Legendary Stagecoach Driver — One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst
Folks love to hear about living legends. Even if they don’t live up to the pedestal folks place them on, well, it still is a place suitable for them.
Case in point is the odd story of a “whip” — the nickname for a stagecoach driver — with a lot of history, and plenty of guts and glory earned on the trail. One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst was one of the best stagecoach drivers out West and known to frequent Wolf Creek Tavern up on the Oregon Coast driving for the Butterfield Stage. Once having driven San Jose and Santa Cruz routes in California, and others up in the Gold Country back in the 1849-50s.
Folks said for every mile he drove his team hard, spat his tobacco juice harder, and cussed like Sam Clemens; the only time he missed work was the day after payday, when he’d be too hung over to drive. So the drinking and swearing would have been those other attributes he would have been known for. A good whip could earn the highest pay for the most coveted routes. Over time, more than 20 years, that’s what Charley did. For every cantankerous word that flew out of his mouth, he earned the best paying route and others looked up to him for it.
Others added that he was curt and ornery, hell on wheels in a game of cards or dice, and possibly the best handler of horse teams in the West. One source passes on a rumor that he shot and killed at least one bandit who’d hoped to rob the stage. If you rode with Charley you were in good hands.
In 1868 after the Civil War, at the age of 57 or so, he went and got himself registered to vote so he could help Ulysses S. Grant clinch the election. Even though Charley never got into the war, the feelings of those out West were strong. No one wanted to tangle with Charley just to prove a point.
So it was in 1879 that One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst earned his legendary status and died at the age of 67 — his hard life ended in a small cabin near Watsonville, California. But there was another legend to add to Charley’s after his death. Seems that the mortician at the funeral home discovered something that nobody knew — Charley was a woman. Some say her name was Charlotte, some say Mary, either way they found she had been orphaned at an early age. Dressing as a boy helped her to escape the orphanage, and she found the masquerade opened a lot of doors that were closed to girls and women in early 19th-century America. She had a way with horses and her slight build and structure helped her fit in with the males she worked with. It became a way of life for her, from that day forward.
Legends need to be hardened over time. With Charley it took some doing because most of the male population who worked with her and gambled and drank regularly couldn’t believe she was an actual woman. It was hard to swallow. Not only that, she’d up and voted in a Presidential election in 1868, possibly the first woman in America to do so. That alone could help place her a bit higher on the pedestal.
Over time the stories ran out and all that was left was a true legend of a famous stagecoach driver who truly outlived her scandalous death.