Charley Parkhurst

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For other people named Charles Parkhurst, see Charles Parkhurst (disambiguation).

Charley Darkey Parkhurst, often Charlie/Charlene/Charlotte or Parkhurst, born Mary Parkhurst (1812–1879), was an American stagecoach driver and early California settler. Assigned female at birth, Parkhurst lived as a man for most of his life and may have been the first female-assigned person to vote in California.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Parkhurst, also known as One Eyed Charley or Six-Horse Charley, was born Mary Parkhurst in 1812 in Sharon, Vermont, to Mary (Morehouse) Parkhurst. (father unknown) Some reports say his first name was Charles. Parkhurst had two siblings, Charles D. and Maria. Charles D. was born in 1811 and died in 1813. Mary the mother died in 1812. Some time after Charley D. died and prior to Ebenezer's re-marriage to Lucy Cushing in 1817, the two surviving children were taken to an orphanage in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where they were raised by a man named Mr. Millshark. Upon leaving the orphanage, Parkhurst adopted the name Charley Darkey Parkhurst and dressed and lived as a male for the rest of his/her life. An exhibit detailing these events can be seen at the Women's Museum of California in San Diego.

Parkhurst worked as a stable hand for Ebeneezer Balch first in Worcester, Massachusetts,[2] then in Providence, Rhode Island, and later in the "What Cheer Stables" at the back of the Franklin House Inn in Providence for several years.

About 1849, James E. Birch (entrepreneur) and Frank Stevens went to California and consolidated several small stage lines into the California Stage Company. Parkhurst moved there and started to work for them. Shortly after arriving, he lost the use of one eye after a kick from a horse. He had a reputation as one of the finest stage coach drivers on the west coast.

Parkhurst retired from driving some years later in Watsonville, California. After trying lumbering, cattle ranching, and raising chickens in Aptos, California, he moved into a small cabin near Watsonville. Parkhurst died there on December 18, 1879, due to tongue cancer.

1868 vote[edit]

A mural in the Soquel Post Office says Parkhurst was the first female to vote in California.
A plaque on the fire station in Soquel, California, marks the site where Parkhurst might have voted.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel for October 17, 1868, lists Charles Darkey Parkurst on the official poll list for the election of 1868. There is no record that Parkhurst actually cast a vote.[3] If a vote was cast, Parkhust may have been the first assigned female at birth person to vote in California.

Local legend and Parkhurst's gravestone claims that Parkhurst was the first "female" in the United States to vote. This is incorrect as a few states allowed women to vote before 1868.[3] The fire station in Soquel, California, has a plaque that reads: "The first ballot by a woman in an American presidential election was cast on this site November 3, 1868, by Charlotte (Charlie) Parkhurst who masqueraded as a man for much of her life. She was a stagecoach driver in the mother lode country during the gold rush days and shot and killed at least one bandit. In her later years she drove a stagecoach in this area. She died in 1879. Not until then was she found to be a woman. She is buried in Watsonville at the pioneer cemetery."

Posthumous revelation[edit]

When Parkhurst died in 1879, neighbors came to the cabin to lay out the body for burial and discovered that Parkhurst's body looked unexpectedly female. Rheumatism and cancer of the tongue were listed as causes of death. The examining doctor established that Parkhurst had given birth. A trunk in the house contained a baby's dress.[4]

On January 9, 1880, the New York Times obituary read "Thirty Years in Disguise: A Noted Old Californian State-Driver Discovered. After Death. To be a Woman":[5]

...(December 28, 1879), in a little cabin on the Moss Ranch, about six miles from Watsonville, Charley Parkhurst, the famous coachman, the fearless fighter, the industrious farmer and expert woodman died of the cancer on his tongue. He knew that death was approaching, but he did not relax the reticence of his later years other than to express a few wishes as to certain things to be done at his death. Then, when the hands of the kind friends who had ministered to his dying wants came to lay out the dead body of the adventurous Argonaut, a discovery was made that was literally astounding. Charley Parkhurst was a woman, a perfectly formed, fully developed woman...

On December 28, 1879, the San Francisco Morning Call reported Parkhurst's death without mentioning the post-mortem discovery:[citation needed]

He was in his day one of the most dexterous and celebrated of the famous California drivers ranking with Foss, Hank Monk, and George Gordon, and it was an honor to be striven for to occupy the spare end of the driver's seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins of a four-or six-in hand...

In 1955, the Pajaro Valley Historical Association erected a monument at Parkhurst's grave, which reads:[6]

Charley Darkey Parkhurst (1812-1879) Noted whip of the gold rush days drove stage over Mt. Madonna in early days of Valley. Last run San Juan to Santa Cruz. Death in cabin near the 7 mile house. Revealed 'one eyed Charlie' a woman. First woman to vote in the U.S. November 3, 1868.

In 2007, the Santa Cruz County Redevelopment Agency[7] oversaw the completion of the Parkhurst Terrace Apartments,[8] located a mile along the old stage route from the place of his death.

Literary adaptations[edit]

Actress Karen Kondazian wrote a historical fiction novel The Whip[9] based on the true story of Charley Parkhurst, published by Hansen Publishing Group (2012).[10]

Children's book author Pam Muñoz Ryan wrote a fictionalized biography of Charley Parkhurst's life titled Riding Freedom.


  1. ^ Jones, Donna (July 17, 2005), "Infamous P.V. pioneer's name to grace new housing complex", Santa Cruz Sentinel, retrieved 2007-11-25 
  2. ^ Pryor, Alton (2003), Fascinating Women in California History, Roseville, California: Stagecoach Pub., p. 86, ISBN 0-9660053-9-2 
  3. ^ a b Hall, Daniel M. (March 5, 2003), "The Strange Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst", Metro Santa Cruz, retrieved 2009-02-08 
  4. ^ Thrapp, Dan L. (1991), Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography: P-Z, University of Nebraska Press, p. 1115, ISBN 0-8032-9420-4 
  5. ^ [1] New York Times obituary, January 9, 1880
  6. ^ Beal, Richard A. (1991), Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz, Aptos, California: Pacific Group, pp. 71–2, ISBN 0-9629974-0-4 
  7. ^ Current Housing Projects, 2006, retrieved 2009-05-24 
  8. ^ Fajardo, Aldwin (May 13, 2008), "Fairy Tale Transformation for a Notorious Aptos Trailer Park", Mid-County Post, retrieved 2009-05-24 
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^ Kondazian, Karen (2012), The Whip, Hansen Publishing Group, p. 302, ISBN 978-1601823021 
  • Hill, Fern J. (2008). Charley's Choice: The Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst. Infinity Publishing. ISBN 0-7414-4643-X. 
  • Gloria G. Harris, Hannah S. Cohen. Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present

External links[edit]