Charley Parkhurst: A Historical Figure You Need to Know

I had never heard of Charley Parkhurst (sometimes written Charlie Parkhurst) before accompanying my daughter to Roaring Camp for a day of learning about the California Gold Rush. Both Emma and I were fascinated by this person’s incredible story, so we came home searching for books to learn more.

Charlie Parkhurst (also written as Charley Parkhurst) is a fascinating historical figure who should be more well-known!

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Who Was Charley Parkhurst?

Charley Parkhurst was born in beautiful Sharon, Vermont, one of three children. Unfortunately, Charley’s parents died. Charley ran away from the orphanage at age twelve (or thereabouts), and wound up working as a stable hand for Ebenezer Balch in Providence, Rhode Island.

During the California Gold Rush, Charley sailed from Boston through the Panama Canal to San Francisco. Coach drivers were in demand for transporting passengers and mail. The job was a dangerous one, with primitive roads, poor weather, and the very real risk of being held up by outlaws. Charley Parkhurst earned a reputation as one of the best stage coach drivers on the West Coast, in spite of an accident with a horse leaving this gold rush whip blind in one eye. Once the railroad line extended into California, Parkhurst retired from stage coach driving. Parkhurst spent about fifteen farming in Watsonville, California – doing lumbering work in the winter and also raising chickens.

Gender Roles in History

Charley worked hard in a very male line of work – and everyone assumed he was a man. When he died, the discovery that he was actually a woman created a great stir. Charley was born a Charlotte. We don’t know why she chose to assume a male identity, but one popular idea is that she had plenty of spunk, was willing to work hard, and saw that men at the time had many more opportunities and infinitely more freedom than women. As an orphaned girl, Charlotte’s options opportunities were incredibly limited – spunk or no spunk. There were plenty of opportunities for a young boy who was willing to face danger and work hard.

Charley may have even voted decades before women had the right to vote! We don’t have a record of Charley record actually casting a vote, but the name Charles Darkey Parkhurst is listed on the official poll list for the election of 1868. Women were finally given the right to vote in California in 1911.

Books About Charley Parkhurst

Here are some great books you can read with your kids to learn more about this incredible historical figure. The books are fictionalized because poor records of the time mean that we only have a sketch of facts about Charley, but they do a great job of helping kids to put themselves in Charley’s shoes and to think about living in a very different time.

Rough, Tough Charley is a picture book written in verse for children aged 7-10 years old. Some of the verse will feel pretty cryptic if you are not familiar with Charley’s story.

Riding Freedom is a chapter book for readers aged 8-12 years old. My ten-year-old daughter Emma really enjoyed this book.

Charley’s Choice is written for a young adult audience. It is a great choice for high school aged students.

Had you heard of Charley Parkhurst before today?

Some links on this site are affiliate links and I may earn a small commission at no cost to you. Click on the images and blue text to be taken to links. Thank you! Learn more.

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

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