapped for a lifetime by her own deception?
Had she become so enamored of the freedom afforded her as a man that she was unwilling to give it up?
Was she running from something in her past and was afraid to resume her true identity?
Did she ever long to throw off her disguise?
Another piece of this intriguing puzzle that spurs the imagination – it was said that those who went through Charley’s possessions after her death found baby clothes. Wow, if true, does this ever raise additional questions.
Did she in fact have a baby? If so, when – after she reached California or was it actually part of the reason she headed west? What happened to the child – did the baby die or did she find a home for him/her? Who was the father and under what circumstances was the child conceived?
Anyway, this little side trip through my research cost me several hours since I couldn’t resist digging deeper into her story even though it’s not something that will be useful to my work in progress. Then again, who knows? Pieces of this tale, or variations thereof, may someday find their way into a future book.
So what about you? Did this snippet of Charley’s history cause you to start spinning tales in your head about what her life might have been like? What aspect most intrigued you, what piece did you immediately hone in on?
Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
30 thoughts on “Charley Parkhurst: Stage Driver Extraordinaire”
wow, how awesome. Any type of historical facts like this is amazing to me. Love to learn new things. It would be great to know the real truth behind the “real Charley”. You are right it does make you think.
What a story! Charley’s colorful life is intriguing in itself, but the baby clothes – wow. Truth really is better than fiction sometimes. If she had a child, how and when did she decide to reveal herself as a woman to the father?
Winnie, what a fabulous story. Thanks so much for sharing. It does get the imagination spinning doesn’t it? Sometimes those little gems are what makes the research process so much fun.
You bet I’m intrigued! Wouldn’t you love to sit down with her and talk? What a fascinating person she must have been.
As I read the list of habits, one glaring ommission was womanizing. Guess we know why that wasn’t one of Charley’s vices.
Thanks, Winnie, for a great post.
Sherry – Hi! Glad yo enjoyed the post and it is fun, isn’t it, to learn about something out of the ordinary.
Jennie – Yep, the baby clothes snippet is the one that really had my imagination going into overdrive. Opens up all sort of intriguing questions
Winnie! That’s so interesting. It’s a wonder we can ever get any writing done with all the fascinating things we find in historical research.
I just finished reading a book where a secondary character was a woman dressed up like a man and she lived with another woman dressed up like a man and I think maybe there were several others in their home (Regency England) women dressed like men…but to me…the weird part is, the author never said why. The hero realizes this character is a woman and is astonished and maybe mentions it, but that’s it. We are never told what in the world that’s all about.
I thought that was intriguing. I don’t know if she’s setting up a sequel or what.
Karen – LOL, yes these bits of lagnaippe make the research process fun but, because I find them so irrisitable, they’re really tough when you’re on deadline.
Tracey – Oh my, wouldn’t such a conversation be amazing! And LOL about the conspicuous absence of womanizing
Hi Winnie, what a wonderful post. Lots of questions to ask her.
Mary – Yep, following a maze of rabbit trails is one of the hazards (and joys!) of research. And how odd about that book you referenced. Hopefully the author will reveal more of her intents in a sequel.
Tanya – Glad you enjoyed the post. And yes, the number of questions she left unanswered are astounding.
What an amazing story, Winnie. So many launching pads for the imagination. The picture does look as if it could be a woman. Wonder how she explained the lack of any kind of whiskers…? I did an earlier blog on Calamity Jane. She most likely dressed and behaved like a man because she enjoyed the freedom. But she wasn’t trying to hide her identity. Charlie’s story is incredible!
Elizabeth – Hi! Glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t know about the facial hair, but one of the reports noted she wore fringed leather gloves at all times, summer or winter, at least in part, no doubt, to disguise her small hands.
Wow, Winnie! You certainly hit a gold mine and nuggets are very large. As this account did you, my mind is running away with all the plausible–and not so plausibe–scenerios. I love it when I run across these unexpected discoveries. My first thought is that she was hiding. Maybe from the law. Most definitely the orphange. And maybe from a sordid past. There weren’t very many ways out for a lady of the evening who wanted to become respectable. Endless possibilities for sure. I think the baby clothes among her possessions intrigued me the most. At least one person knew her secret.
