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Reveling in Creation: Stagecoach Reinswomen on the American Frontier

by Loretta Kemsley

The mountains and the canyons in turn afford delight,
As often as I pass them, by day or in the night;
That man must be a ninny who'd bury up alive
When all it costs to revel through creation is to drive.

Song of the Overland Stage Driver
Written by Nat Stein
Published in the Montana Post, April 8, 1865

The long lines slid through my right glove, while I took up the slack on my left, bending the team to match the curve of the road. It took all my strength to turn the galloping horses I was driving. The stagecoach bounced along the dusty trail, not much more than two slender ruts amid the sagebrush. Up ahead lay a bigger challenge, where the narrow gorge barely exceeded the width of the Concord coach. Sitting in the driver's box, looking down on the immense strength of the wheel, swing and lead pairs working in harness together, I knew I wasn't skilled enough with a six-up to give it a try and could only envy the drivers of yore who took it in their stride.

A stagecoach driver was commonly called a "Jehu," taken from the name of a Biblical character who drove fast and furiously. Most Jehus were men, but that didn't stop a few determined women from taking their turn in the box.

While I merely amused myself driving movie stagecoaches, "Charley Darkey" Parkhurst and "Stagecoach Mary" Fields became legendary reinswomen due to their skill and extraordinary feats. They out-drove many great whips of their time.

Charley Parkhurst's hands on the ribbons were decidedly masculine, all but her closest friends thought until after her death. Sun baked and gaunt, her leathered skin bore the marks of too many miles in wind, rain and bad terrain. A nasty scar, dislocated cheekbone and missing eye made Charley fearsome in appearance. She was capable of calmly coaxing skittish horses across a rushing creek or bellowing blasphemies while lurching down the steep slope of a ravine.

Most likely born "Charlotte," legend says she was raised in an orphanage in Massachusetts until she ran away to work as a stable boy for Ebenezer Balch of Worcester, Vermont. There she learned to drive a team, smoke, chew tobacco, and drink. With a raspy voice and dressed in "a muffler, gloves, great-coat of buffalo hide, and a cap of the same material. Under this she wore blue jeans turned up to reveal the cuffs of a very good pair of trousers," she disguised her femininity well, joining the hordes of people who moved west during the California Gold Rush. Like most, she found golden riches elusive and abandoned the quest to drive for the California Stage Lines until 1855.

Pregnancy forced her to quit and sent her south until after the babe's stillbirth. Leaving the heat of Southern California, she returned to driving, covering the San Jose-Santa Cruz route. While shoeing a cantankerous horse in Redwood City, it kicked her in the face, causing the loss of her eye. She wore a patch from then on, earning the nicknames of "One-eye Charley" and "Cock-eyed Charley."

Major A. N. Judd's recollections appeared in the Santa Cruz Surf on October 18, 1917:

"I suppose that here I should make a distinction between the Sioux, Blackfeet and others in the East, and the Indians that infested the western slopes of the Sierra, for they all had their fling at Charley Parkhurst.
"Old Ben Holiday was the moving spirit in the overland stage line. He had his office at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Monday morning was his busy day in hiring drivers to replace those whose hair had been raised either by fear or by the scalping knife.
"The Indians were not the most fearsome thing to dread, for on the mountain roads were the perils of the steep and narrow grade, so narrow that on some turns the singletree [the horizontal crossbar where the harness side straps, known as "traces," are attached] had cut grooves into the banks on the high side, and often the other side was a thousand feet down to the stopping place if the vehicle should go over. It was these dangers that also thinned out drivers fast, and the one under discussion that brought Charley into the limelight for the first time."

According to Judd, many men showed off their abilities by driving as close to the edge as possible, a maneuver that risked both coach and occupants. Charley "out did" the others by opting for safety, keeping the coach as far away from the edge as possible.

Judd included her years driving through Idaho and Utah:

"For three years Charley held that job without an accident, and would have stayed longer, but the Mormons were of a marrying disposition and rather than disclose her secret by marrying a few dames with polygamous proclivities, she left for the Pacific Coast. After a short spell on the Pacheco Pass run, she joined up with the Danforth Porter lines that connected with the Santa Cruz stage line.
"Charley was a great 'whip,' and when she pulled into a stage stop with the beautifully equipped 20-passenger Concord coach drawn by six mustangs as mettlesome as quarter-horses, it was an inspiring sight indeed. Every move played its part. One would note with what dexterity she plied the brakes just right in order to stop with the door just opposite the main entrance to the hotel.
"How deftly she whirled the six-horse lash around the stock and carefully laid it up on the deck, all unconscious of the onlookers, and as she wrapped the lines around the foot brake she would turn to hand down the treasure box or mail sack, or perhaps a venturesome female who had insisted on riding with the driver."

Known to wear pistols in her belt, Charley didn't hesitate to use them, killing the highwayman "Sugarfoot," who robbed her once and shouldn't have tried a second time, and filling Black Bart's backside with buckshot, the reason given why he never rode a horse. He limped away empty-handed.

Charley died of mouth cancer on December 29, 1879. A simple wood marker with "Parkhurst" was placed on her grave in Pioneer Cemetery, Freedom, California. It's been replaced with a stone monument and she has been honored with a small plaque at the Soquel Fire Department.

