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January 9, 1880

Correspondence of the San Francisco Call

WATSONVILLE, CAL., Dec. 31. -There is hardly a city or town or hamlet of the Pacific coast that includes among its citizens a few of the gold-hunters of the early days where at least one person cannot be found who will remember Charley Parkhurst. For in the early days the gold-hunters were, by rapidly-succeeding gold discoveries, drawn back to San Francisco as a head-quarters, and again distributed from it to the most recently found diggings, and in those same early days Charley Parkhurst was a stage-driver successfully on the more important routes leading out from the city. 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 the reins of a four or six in hand. California coaching had, and has even yet, one exciting adjunct that was wanting in all preceding coaching. It was when the organized bands of highwaymen waylaid the coaches, leaped to the leaders’ heads, and over leveled shot-guns, issued the grim command made so often that it has crystallized into the felonious formula of “Throw down the box.” Drivers of a phlegmatic temperament become accustomed to these interruptions, expertly reckon up the killing capacity of the gun-barrels leveled at them, accept the inevitable, throw down the treasure-box and drive on. Charley Parkhurst was high-strung, and this was one requirement of the driver of the early days he could never master. He drove for a while between Stockton and Mariposa, and once was stopped and had to cut away the treasure-box to get his coach and passengers clear. But he did it, even under the “drop” of the robbers’ fire-arms, with all ill-grace, and he defiantly told the highwaymen that he would “break even with them.” He was as good as his word, for, being subsequently stopped on a return trip from Mariposa to Stockton, he watched his opportunity, and contemporaneously, turned his wild mustangs and his wicked revolver loose, and brought everything through safe. 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.

Charley Parkhurst also afterward drove on the great stage route from Oakland to San Jose, and later, and for a long time, he was “the boss of the road” between San Juan and Santa Cruz, when San Francisco was reached by way of San Juan. But Parkhurst was of both an energetic and a thrifty nature, and when rapid improvements in the means of locomotion relegated coaches further out toward the frontiers, and made the driving of them less profitable, it was not sufficient for him that he was acknowledged as one of the three or four crack whips of the coast. He resolutely abandoned driving and went to farming. For 15 years he prosecuted this calling, varying it in the Winter times by working in the woods, where he was known as one of the most skillful and powerful of choppers and lumbermen, and where his services were eagerly sought for, and always commanded the highest wages. Although, in his stage-coaching days, he was hail fellow well met with the migratory miners, and during the succeeding years of his life as farmer and lumberman he was social and generous with his fellows, he was never intemperate, immoral, or reckless, and the sure result was that his years of labor had been rewarded with a competency of several thousands of dollars. For several years past he had been so severely afflicted with rheumatism as not only to be unable to do physical labor, but the malady had even resulted in partial shriveling and distortion of some of his limbs. He was also attacked by a cancer on his tongue. As the combined diseases became more aggressive, the genial Charley Parkhurst became, not morose, but less and less communicative, till of late he has conversed with no one except on the ordinary topics of the day.

Last Sunday (December 28, 1879), in a little cabin on the Moss Ranch, about six miles from Watsonville, Charley Parkhurst, the famous coachman, the fearless fighter, the industrious farmer and expert woodman died of the cancer on his tongue. He knew that death was approaching, but he did not relax the reticence of his later years other than to express a few wishes as to certain things to be done at his death. Then, when the hands of the kind friends who had ministered to his dying wants came to lay out the dead body of the adventurous Argonaut, a discovery was made that was literally astounding. Charley Parkhurst was a woman, a perfectly formed, fully developed woman. It was no wonder that friends and associates who had known him intimately for a quarter century refused to accept the evidence of even their physical senses of the fact, and that it was only after the confirmation of all the physicians of the vicinage who were hastily summoned to view the body, that the fact could be realized. The discoveries of the successful concealment for protracted periods of the female sex under the disguise of the masculine are not infrequent, but the case of Charley Parkhurst may fairly claim to rank as by all odds the most astonishing of all of them. That a young woman should assume man’s attire and, friendless and alone, defy the dangers of the voyage of 1849, to the then almost mythical California—dangers over which hardy pioneers still grow boastful—has 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—qualities arrogantly claimed as being almost exclusively masculine–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 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 truth was not so abundant and conclusive. On the great (voting) register of Santa Cruz County for the year 1867 appears this entry: “Parkhurst, Charles Durkee (Darkey), 55, New-Hampshire, farmer, Soquel,” where he then lived. It is said by several who knew her intimately, that she came from Providence, R.I. Of course, great curiosity is excited as to the cause that led this woman to exist so many years in such strange guise. There may be a strange history that to a novelist would be a source of inspiration, and, again, she may have been disgusted with the trammels surrounding her sex, and concluded to work out her fortune in her own way. More light may yet be thrown on the wonderful case.


The New York Times
Published: January 9, 1880
Copyright © The New York Times


Link to the original New York Times Obituary, January 9, 1880


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