Charlie Parkhurst

Our tour season is certainly under way here in the Los Angeles museum. Every year, February through June is the time when most schools decide to come visit us. Something that came to mind recently, as I was doing one of my 4th grade tours, is how much things have really changed for women in the last 150 years, and how truly glad I am to be living in this century!

Charlie Parkhurst (Click for larger image in a new window)It came about as I was telling my students the story of Charlie ParkhurstClick here to learn about third-party website links Charlie was a renowned and skilled stage driver in his day — one of the best. He drove for almost 20 years here in California. He was short, slim, and kind of quiet, perhaps because of his high-pitched voice. When Charlie passed away and they were preparing his body for burial, they realized he had kept a huge secret his whole life.

To what that secret was, there are some very entertaining guesses from creative 4th graders:

“He was a robot?” Click here to learn about third-party website links
“He was actually a thief?”
“He had a golden eye?” Click here to learn about third-party website links

Someone always hits the bulls-eye: “He was a girl?”


Her name was Charlotte. Of course, the reaction to this is usually a roomful of laughing kids. So what strikes me is how silly it seems to a child today that a woman should have to live as something she’s not.

And why? So we come upon a “vocab” word: discrimination. Despite the Delia Rawsons and Mary Fieldses Click here to learn about third-party website links of those days, women were not readily hired by stage lines to be drivers. Women did not have the same rights or privileges Click here to learn about third-party website links as men in the 19th century, or before. This is something we adults recognize, but it’s a pretty new idea for these children.

What’s interesting to me is how, as recently as 50 years ago Click here to learn about third-party website links, a 4th grade girl would have seen her world Click here to learn about third-party website links in a very different light than one of my 4th grade girls today, who laughs at the thought of having to dress up as a man in order to do what you want to do in life. In order to be treated the same. In order to vote, as Charlie did in 1868.

And I wonder: Would I have had the courage to be a “Charlie?” Would you have seen a short, slim, quiet museum curator with a secret around 150 years ago?

Well, I’m glad that I — and these 4th grade girls — won’t have to make a decision like that!

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous, Museums, Perspective, Remember, Stagecoach, Women's History. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Charlie Parkhurst

  1. Melissa says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog, great job!

  2. Ileana says:

    Thanks, Melissa! Can you imagine living in Charlie’s time? I can’t picture what my life would’ve been like then!

  3. Lydia Cangemi WFIS-Charlotte,NC says:

    I was searching for WF archived images and came across your blog (through google)! I couldn’t stop reading once I started. Extremely important story and proud that you wrote about it! Thank you!
    Lydia Cangemi

  4. Ileana says:

    Happy you enjoyed it, Lydia! I agree, it is important. We have many great stories to tell, so be sure to bookmark us!

  5. jasmine says:

    is this really true because i am going to have to do a speach about her i really wont the real her cause i have to turn it in so i need the trouth about her because i dew out her so get back to me asap plz i have to know what she wear life and what happen in her life get back to me asap thank you and once agina my name is jas mine

  6. Ileana says:

    Hi Jasmine. I apologize for not getting back to you sooner! I hope this is still helpful to you for your speech, but yes, there was a real Charlie Parkhurst, and she really was a stagecoach driver that dressed as a man so that she would be able to drive stagecoaches (since women weren’t allowed to). People didn’t find out that she was actually a woman until she passed away. Hope this helps!

  7. Dexter says:

    So I read that none of his friends knew he was biologically female-would a person really want to drive a stage coach so badly that they would disquise as the opposite sex? I think most people hold their gender identity to be more important than their legal right to their prefered jobs (I’m trans though, but my priorities are getting into the right body, not being allowed to get married) and I believe it to be more likely charley to be transgender. obviously this is a topic society is a long way away from permitting discussion about in the classroom, but have you considered it?

    • Hi Dexter – For sure we’ve thought about it! The exact phrase was, “the thought of having to dress up as a man in order to do what you want to do in life. In order to be treated the same.” To do what you want, to be who you are. That’s something that people have only recently become aware of, as regards LGBT people. The biggest lesson I personally get from Charlie Parkhurst’s story is—imagine living a hundred years before anyone can even understand, let alone accept who you are. THAT’S courage. We know nothing of Parkhurst except what we know, of course. We don’t know who she was before, why she came West, why she was who he was. Whatever Charlie’s reasons or motivations, Charlie lived his own life, and did a fine job of it. We’re proud to have been a part of it. Thanks for your comment!

  8. Angie "Alex" Alexander says:

    I am what you might call, the last line of “Wells Fargo” drivers. Yes, I carry for Wells Fargo from St. Louis to Shawnee Mission Kansas…and even though we use a “different” kind of horsepower these days, women drivers are still highly discriminated. But that never bothered me…been driving for 23 years, I love the road…it’s my life. Charlie and I are kindred spirits.

  9. Laura Young says:

    Last night we attended a Chautauqua. Our friend portrayed Charlie Parkhurst. Kim is slender, a woman, and has portrayed pony express riders. This time she did a bang-up job being Charlie and surprised her unsuspecting audience with the story of Charlie’s actual identity. She carried a cigar as she spoke and was very convincing, just like Charlie was. It’s a great, true story. Such a brave little woman for that era.

    • sierra D.anna says:

      i fell the same way.She was a brave little man/women.I heard that she was very pritty as of what men said.Half of me wants to walk in her shoes.But i would not like to die of tungu cancer.

  10. sierra D.anna says:

    i want to meet her in peson

    • Ileana says:

      I would have loved to meet her, as well, and see for myself what she was like, and how she pulled it off for so long! Thanks for reading!

  11. sierra D.anna says:

    so how was she able to go so long like this

  12. Old Tulanian says:

    My grandad was named for his paternal and maternal grandads: a Dean and a Parkhurst. Going up the Parkhurst line we found Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, born 1812(?) who reinvented herself as Charlie Parkhurst and went to California to drive a stage.

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