Charley Parkhurst

First American Woman to Vote – perhaps!

By Jeanne Robinson

“Charley, get back here!” Mrs. Mabel yelled at the girl calmly walking towards the main road.  “Oh, shucks!” Charley exclaimed to herself when she realized she had been seen.  She was attempting to run away from the Massachusetts State Orphanage, for the fifth time.  She was only 12 years old in the year 1824.

Later that night, Charley was discussing her latest attempt with the other girls in the orphanage.  Harriet suggested a new plan:   “Why don’t you dress like that boy who delivers the messages from town, Charley,” Harriet explained.  “Then, when the boy comes here next Tuesday, like always, you just walk away with him when he leaves.  Mrs. Mabel won’t be looking for a boy and you might get away.” 

“Not a bad idea, Harriet,” replied Charley thoughtfully.

Charley did just as Harriet had suggested.  She dressed as a boy and made her escape from the orphanage.  Charley walked all the way to Worcester, Massachusetts where she got a job at the livery stable owned by Ebenezer Balch.  Still dressed as a boy, Charley started learning how to handle horses.   She got so good, that customers would ask specifically for Charley to drive them when they hired a wagon.

“Charley, here’s another letter from James and Frank out in California,” Mr. Balch said one day as he handed Charley a worn envelope.

Charley tore open the letter and read for a moment.  “They really did start that stagecoach business,” Charley reported.  “And, they want ME to come out there and drive for them.”

Charley did just that, becoming a “whip” for the California Stage Lines in 1851.  A “whip” is a stagecoach driver.  At first, Charley drove the route from Placerville to Sacramento; later she worked in San Mateo and Santa Cruz.  Once again, people exclaimed about her bravery and skill with the horses.  All during this time, Charley continued to wear men’s clothing.  She covered her hands with leather gloves and wore big shirts with pleats all down the front, to camouflage her figure.

“I can shoe that horse!” exclaimed Charley, grabbing the hammer and nail from James.  “Seeing how you can’t,” she added.  Charley sat down on the stool vacated by James and reached down for the horse’s hind foot.  Besides driving the coaches, Charley also had learned how to take care of the horses.  But this one turned out to be tougher than expected.  The horse started wiggling and snorting when Charley started putting on the horseshoe.  “Settle down, now,” Charley said.  All of a sudden, Whap!! The horse kicked Charley in the face. After that, Charley wore a black patch over one eye.  Some people called her “One-eyed Charley.”  

By the 1860’s, Charley had stopped driving stagecoaches and had bought a stage stop on the Santa Cruz route.  It was in 1868 that Charley got caught up in the presidential election just like everyone else in town.  “Who are you votin’ for, Charley?” yelled out old Mr. Couger, as Charley walked up the steps of the county courthouse.  “Never you mind,” replied Charley, and she breezed past him into the building to cast her vote.  “Sign your name here,” pointed out Mr. White, the county sheriff who was in charge of the voting.  Very carefully, Charley wrote “Charley Parkhurst.”  The sheriff handed her a ballot and she dutifully filled it out.  “Now come on and tell us who you voted for, Charley,” exclaimed the other men waiting on the courthouse steps when Charley came out.  “I can’t really say,” Charley said, “although that there Mr. Grant seems right proper a man for President of the United States.” 

It wasn’t until eleven years later, when Charley Parkhurst died, that people realized the significance of that day at the courthouse in 1868.  Back in those times, women were not allowed the vote.  Not until 1921 was the United States constitution changed to state that women could vote.  And, it wasn’t until Charley Parkhurst died, that people discovered that she was really Charlene Parkhurst.  So, when Charley Parkhurst, disguised as a man, cast her vote in 1868, some people believe she was the very first woman to vote in the United States.