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Parkhurst, Charlotte (d. 1879)

California stagecoach driver who lived as a man and became the first American woman to vote in a presidential election . Name variations: Charley (also seen as Charlie) Parkhurst; "One-Eyed" Charley; Charley Darkey Parkhurst. Born probably in New Hampshire; died near Watsonville, California, on December 29, 1879; children: may have had at least one child.

Among the thousands upon thousands of people who flocked to California during the gold rush that began in the late 1840s was one who dressed in men's clothes, did not speak much, and never grew a beard. Calling herself Charley Parkhurst, she became a stagecoach driver, sometimes controlling a six-horse team pulling a 20-passenger coach, and from the mid-1850s drove the mountain route between Santa Cruz and San Jose. This was a dangerous job on rugged roads where one misstep could plunge horses, coach and occupants over the side of the mountain, and armed robbers were not uncommon; legend has it that on being ambushed on the job a second time Parkhurst killed the would-be robber with a shotgun. She wore a black patch to cover a missing eye that had been kicked out by a horse, and, while not voluble, she drank, smoked, and played cards and rolled dice with other drivers, familiarly called "whips," and with miners. In 1868, Parkhurst voted in the presidential election between Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant and former governor of New York Horatio Seymour, giving her age as 55 when registering. Around that time she quit driving a stagecoach and ran a saloon and way station on the road between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. She next raised cattle and then chickens, and after suffering from poor health died in a cabin near Watsonville on December 29, 1879. Those preparing Parkhurst's body for burial in the Watsonville Cemetery were stunned to discover that "One-Eyed" Charley was, in fact, a woman, and the ordinary, self-contained ex-stagecoach driver became famous throughout California.

Little is known for sure about Parkhurst's early years, although sources suggest (or speculate) that she was born Charlotte Parkhurst in New Hampshire around 1812 and consigned to an orphanage in Massachusetts at a young age. At some point, she apparently fled the orphanage dressed as a boy, and found work as a stable hand. (Obviously preferring to work outdoors, she probably found this more congenial than the domestic service that was one of the better options available to girls from orphanages at the time.) She learned how to drive a team of horses, and by 1850 or 1851 had arrived in California. A doctor who examined her dead body is said to have claimed that she had borne at least one child. While much was made after her death of her "deception," it has also been suggested that many who knew Parkhurst were aware that she was a woman, and apparently saw no reason to challenge her. In 1955, the Pajaro Valley Historical Association placed a stone above her grave in the Watsonville Cemetery (now the Pioneer Cemetery). Its inscription, which includes note of the fact that she was the first woman to vote in a United States presidential election—American women did not gain suffrage until 52 years after she cast her vote—memorializes her as a "Noted whip of the gold rush days."

suggested reading:

Ryan, Pam Munoz. Riding Freedom. NY: Scholastic Press, 1998 (a fictionalized account of Parkhurst's life for grades 3 to 6, includes factual information in author's note).

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Oak Park, Michigan

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Parkhurst, Charlotte (d. 1879)

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