Stage Coach Mary Fields was born a slave in Tennessee in 1832. Andrew Jackson occupied the White House. Freed after the Civil War, Mary fled the South, traveling north to Toledo, Ohio, where she worked for a Catholic Convent. Mother Amadeus and Mary became close before the nuns moved to the Montana territory. Upon learning that Mother Amadeus was ill and failing, Mary moved west too, not stopping until she reached St. Peter's Catholic Mission in Cascade County. Mary devoted her time to nursing the Mother Superior until her health returned. By then, she'd decided to stay and help build the mission school. The Ursuline nuns needed a hand to haul freight, in addition to "heavy work." Although hampered by a lack of education, Mary - six-feet tall, powerfully built and tough ? could do this job.

Mary easily hefted an ax, chopping firewood and building fences, plus doing stonework and rough carpentry. When supplies ran low, Mary drove the wagon to the train station, Great Falls or Helena. Preferring to beat the heat, Mary often drove at night. One warm night, a pack of hungry wolves attacked her team. The terrified horses bolted, overturning the wagon and dumping its load. Mary, well armed as usual, held the wolves at bay until dawn, when she managed to get the wagon upright, re-hitched the team and completed her run. The nuns docked her wages for a spilled keg of molasses, but she managed to save the rest of the freight, valued at $30.

Short-tempered and physically powerful, Mary wore a pair of six-shooters and carried a shotgun. Drunken cowboys and other ruffians soon learned they couldn't trample on her. The Great Falls Examiner claimed she broke more noses in fistfights than anyone else in Central Montana.

A hired hand at the mission discovered she was earning $9 a month, while he only earned $7. He confronted her, calling her an uppity black woman with exaggerated pretensions of her worth. After making his way into town, he grumbled about the $2 slight in one of her favorite saloons before going on to lodge a complaint with Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger. The good Bishop ignored the man, but Mary didn't.

She caught him cleaning the latrine behind the nunnery, where she intended to bury him. She shot and missed. He shot back, and the gunfight was on, neither stopping until their six-guns were empty of bullets. Only one bullet actually hit its mark, after ricocheting off the stone wall of the nunnery and striking Mary's foe in the buttocks. But the Bishop's laundry, hanging on a nearby line, was riddled with bullets. Two of the slain white shirts had just arrived from Boston. The Bishop reconsidered his decision, gave the man a raise and fired Mary.

The nuns still believed in Mary, financing the cafe she opened, but it didn't last. Mary couldn't stand to turn away the hungry even when they were broke. She had to close the cafe because she was broke too. Ambitious and daring, she wasn't out of work long, hiring on to drive the United States Mail coach and soon garnering a reputation for timely delivery despite rugged terrain and grueling weather. Miners in remote cabins were confident that Mary and her mule, Moses, would appear on schedule despite withering heat or blinding blizzards. Mary's diligence directly aided the land claim process and the settlement of a considerable portion of central Montana.

Stagecoach Mary retired from the mail delivery business in her late sixties, but she still needed a source of income. At seventy, she opened a laundry service, although she spent as much time in the saloons, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars, as she did scrubbing dirty clothes.

One chap ordered extra starch in cuffs and collar but failed to pay his bill. Mary, seventy-two years old by then, was drinking with companions in her favorite saloon when she heard the fellow in the street. She stepped out, knocked him flat with one blow, then went back to her friends. Her satisfaction complete, she promptly forgave his bill. The man staggered after her, grateful that she'd knocked out a painful tooth.

Mary died in 1914 from liver failure. She was buried in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade. Neighbors marked the spot with a simple wooden cross.

Both Charley and Mary were known as tough women, but each exhibited a tender side too. Charley acted as midwife to women in childbirth, set broken bones, and never failed to donate money to needy causes. Mary adored children and supported the Cascade County baseball team as their number one fan until her death. Each left behind a legacy that enriches the legends of the old west.

******

"Charley Darkey" Parkhurst and "Stagecoach Mary" Fields had their female counterparts in road agents and sheriffs too. Loretta's winter column will feature notable outlaws such as Pearl Hart and other extraordinary women of the American frontier.


Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International, which publishes "Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women." Her sense of adventure began in childhood:

"Surrounded by the magical world of carnivals, circuses, rodeos, and movie stables, I took my childhood for granted, only learning how unique this atmosphere was after reaching adulthood. Mr. Ed lived across the street, Lassie two blocks away. Gene Autry was my first boss, at age eight, hiring me to ride as a double for Calamity Jane in The Buffalo Bill Jr. television series.

When your father's best friend, a ventriloquist, can make it seem like little people are stuck in a drain pipe; when Lassie barks a greeting as you pass each morning on your way to school; when the palomino which nuzzles your hair each afternoon is adored by millions, who wonder how he 'talks;' when your own best friend disappears behind clown's make-up, the power of magic is never doubted."

You can write to Ms. Kemsley at LKemsley@travelwriters.com or LKemsley@moondance.org

 

 

Falling Away |  Moving Toward the Sun ]
Reveling in Creation: Stagecoach Reinswomen on the American Frontier ]
A Search for Beauty |  Reflections on Samhuinn |  The Stone Path ]

 

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