Hearts Through History Romance Writers

A Woman Stagecoach Driver? Meet Charley Parkhurst

by | October 7, 2013 | 15 comments

Charley Parkhurst was a well respected “whip”, as stagecoach drivers were often known, who had achieved a modicum of fame as both fast and fearless. What was not known about Charley until he died was that he was, in reality, a she.

Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst was born in 1812 in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Not much is known about her early years except that it is said she was placed in an orphanage and, in order to escape, she disguised herself in boy’s clothing. Since jobs for girls were scarce, parading as a boy provided Charlotte with more options. She found work in a livery stable in Worchester, Massachusetts, and never looked back. She would remain Charley Parkhurst until her dying day.

 The stable work allowed her to study horses and she was soon driving Concord stagecoaches around Worchester and ultimately around Providence, Rhode Island. In time, Charley earned a reputation as the stagecoach driver to request. For reasons that are not clear and, therefore the cause of much speculation, Charley migrated to Georgia, maybe to get out of the northeast’s winters. When the stable operator she worked for in Georgia, Jim Birch, headed west with his operations, Charley followed him to San Francisco in 1851.

 Wearing gloves to hide small hands and a pleated shirt to hide a woman’s form, Charley started driving stagecoaches through the boom towns that had arisen with the discovery of gold.  Routes included the tracts between Stockton and Mariposa, Oakland and San Jose, and San Juan and Santa Cruz. It is known that by 1856 Charley was living in Searsville in San Mateo City.

 Charley Parkhurst was considered highly capable in handling six reins and a whip. Legends fed “his” reputation. It was said that Charley could “slice open the end of an envelope or a cut a cigar out of a man’s mouth” with a whip. (www.maquiresplace.net). As the New York Times reported upon Charley’s death in January 1880, “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 to reins of a four or six in hand.” 

 Charley also had earned respect with use of firearms, known to turn her revolver loose on bandits who tried to stop her stage. The New York Times reported on the failed and fatal attempt by bandits to rob Charley’s stage as it made its way between Virginia City and California, carrying gold and silver bullion as well as the payrolls for the mine companies.  “That his shooting was to the mark was subsequently ascertained by the confession of “Sugarfoot”, a notorious highwayman, who, mortally wounded, found his way to a miner’s cabin in the hills, and in articulo mortis told how he had been shot by Charley Parkhurst, the famous driver, in a desperate attempt, with others to stop his stage.” There were many stories of Charley bringing the stage and passengers through natural disasters as well. Charley was a well known, heroic “whip” when, in the late 1860’s, she decided to retire from driving the stage.

 She is quoted as saying “I’m no better now than when I commenced. Pay’s small and work’s heavy. I’m getting old. Rheumatism in my bones—nobody to look out for old used-up stage drivers. I’ll kick the bucket one of these days and that’ll be the last of old Charley.”

Charley went into raising cattle and farming near Soquel, California with partner Frank Woodward, a bachelor.  From all accounts she was moderately successful as a farmer, known to be social and generous to her neighbors. Her secret remained with her until her body was being prepared for burial by her friends. It was said that even her partner, Frank Woodward, was shocked to learn her secret.

 She was renowned enough as a stage coach driver during the heyday of the gold fields to receive an obituary in such papers as the New York Times, The Sacramento Daily Bee, and the San Francisco Morning Call (which did not mention her secret.) The Watsonville Pajaronian speculated “Rumors that in early years she loved not wisely, but too well, have been numerous and from the reports of those who saw her body, these rumors receive some color of truth. It is generally believed that she had been a mother and that from that event, dated her strange career.” The Providence Journal, from her former stomping grounds in Rhode Island, wrote: “Charley Parkhurst was one of this city’s finest stage drivers. The only people who have any occasion to be disturbed by the career of Charley are the gentlemen who have so much to say about ‘women’s sphere’ and the ‘weaker vessel’.”

