Charley Parkhurst crossing a crumbling bridge during a storm. (Kelly Heigert/KQED)
During the Gold Rush, there were few in the West as notorious and formidable as the stagecoach driver.
These men would drive gold and other valuables from the far-flung mining outposts in the Sierra to the big-city banks of San Francisco. It was a treacherous journey that required expert navigation across rough terrain — but the biggest challenge became thieves. They lay in wait, eager to rob drivers and passengers of their valuable cargo.
Stage drivers had to be good with a gun to keep their cargo safe and their passengers alive. For their skill and fearlessness, stage drivers were paid very well, and the best ones were known by name across California.
Among the best drivers in the entire state was Charley Parkhurst. In a profession where hypermasculinity was rewarded, Parkhurst stands out, because he was gender nonconforming.
Charley Parkhurst: The Famous California Driver
Parkhurst was described as a man of slight build, who chewed tobacco, drank whiskey and swore often. He wore beaded riding gloves and used a whip on his horses — and to stay out of brawls.
He was tough, and he looked even tougher after he was half-blinded when a horse kicked him in the face (it was probably scared by a snake), which earned him the nickname “One-Eyed Charley.”
Some knew the story of his crossing a crumbling bridge during a storm. Others cared only about his ability to keep the bandits away from their goods. None of his peers knew that Charley was assigned female at birth.
The accounts of Parkhurst’s early years sometimes contradict one another. As far as we know, Parkhurst was born around 1812 in New Hampshire.
Some say Parkhurst spent his early years in an orphanage, then ran away to find work in stables. Others say Parkhurst worked on an uncle’s farm until they had a falling out, after which Parkhurst ran away to Rhode Island. Either way, around this time, young Parkhurst started wearing boys clothes, living as a male and learning how to ride horses.
Eventually, Parkhurst started working as a stage driver on the East Coast, until the Gold Rush brought him out West around 1850.
Gender Terms in History
One could use him or they as a pronoun for Parkhurst.
“Because ‘they’ is a wonderful nonbinary pronoun that can be used today to mark people who are sort of refusing or renouncing the gender binary,” says Don Romesburg, a historian and chair of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University. “But I think they can also be used for people in the past as a kind of marker of undecidability. I think that if you’re going to pick one wrong gender pronoun for Charley, it would be she. Because for as much of Charley’s life that Charley was an active agent in asserting a gendered self … he was he.”
It’s hard to say if Parkhurst was trans because we don’t know why Parkhurst decided to live as a man. There could have been many motivations.
“Women were given very few economic opportunities in the mid-19th century California. They could be seamstresses or laundresses or teachers or sex workers essentially,” says Romesburg.
Plus, people who had romantic ties to someone of the same sex would have been marginalized at the time.
“There’s all sorts of reasons beyond perhaps a true expression of one’s gendered self that someone like Parkhurst might choose to live as a man for many years.”
Still, Romesburg says, Parkhurst’s life is clearly part of trans history.
The Gold Rush
Parkhurst ran stretches of road all around California — between Mariposa and Stockton, Oakland and San Jose, and San Juan and Santa Cruz. Parkhurst was highly sought after, working for many wealthy families, and even drove a large cargo of gold for Wells Fargo.
With a money box full of gold and a coach full of passengers, Parkhurst would drive six horses across rough terrain where bandits lay in wait.
Once Parkhurst was stopped by a gang of highway robbers whose faces were disguised with masks made out of long underwear. They brought a gun to Parkhurst’s head and threatened the passengers. Parkhurst’s gun was out of reach, and he was forced to give the bandits the money box. However Parkhurst defiantly told the bandits that if it happened again, it would be unpleasant.
After that, Parkhurst was always prepared. The next time he was stopped by a famous desperado called “Sugarfoot,” Parkhurst shot him dead.
While there were passengers floating in and out of Parkhurst’s life, it was said he often worked alone, serving as both driver and lookout.
As for love, it’s hard to say. There is a story about a poor widow who was about to lose her house. Parkhurst bought the house to give back to her. Some speculated Parkhurst did it for the widow’s daughter, who was pretty, but Parkhurst left that town soon after.
Parkhurst was also registered to vote in 1867, about 50 years before women got suffrage. Some say Parkhurst could have been the first person assigned female at birth to cast a ballot in California for a presidential election.
Charley continued to work until he developed severe rheumatism in his 60s, which eventually shriveled his limbs. Then in 1879, Parkhurst developed cancer of the tongue and died at the age of 67 near Watsonville, California.
That was when the public found out that Parkhurst was assigned female at birth.
Most national coverage of Parkhurst still conveyed a sense of awe in everything he accomplished. In Emily Skidmore’s book, “True Sex: the Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Century,” she found that when gender histories of trans men are revealed, local communities tend to be quite sympathetic to that person. When national newspapers picked those stories up, the narratives shift to degeneracy, masquerading, fooling, disguising and pathology.
Since his death, Charley’s story has been told in more obscure historical texts, but now it seems Charley will take a more permanent place in California history books.
The FAIR Education Act passed in 2011 ensures the roles and contributions of LGBT Americans and people with disabilities be included in K–12 history education.
Romesburg fought to include Charley in lesson plans and says, “It’s important that we see LGBT lives in the past so that we understand that queerness and transness is not something that simply appears after Stonewall, for example. But it’s something that’s been around in some form everywhere for always.”