This is such an interesting mystery. Thank you for sharing the story, my Filly sister!
Wow what an interesting story… it is amazing what surprises are out there! Thank you so much for sharing it with us today!!! 😀
Linda – I really like your analogy about the gold mine and large nuggets – you must be a writer 🙂
Colleen – You’re quite welcome. Don’t you just love uncovering these surprises!
Winnie, this is wonderful info — such collor — what a great blog today. Wow! I love all this history.
Winnie, I LOVED the story and was surprised when you said that Charlie turned out to be a woman! Kewl. Surely you can fit it into a story somewhere.
I too get sidetracked by the bits of fascinating trivia.
Karen – Thanks! And you’re right about the colorfullness of it all – another case of fact being stranger than fiction
Cher – LOL – I’m sure some portion of this will make it’s way into one of my stories someday.
Well, I love surprises and this story really did me in. I never suspected that Charley was a woman. Wow, I can think of a few tales she might be able to tell. Surely this is great research for a romance!
Great blog today!!
Thanks so much for sharing charley’s story. Baby clothes??
Charlene – Cool that you were surprised 🙂 I was afraid my deliberate lack of the use of gender-specific pronouns would give it away before anyone got to the punchline.
Estella – You’re welcome! And yes, the whole baby clothes snippet does add an extra smidge of intrigue doesn’t it
Ah . . . all the “what ifs” that come to a writer’s mind. What a great blog. I love One Eye Charlie. It reminded me of another article I read. There were a great many women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. I always wondered how they solved certain sanitation problems. I would have loved to have written such a heroine, but, alas, no one wants to buy a Civil War era book any longer.
I was pulled into the photograph of “Charley” at
first glance! Why? Because I saw the female immediately! How did she get through a life time
without being discovered? How did someone not make the connection sooner?
Like Mary, I just finished reading a book (Laura
Kinsale’s The Dream Hunter) where the primary female character dressed as a young male until the hero realizes that she is not a “he.”
Patricia – Hi! Glad you enjoyed the post and I agree – it really is to bad they’re not looking at Civil War era books right now
Pat – Oooooh – I love Laura Kinsale’s books. Her books are always an auto-buy for me.
What shocked me is that Charley was a woman. I read a book where a ‘healer’ in an Indian tribe was harsh to a white girl taken captive. They all thought the healer was a man. They later found out she was a woman who had lost a baby. Apparently she wasn’t able to handle the loss. She eventually took the little white girl in. Interesting you find out a true story that was somewhat similar.
Linda W. – Wow, what a fascinating story. Was it fact or fiction?
What an interesting snippet of information. I think it is interesting that she kept her secret until her death. Often women would masquerade as men during a war so they could fight and sometimes for a period of time so they could hold a job. But most eventually took their identity back to live out their life. Had the baby clothes they found been used or were they part of a “hope chest” stash? If new, she obviously wanted a child, so why didn’t she take back her female identity? If used, when did she spend time as a woman to conceive and have a child? Father? Fate of child? Why did she go back to being a man?
I can understand not wanting to give up the freedom of being a man. It probably wasn’t worth the trouble and loss in status to become a woman again. You wonder how lonely her life was and what she thought of the man and child that had been part of her life. Like several others, I noticed the feminine profile.
Thanks for an intriguing post.
Patricia – Hi! Ah, I can see you have launched your own story weaving journey on this one….
Oh how interesting!! As it happens, I’m reading Pope Joan right now… a work of historical fiction about the life that might have belonged to the woman who is rumored to have served as a Pope in the Middle Ages. The rumor is widely dismissed, but the fact that it has been around for so long gives it more weight, IMHO. Anyway, Joan’s adventure certainly was similar to Charley’s. Joan decided she appreciated the freedom of living as a man, so it was tough to go back.
Thanks for taking such an interesting side journey in your research, Winnie!!
Hi Joanne! Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment. Oh, that book sounds fascinating, I’ll have to look for it next time I’m in the bookstore.
WOW, this story is sooo fascinating…i read the book and it was awesome…i love the author.._ariana!
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