Joan Barriga's

If Eliza Farnham opened the door a crack for independent, self-supporting women, Charlotte Parkhurst kicked it open with a bang. Aside from Hank Monk, made famous by Horace Greeley’s description of a hair-raising ride over the Sierras as his passenger, the name Charlie Parkhurst stands out in the brief, exciting story of stagecoaching in the West.

Charlotte was born about 1812 in New Hampshire and orphaned at an early age. She first dressed as a male to make her escape from the orphanage, and probably never again dressed as a woman. Employment for a young girl in those times was out of the question, but boys could apprentice themselves in a business, learn the trade and eventually earn a living at it. Charlie found a job as a stable boy, and it soon became apparent that the new apprentice had a special way with horses. Before long Charlie was handling teams, and from there it was a natural progression to becoming a stagecoach driver. The other drivers may have wondered why the new fellow didn’t mingle very much with them and preferred to sleep in the stable with the horses, but they evidently accepted the small, wiry driver who claimed to get along better with horses than with people.44

After gold was discovered, Charlie came West. From 1851 on, he was driving stagecoaches on nearly every road in the Mother Lode, with the reputation of being one of the safest and fastest drivers in California.45 According to one source, ". . . in more than twenty years no highwayman had dared to hold up a stagecoach with Charlie Parkhurst on the box, for the first two who tried it had been shot dead in their tracks."46

By this time Charlie was over forty years old and was described as being of medium height (five feet, seven inches), broad-shouldered, and beardless. A patch over one eye was evidence of an encounter with a horse that it obviously didn’t realize who it was dealing with; but the other gray eye, sharp as a hawk’s, squinted out from under a battered hat that shaded a leathery, brown face. Charlie’s voice was rather sharp and high-pitched, but she had learned to hold her own with the men by now—she "smoked cigars, chewed tobacco, drank moderately, played cards, and shook dice for cigars and drinks; always cheerful and agreeable, but always reticent about personal matters."47

Charlie worked for the Pioneer Line, which was taken over by Wells Fargo in 1866 when the company bought out Ben Holliday. The Pioneer Line provided service between San Jose and Santa Cruz, and was the rival company that engaged Charley McKiernan in the great price war, so feelings occasionally ran high between drivers on the two lines.48 Charlie’s route out of Los Gatos went by way of Lexington, where driver and passengers undoubtedly stopped to refresh themselves at Sarah Paddock’s Lexington House before the perilous ordeal ahead. Two horses were added to the four-horse team for the long haul up to the summit. Avoiding the toll gate to Mountain Charley Road at Patchen, the stagecoach proceeded straight ahead up to the Schultheis ranch, then turned southeast down the ridge to pick up the Soquel Road leading to the coast.

Accidents were not uncommon on the narrow mountain roads. Coaches were blown off the road during winter storms, dragged by runaway teams, forcing the passengers to jump for their lives, and horses were spooked by wild pigs running across their path. But the passengers and mail were getting through to Santa Cruz, and Charlie, despite the ravages of rheumatism (a common problem among drivers exposed to years of bad weather) continued to drive until the railroad began pushing into the mountains. Then she retired to a cabin on Bean Creek to raise cattle and haul freight for neighbors, with partner Frank Woodward, a bachelor.49

Ulysses S. Grant was running for President in 1868 and Charlie registered to vote. "A bronze plaque erected in the town of Soquel, where the duly registered Charley [sic] Parkhurst had voted in November 1868, proclaimed that it marked the site where the first woman cast a ballot in a presidential election."50

The disguise was holding, but eventually the truth came out. When Charlie Parkhurst died in 1879, the neighbors came to the cabin to lay out the body for burial, and they discovered that the renowned stagecoach driver was a woman. Rheumatism and cancer of the tongue were listed as causes of death, but the examining doctor, called in by the astounded neighbors, definitely established that Charlie had been a mother.51

The San Francisco Chronicle immediately picked up on the bizarre story, but unfortunately neglected to record Frank Woodward’s reaction to the revelation that his long-time friend and partner was a female. Perhaps he was speechless.


44 Ibid., p. 178.

45 Ralph Moody, Stagecoach West (Promontory Press, 1967), p. 320.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Garrod, op. cit., p. 76

49 Young, op. cit., p. 105

50 Reiter, op. cit., p. 178

51 Moody, op. cit., p. 322.



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