She Drove Like a Man
The armed bandit lurched in front of the stagecoach and demanded the cash box. The stage driver, Charlie Parkhurst, was livid. The driver looked to be about 40, was of medium height, and broad-shouldered with a clean-shaven bronzed face. He wore a heavy buffalo hide coat and blue jeans, and his shabby hat was pulled down over the black patch that covered one eye. The other eye, however, was as bright and keen as a hawk, and in a split second that driver cracked his whip to make the horses bolt, then turned around and shot the startled robber dead. The passengers were intensely relieved as the stage continued on its way. That day, the Wells Fargo cash box and the U.S. Mail would go through.*
Charlie Parkhurst was born in New Hampshire in 1812, but at a young age he lost his parents. At 12, he ran away from the orphanage and took work as a stablehand in Vermont, eventually learning how to drive a stagecoach with up to six horses. In his late 30s, Parkhurst headed west during the gold rush where he put his driving skills to work full-time. He was such an excellent driver that he earned the distinction as a “whip.” He even mastered the stagecoach “horn” sound, a loud throaty whistle, which alerted other drivers coming around sharp curves.**
Besides the challenge of armed robbers, stagecoach drivers had to deal with bad weather, rough perilous trails, and even wild beasts. On Mountain Charley Road, en route to Santa Cruz, a group of wild hogs once rushed between the horses of a stagecoach at a sharp turn. The team lost its footing, and the stage with everything in it tumbled 150 feet down into a gulch. Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt. Even the horses could be difficult as Charlie found out when one kicked him so hard he lost an eye.***
When the railroads replaced the stagecoaches, Parkhurst retired to raising livestock and providing occasional hauling services. He died alone in his cabin in December of 1879. When the body was prepared for burial, the attendants found, for the first time, that Charlie was a woman—Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. She had dressed like a male nearly her whole life, smoked cigars, chewed tobacco, drank, and played cards with the best of them. It seems that she was quite happy being a he.
*** Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains, John V. Young, 1984, pp. 100-105.
Charlie Parkhurst registered to vote in Santa Cruz County in 1866 and was reportedly the first woman to vote in a national presidential election. A plaque in Soquel states that she voted in the 1868 race between Ulysses S. Grant (R) and Horatio Seymour (D). The 19th amendment allowing women the right to vote was officially passed by the U.S. Congress in 1919.
Image from Elk Grove Historical Society. Illustrated by Adam Gustavson for Rough, Tough Charley by Verla Kay (2007)
Plaque to Parkhurst in Soquel, CA