Saturday, September 27, 2008

One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst's Secret

Charley Darkey Parkhurst
Pioneer Cemetery, Watsonville, California
(Courtesy of Find a Grave)

On December 12, 1879, one of the great “whips” of California’s Gold Rush days died just outside Santa Cruz. Charley Parkhurst, a legend among Wells Fargo stagecoach drivers, passed away quietly, having suffered the ravages of rheumatism and cancer. When friends prepared Parkhurst’s body for burial, they were startled to discover that “Charley” was a woman!

Born in New Hampshire, “Charlotte” Parkhurst spent her early years in an orphanage. The independent teen soon ran away. Dressed as a boy, she found work at a livery stable where she became adept at handling horses. In 1851, a former employer offered her a position driving a stage route amidst California’s gold fields. For the next twenty years, Parkhurst drove for nearly every line around the Mother Lode. Parkhurst confronted robbers, Indians, runaway teams, and narrow mountain passes, eventually gaining a reputation as one of Wells Fargo’s fastest and safest drivers.

A kick from a horse cost Parkhurst an eye. From then on, nearly everyone called the tough little driver “One-Eyed Charley.” Sporting a black patch and a great coat of buffalo hide, Parkhurst drank, chewed, and gambled with the best of them – all the while keeping her secret.

Charley Parkhurst’s name appears on a list of registered voters in the 1868 presidential election of Ulysses S. Grant – some fifty years before women were legally allowed to vote! Californians contend that Parkhurst was the first woman to vote in the state and possibly the first in the nation.

In 1886, the Santa Cruz Surf stated that Charlotte was the daughter of one Frederick M. Parkhurst. Friends attempting to settle Parkhurst’s estate reported that in 1848 Charlotte was living with a Parkhurst family near Sandusky, Ohio. Indeed, the 1850 census of Townsend Twp., Sandusky County, Ohio lists a Charlotte L. Parkhurst, aged 16, living with the prominent Parkhurst family of Sandusky County. Yet, no local descendants have ever been able to place her.

Although the facts of Parkhurst’s early years remain elusive, she continues to hold a unique place in the rich history of California’s wild Gold Rush days. Students examine her extraordinary life in women’s studies courses. A ballad commemorates her Wells Fargo adventures. Women re-enactors drive six-hitch teams over her old Santa Cruz route. And today a monument near her grave declares “One-Eyed Charley” the first woman to vote in the United States.

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