 As the New York Times concluded “That she achieved 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 them the almost romantic personal bravery that enables one to fight one’s way through the ambush of an enemy, seems almost fabulous, …and the reader might be justified in doubting, if the proof of their exact truth was not so abundant and conclusive.”

 Charley Parkhurst stands as a role model of capability for every woman. Too bad she needed to disguise her true identity in order to receive the opportunity to demonstrate her abilities in a “man’s” job.  Gratefully times have changed. But this is why I love learning about the West and the women who tamed it. They had more in common with women in the 21st century than might be gathered from reading “traditional” history books and more to overcome than we could imagine.

Still, I have to wonder–why do you think Charley took the secret to her grave when she must have known it would be revealed?



New York Times, January 9, 1880


Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Falling for a Cowboy, and western historical romance, Saving Cole Turner, at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobook.com. You can friend, follow, or find Anne on Facebook, Twitter, www.annecarrole.com , or at the western historical facebook fan site, Love Western Romances.


  1. Barbara Bettis

    What a strange–but interesting–tale. Thanks for sharing it, Anne.

    • Anne Carole

      Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for stopping by :)-Anne

  2. Ella Quinn

    Fascinating. There were other female stagecoach drivers. She must have had another reason for keeping her secret.

    • Anne Carole

      And since she kept her real last name it couldn’t be to go into hiding although some speculated that she had made a bad marriage in Rhode Island and wanted to disappear. Charlotte Parkhurst isn’t that removed from Charley Parkhurst if someone was looking for her.

  3. Lani

    I LOVE reading about stories like this! Yes, women were very capable of being physical. There is historical proof that women were in the military, disguised, for many years before it was acceptable. One such proof was a woman who was in the British army for more than 20 years before she was caught. This was in the eighteenth century, by the way.

    I have many friends who are in the military. Not that long ago my female friends would have been shooed away. What many of them find the most remarkable now is how it is usually other, usually civilian women that question why they want to shoot gun, be a soldier. Men seem to roll with the equality more than women!

    Maybe one day we’ll just learn to accept each other as is.

    • Anne Carole

      Someday :). But as you point out, there are always people who want to maintain the “status quo”, who fear a changing world and a woman’s role in it. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Angelyn

    I loved that part where Charley’s abilities were “ascertained” from a famous highwayman. Hmmm–maybe there’s a love story right there! Nice post.

    • Anne Carole

      Definitely fodder for a novel 🙂 Thanks for commenting Angelyn.

  5. Lisa Belcastro

    So cool. Never knew this. I wonder, though, if she was ever lonely, wanting someone to know the real “her”. An impressive life. Surprised someone has made a movie on her.

    • Anne Carole

      Hi Lisa–not aware of any movie but there was a book about her titled “Charley’s Choice”. Thanks for stopping in. 🙂

  6. Sharla Rae

    Wow, it’s amazing that Charlotte kept her secret so well, esp considering what females put up with concerning their own bodies. One has to wonder if her last partner just pretended to be surprised, but maybe now. Hats off to her in any case! Thanks for this fun bit of history.

  7. Anne Carole

    Thanks for stopping by Sharla. I wonder about Frank’s “shock” too. I have wondered if maybe bachelor Frank was really Charlotte’s partner in other ways. Now that might be an interesting love story to write, lol.

  8. Lyn Horner

    I’ve read about Charlie before, but yours is the most detailed account I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing your research.

  9. Kirsten

    Great post, Anne! I love stories like this, and like other comments wonder about Frank’s “shock.” Sounds like Charley was a woman with a mind of her own and wanted to make it her way. She probably figured, so what if they found out her secret when she died. By then she’d be gone and wouldn’t care.


  10. Susan Macatee

    What an amazing tale! But it goes to show disguising herself as a man was the only way a woman would be allowed to pursue a man’s career. I’m sure more women would have chosen better paying and rigorous occupations if they didn’t have to go to such extremes as women like ‘Charley’.



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