These Stagecoach Drivers Were the Rock Stars of California in the 1800’s

Mark Twain tried, but no matter how good a storyteller you are, you just can’t make this stuff up. 

Historic Northern California was full of colorful figures; notorious outlaws, gold rush millionaires, gun-slinging lawmen and rugged mountain men. Should it surprise anyone that a few stagecoach drivers were also able to gallop their way into California history with some of the most harrowing reports of skill, courage and legendary toughness? As we shall see, the truth always makes a better story.

The best stagecoach drivers had to amass a very specific skill set. A few developed lofty reputations and were highly sought after. Not only were they expected to be expert at handling teams of horses and equipment, but also passengers and shipments of valuables like chests of silver and gold, as well as the U.S. mail. Needless to say, they were also expected to handle any ne’er-do-wells who might have designs on either the passengers or the valuables aboard their stagecoaches.

If you’re carrying an American Express card, you possess a connection to stagecoach history. The company was formed in 1850 when three express and stagecoach companies merged to form the well-known financial institution we know today. Wells Fargo is today one of the world’s largest banks, but it began in 1852 when they shipped loads of freight from the east coast to Northern California mining camps. In 1866 they merged with Pony Express and other stagecoach lines becoming the leading transportation company in the West.

What’s a Jehu (rhymes with ACHOO)?

Stagecoach drivers were sometimes called jehus (pronounced jee-hew). Jehu was the Biblical commander of chariots for King Ahab of Israel (II Kings 9:20) who, depending on the translation “drives furiously,” “drives like a maniac,” or “drives like a madman.” Other popular slang for stagecoach drivers includes “whips,” “reinsmen” or “Charlies” (after famous stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst).

Two Jehus in particular (stagecoach drivers) achieved a sort of “rock star” status in early NorCal, mainly for their steely nerves, skill in controlling near-crazed teams of horses, and courage in fending off multiple highway robbers. Hank Monk and Charley Parkhurst were a few of the best.

Hank Monk

Hank Monk

These days you get famous for “going viral” on the Internet. In bygone days being written about by Mark Twain was not a bad way to go either. In one of Twain’s earlier novels, “Roughing It,” stagecoach driver Hank Monk was referred to as “King of the Stage Drivers.” Monk could supposedly do the Carson City, NV to Placerville, CA run (109 miles) in less than ten hours. 

Twain uses real-live Hank Monk in a supposedly fictional tale about transporting Horace Greeley (editor, publisher and founder of the New York Tribune) to a speaking engagement in Placerville for which he was running late. 

“Hank Monk cracked his whip,” wrote Twain, “and started off at an awful pace.” The stagecoach bounced Greeley around so much, said Twain, that all the buttons were jolted off Greeley’s coat and his head smashed through the roof of the stage. Greeley then yelled for Monk to take it easy! Monk screamed back, “Keep your seat, Horace, and I’ll get you there on time!” And he (supposedly) did. Twain claimed the story was fictional, but true or not, the reputation clung to Hank Monk like a doberman pinscher for the rest of his days.

Not only was Monk well-known as a hard-driving stagecoach man, but he was just as famous for his ability to consume alcohol. In 1957 Edward B. Scott published “The Saga of Lake Tahoe” in which he alleged, “Monk drank so much hard spirits that he often forgot what he was doing, when it came to incidental tasks connected with staging, and fed whiskey to the horses and watered himself, thus becoming accidentally sober enough to handle the inebriated team.” Monk died in 1883 and is buried in Carson City, NV.

“One Eyed Charley”

“Charles” Parkhurst

Perhaps the most intriguing NorCal jehu of all, Charley Parkhurst was destined to make history not only during his active and adventurous lifetime, but even after. 

Parkhurst originally hailed from the East Coast, but came to Northern California in the 1860s. Soon after arriving he lost the use of one eye after being kicked in the head by a horse. The eye didn’t seem to slow down Parkhurst one little bit. Over time he famously drove the Sacramento to Placerville, Stockton to Mariposa, and Oakland to San Jose runs, to name a few. 

Parkhurst was described as a “stout, compact figure, sun browned skin and a beardless face with bluish gray eyes.” His notably raspy voice and eye patch must have made him seem more like a pirate than a stagecoach driver. Once Parkhurst gave up a strongbox he was carrying to an outlaw known as “Sugarfoot.” Some time later Sugarfoot decided to come back for seconds, but this time Parkhurst put him in the ground. 

Late in the 1860s One Eyed Charley retired from driving stages to open a stage station and saloon between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. After that he worked as a lumberjack, from which he retired again due to rheumatism and mouth cancer. He died in 1879 and is buried in the Pioneer Odd Fellows Cemetery in Watsonville. 

In between his death and burial old Charley was destined to make history again. After his death it was quickly discovered that One Eyed Charley was not a man at all, but a woman who masqueraded as a man most of her life. But it doesn’t even end there.

When he (she) was 55-years-old Parkhurst signed the Great Register, allowing him to vote in the 1868 presidential election. The October 17, 1868 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel listed Charles Parkhurst on the official poll list for having voted. 

The thing is, women did not win the right to vote in the United States of America until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. Charles Darkey Parkhurst (AKA One Eyed Charley, born Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst) is considered the first woman to vote in an American presidential election.    

We can forgive Mark Twain for having a casual relationship with the truth, but he nevertheless elevated Hank Monk to veritable stardom. Gender stereotypes and exceptions to the norm have obviously been part of California’s rich history for longer than you might think. Leave it to a California girl (One Eyed Charley) to find a way around antiquated attitudes toward women’s suffrage and equal rights. Maybe you also learned what is a jehu… (gesundheit!)

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

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