Driving from San Jose to Santa Cruz over Highway 17 is a pretty harrowing 40 minutes with tight twisting curves and crazy drivers. Just imagine driving a team of six horses and a stagecoach full of passengers over the same route—but on treacherous dirt roads barely more than trails. In the 1800s it was thought only a man could handle a job as dangerous as this. And yet, it was a woman in the 1860s, that became one of the most famous—and not to be messed with—stagecoach drivers between San Jose and Santa Cruz. Charley Parkhurst chose to live as a man for over 30 years, deftly handling horses and bravely fighting bandits throughout the west. It wasn’t until Parkhurst’s death that his secret was revealed.
Not to be confused with another well-known character of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mountain Charley McKiernan, this Charley was born Charlotte Parkhurst in Lebanon, New Hampshire and grew up in an orphanage. Dressed in boy’s clothing Parkhurst left the orphanage and according to one account, met Ebenezer Balch, the owner of a livery stable in Rhode Island, who took him in as his own son. Balch taught the young child to ride horses and drive wagon teams giving him the skills needed to later drive stagecoaches throughout California. He quickly mastered the profession and made the perilous long journey all the way across the country to work as a whip (the term then for a stagecoach driver) on the Pacific Coast.
One-Eyed, Bandit-Shootin’ Charley
When the almost 40-year-old Parkhurst arrived in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1850, he fit right in with the other rough and tough drivers. Known as “One-eyed Charley”, he wore a black patch over his left eye, lost when attempting to shoe a horse. His lips were stained from constant tobacco chewing and as the years wore on he talked less and less earning him another nickname, Silent Charley. When Parkhurst did speak, he didn’t hesitate to sling around swear words in a gruff voice. The only part of his appearance that was out of place was his clean-shaven face, an odd choice for a man in those days.
Parkhurst proved himself in California not only in skill with a team of up to six horses but in handling bandits. A bandit called “Sugarfoot” and his crew held up Parkhurst’s stagecoach and forced him to hand over the wagon’s strong box (used to hold all of the passenger’s valuables). He calmly acquiesced while keeping all his passengers safe, but before they left, he warned the robbers that he’d “break even with them.” Sugarfoot unwisely stopped his stagecoach again, and this time, Parkhurst shot him dead. As the story goes, Sugarfoot crawled back to a miner’s cabin and, before he died, told the miners he’d been shot by the famous driver, One-eyed Charley.
First Woman to Vote in America
Parkhurst took advantage of his disguise in other ways. In 1868, Parkhurst registered to vote. This was 52 years before the 19th amendment granted women the right! Although Parkhurst’s name is recorded on the official poll list for the election of 1868, it is unknown whether he actually cast his ballot. Still, there is a plaque at his grave, as well as at the Soquel Fire Station and Soquel Post Office, that commemorates him as the first woman to vote in the United States of America.
A Secret Revealed
During his 30 years as a stagecoach driver, Parkhurst became known as one of the best in California. In the late 1860s, as traveling by train began to replace the need for stagecoaches, Charley retired as a whip and tried his hand at other ventures. He is rumored to have raised cattle on Bean Creek and may have opened a stage station and saloon between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. It seems more certain that he worked as a skilled lumberjack for several years until rheumatism and cancer of the mouth forced him to stop.
Parkhurst’s secret was finally revealed upon his death in 1879. His reasons for choosing this lifestyle are unknown, but we can safely assume that Parkhurst would never have become a famous stagecoach driver as a woman. You can visit his grave today at the Pioneer Cemetery at 44 Main Street in Watsonville, California.
- Charley’s Choice: The Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst. Fern J. Hill. 2008.
- The Whip, by Karen Kondazian. Hansen Publishing Group LLC. 2012.
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- Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young. Paper Vision Press; 1979.
- Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. Richard A. Beal. The Pacific Group; 1991.
- Soquel post office plans move; fate of murals unclear. Jondi Gumz. Santa Cruz Sentinel. December, 13, 2011.
- Thirty Years in Disguise, Correspondence of the San Francisco Call, carried in New York Times. January 9, 1880.
- Those Daring Stage Drivers by Kathi Bristow. California Department of Parks and Recreation. 2008.