The tiny little town of Freedom lies damn near in the center of California. It’s snuggled up next to Watsonville, is part of Santa Cruz County and has a population of 3,070, a number that represents a decline by almost half of what it was in the year 2000.
The city was originally called Whiskey Hill, but in an effort to clean up their act, residents decided to rename their little burg in 1877 with the hopes that a few model citizens would settle in and bring a bit of respectability with them, so it’s understandable that the community has its fair share of colorful history and interesting legends. A friend told me about one of the community’s more notable characters, one Charlie D. Parkhurst, so we stopped by the little cemetery in town to check out the marker that was erected for Charlie in 1955. Originally he had been interred with just a name marker after his death in 1879.
Though there’s very little that’s actually certain about this larger-than-life figure from the Victorian era, there’s no shortage of speculation to accompany the details that are known as facts. Born in New Hampshire, or maybe Vermont, in 1811 or 1812, Charlie started out life as Charlotte, or Charlene, or maybe Mary, depending on which account you read. After escaping in boy’s clothes from the orphanage where she was raised, she embarked upon the life of a livery boy. Hired by a man who owned a stable, Charlie was known to sleep in the barn with the horses and declared his goal to learn all there was to know about driving teams. By the time he was in his 60’s, Charlie had earned the respect of all who knew him as a skilled driver of six-horse teams, a deft coachman, lumberjack, rancher and a good friend to those he took into his confidence. He was known to have shot and killed at least one stage robber while protecting both the cargo he transported, which was often times gold and silver, as well as the passengers who trusted their lives to his keeping. Legendary tales were told of his ability to slice a cigar from a man’s lips with a whip and his remarkable marksmanship with the six-guns kept in the waistband under his buffalo robe as he drove was never doubted. Until 1855 he drove the California Stage Lines along stretches of dusty rutted roads and over dangerous cliff passes such as Mount Madonna, the Santa Cruz Mountains, through the mother lode of the high Sierras and up into Virginia City. Having lost an eye to the kick of a horse, Charlie wore a black patch and was thereafter called “One-eyed Charlie,” though certainly not to his face, as he was known to throw a punch if you set him off. The slight, 5’7” tall driver with the big arms and small hands was famously fond of cigars, playing cards and drinking.
His acts of kindness as well as bravery were legendary in his own time, but no one was wise to his true sex until after his passing. Having contracted cancer (rheumatism and cancer of the tongue being listed as the official cause of death), he chose to forego the surgery the doctor offered and lived out his last days at his ranch located very near the eccentric’s final resting spot. On the day I visited the monument that lies in the shade of a huge cypress on the crest of the hill that parallels busy Freedom Boulevard, which runs the length of the town of Freedom and overlooks the tree-covered canyon below, I watched the fog roll in from the sea and thought it a perfect place for one who spent their life doing exactly what they wanted to do, with no apologies or exceptions. She earned her right to control her own life in a time when women were considered the weaker sex and viewed largely as property. On October 17, 1868 Charles Darkey Parkhurst was listed on the official polls to vote in the presidential election of 1868, a privilege she would not have been granted had she listed her name as Charlotte.
While all these notable feats certainly deserve respect, it struck me how lonely she must have been as I tried to consider what it would have been like to not be able to act on any feelings of love or intimacy. Friends who came to prepare her body for burial were shocked to discover that she was decidedly not a man and many felt betrayed by her secret. I was to learn later that, upon her death, the doctor determined that at one point she had given birth to a child. Maybe she did know love at some point after all, but decided to trade it in for the freedom of living on her own terms.