History records that since the time of Joan of Arc, women have been disguising themselves as men. These women were not transvestites, nor did they cross-dress out of some demented reasoning to pull ‘the wool’ over men’s eyes.
In an era where women had no rights to own property, no rights to protect themselves from sexual harassment, to escape rape, and with very little job opportunities to support themselves or their families, it is no wonder that these brave women chose to give up their lives as females.
These women quickly learned to cuss, chew, drink, fight, and often became deadly shots with weapon of choice. To them, it was a simple matter of two choices: survival or death.
One-Eyed Charlie was a stagecoach driver, a job that commanded considerable respect back in 19th century Oregon. Hostile Indians, ruthless highwaymen, and inclement weather plagued these frontier thoroughfares. Even without such hazards, bouncing along for days on end on a buckboard seat, minus shock absorbers and air conditioning required considerable fortitude. Of all the drivers on the Oregon-to-California line, One-Eyed Charlie was the driver of choice whenever Wells Fargo needed to send a valuable cargo. Despite a salty vocabulary, and opinionated demeanor, and a rough appearance, all of which might have rankled some passengers, no one was better at handling the horses or dealing with adversity.
When the stage would roll into Portland or Sacramento, Charlie would collect a paycheck and disappear for a few days. It was said Charlie was a heavy drinker and gambler. However, when it came time to make the next trip, Charlie was back at the helm, sober and cantankerous as ever. At Charlie’s death, the coroner made a startling discovery while preparing the body for burial. One-Eyed Charlie was really Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst (1810-1879) (Oregon Handbook, Moon Publications, 1998, p. 396). Orphaned at birth, Parkhurst first donned male clothing to escape an orphanage in Massachusetts. She learned how to drive a six-horse team and began driving stagecoaches. She is reputed to have killed at least one bandit. She died at the age of 67.
Records show that Sarah Edmonds Seelye was Canadian by birth. She assumed the alias of Franklin Thompson and enlisted as a private in the Second Michigan Infantry in Detroit on May 25, 1861. Her duties while in the Union Army included assisting the regiment’s doctor before becoming a mail and dispatch carrier. Her regiment participated in the Peninsula campaign and battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Antietam. On April 19, 1863, Edmonds deserted because she acquired malaria, and feared that hospitalization would reveal her gender. In 1867 she married L. H. Seelye, a Canadian mechanic. They raised three children. In 1886 she received a letter from the secretary of war that acknowledged her as “a female soldier who…served as a private…rendering faithful service in the ranks.” Sarah Edmonds Seelye died September 5, 1989, in Texas.
Cathay Williams’ story is as unique as they come. She was born a slave near Independence, Missouri in 1842. Her father was free, but her mother was a slave. Cathay served as a house girl for a wealthy planter until his death. Shortly, thereafter, the Civil War began, and she was liberated by the 13th Union Army Corps. With no home, a freedom that she didn’t know how to cope with, and no way to make a living, Cathay disguised herself as a man and changed her name to William Cathay. She told the recruiting officer that she was a 24-year-old cook. The recruiter described her as 5’9” tall, with black eyes, black hair, and black complexion. Fortunately, no medical examination was required.
Cathay was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, and she learned to perform all the soldierly duties. She could shoot, march, and stand guard with the best of them. Orders were soon given to transfer the new recruits to the west, where they would join the army’s fight against the Indians. They were sent to protect pioneers traveling through one of the most dangerous routes to California, called Cooke’s Canyon.
After two years of service, she was honorably discharged at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, in October 1868, after making her place in history as the first-and only-female Buffalo Soldier. Some say she revealed her gender before she was discharged. Others say no one knew she was a woman until 1891, when she applied to the army for a pension, at the age of 49. Her application was denied. I can only assume that it was refused because women weren’t allowed to serve in the army—and wouldn’t be allowed to until 1948.
I am in awe of these women who pushed the boundaries of the place society had made for them, who created a path where footsteps had never trod, who found the courage to go where no woman had gone before.
We owe them everything!
P.S. Unfortunately there were technical difficulties uploading photographs of these women. I was unable to locate a photograph of Cathay Williams, however, the others can viewed simply by googling them.