The Life and Death of Fearless Stagecoach Driver, Charley Parkhurst

'The Deadwood Coach", by John C. H. Grabill - John C. H. Grabill Collection, Library of Congress

Being a stagecoach driver in the 19th century was a highly revered position. The risks were high, and only the most skillful drivers would succeed. These drivers were taking immense risks, driving people, goods, and gold to unknown territory, where people went with the hope to get rich. This was a lifestyle that not many could endure, a life of loneliness and danger. One of the most skillful drivers on the road was a fellow named Charley Parkhurst, also known as One Eyed Charley, after having lost an eye to a kick of a horse.


Early life in Vermont


Charley Parkhurst was born in 1812, in Sharon VT or Lebanon NH, to Mary Morehouse Parkhurst, a Sharon resident. After going through genealogy records, and going to the tomb of Mary Morehouse Parkhurst at the Broad Brook Cemetery in Sharon, it says on her tomb that she was married to Ebenezer Parkhurst, and the marriage produced three children. The mother died on December 27th, 1812.


Tombstone of Mary Morehouse Parkhurst, mother of Charley Parkhurst (Broad Brook Cemetery, Sharon Vermont)

Tombstone of Mary Morehouse Parkhurst, mother of Charley Parkhurst (Broad Brook Cemetery, Sharon Vermont)


One of her three children, Charles Dodge, died a couple of months later, on February 7th 1813.


Tombstone of Charles Dodge Parkhurst, at the Broad Brook Cemetery in Sharon Vermont.

Tombstone of Charles Dodge Parkhurst, at the Broad Brook Cemetery in Sharon Vermont.

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The stories about Charley after that diverge. Some articles and obituaries allege that the two remaining children were sent to an orphanage in Lebanon NH, or to an uncle, but I couldn’t find any indication that they were sent away by their father. The father remarried a couple of years later, and had 8 children from that marriage. The father went on to become a judge in Allegan, Michigan.

A lot of articles state that Charley was born out of wedlock, but these tombstones prove otherwise.  


At around age 12, Charley ran away and was taken in by Ebenezer Balch who had a livery stable in Providence, RI. He learned to care for horses, and drive stagecoaches.


Life on the road


He later went on to California, during the Gold Rush in 1849, where he became one of the finest stagecoach driver of his time, braving the harsh conditions of California. Altercations occurred frequently, stagecoach carried gold and goods, making them easy targets for robberies. One Eyed Charley defended his convoy on many occasions, and even killed a robber, a man known as Sugar Foot, on one robbery attempt.


When he retired, he opened a saloon and stage station, then later reinvented himself into a farmer, and doing lumbering in the winter. He died at the age of 67 at his home in 1879, due to tongue cancer, according to his obituary.


This would be a good story without adding a line.


Postmortem discovery


His death added another dimension to Charley Parkhurst’s life. After death was pronounced, it was discovered that Charley was a woman. He was born Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. When he ran away, he started using the name Charley. When he was taken in by Balch, the man thought he was rescuing a boy, and treated him like a son. There is no more record of him being a woman, no journal entries from travelers or friends.


The medical examiner noted that Parkhurst had given birth, the baby almost certainly didn’t survive.


The story of this unusual person traveled everywhere, astonishing everyone that until his death, nobody had a clue about his secret.
Here is a quote from his obituary in The New York Times:


“That a young woman should assume man’s attive and, friendless and alone, defy the dangers of the voyage of 1849 to then almost mythical California -danger over which hardy pioneers still grow boastful- had in it sufficient of the wonderful. That she should achieve distinction in an occupation above all professions calling for the best physical qualities of nerve, courage, coolness, and endurance and that she should add to the the almost romantic personal bravery that enables one to fight one’s way through the ambush of an enemy, seems almost fabulous, and that for 30 years she should be in constant and intimate association with men and women, and that her true sex should never have been even suspected, and that she should finally go knowingly down to her death, without disclosing by word or deed who she was, or why she had assumed man’s dress and responsibilities, are things that a reader might be justified in doubting, if the proof of their exact trust was not so abundant and conclusive.” -  Thirty Years in Disguise, The New York Times, Jan. 9, 1880. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com


To add to this incredible story, Charley Parkhurst might have been the first woman to vote in California. He is listed in the official poll list for the election of 1868, as Charley Darkey (Durkee) Parkhurst. Women couldn’t vote in California until 1911!


We will never know the reasons One-Eyed Charley decided to live his life as a man. Did he run away from his house because he started dressing and acting as a man? Or did he run away as a girl, and realized that living on his own would not be possible as a woman?


We can only speculate, he took his reasons to his grave without leaving a note about his secret.


Further readings:
Wikipedia page
New York Times obituary
Fearless Character of One Eyed Charley


Thanks to Kayleigh Rodig, Baxter Memorial Library director, for talking to me about One Eyed Charley!


I write about life in Vermont, off-grid living, and anything related to Sharon Vermont.  You can sign up for email updates HERE.

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