Charlie Parkhurst had a secret. People had noticed that Charlie never talked much about his past or himself, but then, that wasn't unusual in California in the 1800s. Lots of people had pasts that they didn't want brought up. Charlie's secret however, was different from most.

Charlie had been born in New Hampshire sometime around 1810. Some say Charlie was an orphan and some say Charlie grew up on an uncle's ranch, but all accounts agree that Charlie grew up loving horses. Charlie had a "way" with horses and often said he got along better with horses than with people. When Charlie was 12 he ran away, because he was being forced out of the stable work he'd done up until then. Charlie gradually worked his way out west...arriving in California sometime around 1850. There he became a stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo, steering six horse teams over narrow, windy Sierra Nevada roads.

Charlie was known for being one of the safest and most reliable stagecoach drivers in California. Stagecoach robberies were common in those days, and Charlie was robbed twice. The first time, the villians got away with the gold that the coach had been carrying. The second time Charlie was prepared and coldly pulled out his gun and shot both would-be bandits dead. Charlie was never robbed after that.

Most people liked Charlie Parkhurst. He was known to be rather stand-offish and shy, but he was kind and often helped people in need. One story of tells of a widow about to lose her farm. Charlie took out his savings and paid off the deed on the farm, saving the woman's home. Charlie drank, smoked, played cards, and shook dice with the rest of the drivers, but he never got too close to anyone. He never married either, nor did he ever visit the whorehouses or brothels that were common in those days. Charlie pretty much stayed to himself.

Charlie retired from stagecoach driving around 1865, having had enough of the mud and cold. He opened a stage stop and saloon, and eventually did some cattle ranching and even chicken farming when he got really old. His last years of life were spent with a bachelor partner in a small cabin near Watsonville, California.

Charlie died December 29, 1979. That's when his secret was revealed. Charlie Parkhurst was a woman. Apparently Charlie had run away from the orphanage when they attempted to train her in "womanly duties" at age 12. Charlie dressed and acted like a man from that day on, even registering and voting in 1868, some 52 years before women could legally vote.

Charlie's was buried in Pioneer cemetary in Freedom, California. Her tombstone reads simply "Parkhurst" and no one was really sure what her real name was.

Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan

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