Swinging saloon doors. Boots clacking on a hardwood floor. Guns smoking after an intense duel. We often think of the Wild West this way – lawless, dangerous, and exciting. But what’s not so well reflected in pop films and literature is that the Wild West had a sizeable LGBT community, too. And surprisingly, many of these people lived out their lives more openly than their fellow Americans in the east.
You see, a scholar has dug up evidence that the Wild West set the scene for gender-non-conformists to live as themselves. And it wasn’t just a handful of people living this way, either – indeed, records have documented “hundreds.” Even more suprisingly, according to the historian, is that homosexuality amongst cowboys did little to offend anyone, either.
So, the common male persona that seems to represent the Wild West and all of its cowboys may be somewhat skewed. Instead, LGBT people of the era apparently lived their lives more freely than we previously could have imagined. And, while movies like Brokeback Mountain introduced us to a pair of lovelorn cowboys, that stems from recent times. Therefore, it’s now time to uncover the truth about the Wild West.
To start with, the American frontier opened up at the beginning of the 17th century as English colonizers headed west. And President Thomas Jefferson further encouraged such a migration with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Yes, buying a huge swath of land from the French for $15 million gave new confidence to U.S. citizens. By the 20th century, this area and places further west, however, became part of the United States.
But a particular stretch of country, during the expansion of the American frontier, earned a reputation of its own. From the 19th century to the early 1900s, it wasn’t just the west – it was the Wild West. Indeed, the media often exaggerated the lawlessness of the area at the time. For everything from gunfights to robberies to no-holds-barred romance have grown to represent it.
And even amongst all of these fantastical stories, a historian has discovered that some, truer ones, have been left out altogether. Now, Washington State University’s Peter Boag told website Atlas Obscura in 2019 that he had begun to research Portland’s gay history. But he ended up finding something else entirely.
Yes, for Boag stumbled upon real stories of people in the Wild West who chose to dress differently. And when we say differently, we mean the opposite of their own gender at birth. Furthermore, it wasn’t a one-off find for Boag, either. For he said he found hundreds of tales about the trans community during this time in American history.
Crucially, though, Boag said that such stories didn’t necessarily indicate that the Wild West was an LGBT-friendly place. Instead, with so much expansion – and little oversight from the law – people may have felt freer to be themselves. As the historian went on to explain, “They saw the west as a place where they could live and get jobs and carry on a life that they couldn’t have in the more congested east.”
Furthermore, the LGBT tales from the West may have helped those who hadn’t left the more settled areas of the country. As Boag explained, “My theory is that people who were transgender in the East could read these stories that gave a kind of validation to their lives.” And although society may not have understood what was fully going on, the press still published stories about LGBT folk.
Yes, for Boag found that newspapers back then actually had a penchant for publishing the tales of trans people. And it would tend to make sense because those dailies sold papers with sensational stories, very much like today. To add to that, newspapers even put forward explanations for LGBT behaviour, which appeared to be widely accepted.
You see, it’s no secret that the Wild West was a dangerous place to be. So, the papers said, women dressed as men to keep themselves safe. As Boag went on to explain to Atlas Obscura, there was some merit in this. “If people thought that you were a man, you wouldn’t be bothered or molested,” he said.
“There’s good evidence that some women dressed as men to get better employment,” Boag further explained to the website. Again, this would’ve helped because most women could only find work as housekeepers or cooks. But if they were men, they could bring home much better money for varied work assignments.
Nevertheless, this reasoning explained away the trans community in the west – when not everyone was simply prioritizing their health and safety. Furthermore, Boag suspected that this was why he had trouble finding stories of transgender women during the same era. For the behaviour of men dressing as women didn’t have the same practical explanation as that of women dressing as men.
What’s more, history also left behind the stories of cowboys who engaged in homosexual relationships. Indeed, so many tales present ranchers as overly flirtatious toward women. But this may not have always been the case – especially considering that cowboys were nearly always in the company of other men. In fact, Boag broached the topic with True West magazine in 2005.
Yes, on homosexuality in cowboys specifically, he went on to explain, “In all-men societies, it was not unusual for same sex relationships, and it was just an acceptable thing to do. People engaged in same sex activities weren’t seen as homosexuals.” Furthermore, it appeared that giving people labels back then just wasn’t the thing to do.
That’s right, because somewhat surprisingly perhaps, during the Wild West people just didn’t bother with labels for their sexual preferences. Boag went on, “It’s important to know the history of homosexuality. Society didn’t really designate people as homosexual or heterosexual through most of the 19th century; it was not really until the 20th century that those identities crystallized.”
So regardless of definition, it’s likely many LGBT people lived with a degree of freedom in the Wild West. Of course, they would never become as well-known as some of the notorious characters who have symbolized the era. But, fortunately, the stories of the most famous among them have endured.
And among the Wild West’s forgotten LGBT icons was a man called One-Eyed Charley. When the famous stagecoach driver came into the world, though, he had a different name – and identity – entirely. Yes, in 1812 he was born as Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, and his mother died the same year.
With that, the baby who would become One-Eyed Charley ended up in an orphanage, where he’d stay for a dozen years. But at 12, he fled the premises and ditched his female identity. Instead, he began to present as male, and he also switched his name from Charlotte to Charley.
Now, young Charley eventually crossed paths with Ebenezer Balch, who owned and operated a livery stable. And Balch decided to take the orphan under his wing – thinking, of course, that Charley was a boy. Then, he became Balch’s stable trainee, and he quickly showed his natural ability in caring for horses.
From there, Balch taught Charley a few more vital skills – namely, he showed him how to drive a coach. Firstly he drove with a single horse, then four, then a half-dozen steeds. You see, Charley had a knack for steering coaches to and from their destinations. But it would take the Gold Rush to point him in the right direction for his career.
Yes, Charley watched as his friends headed west in search of their own fortunes during the Gold Rush. And he eventually decided to follow their footsteps in his late 30s. Rather than leading a cross-country coach, though, he hopped on a boat from Boston to California via Panama. On his journey, he met John Morton, who owned a drayage business in the Golden State, and he gave Charley a job.
Being back with his beloved horses sadly didn’t turn into a great reunion for Charley. Instead, one kicked him in the face, which caused the 30-something to lose an eye. From there, a pair of nicknames were born – some referred to him as Cockeyed Charley, while others went with One-Eyed Charley.
But One-Eyed Charley’s condition did little to hold him back in his new stagecoaching role. Instead, he quickly earned a reputation for his quality driving – some referred to him as
“Six-Horse Charley” because of it. And his precise maneuvering was made even more impressive by the dangers that came with the task.
As a stagecoach driver, Charley chauffeured passengers and carried mail to and from the west’s prominent towns. On the way, though, carriages had to face a slew of threats, from stick-ups to treacherous terrain to rough weather. Fortunately for those living out west, a new form of transit would come along to make things simpler and safer.
Indeed, once railroad tracks started striping the landscape, Charley decided to retire from stagecoach driving. Instead, he labored on farms and transitioned to lumbering during the winter months. Eventually, he moved into his own cabin in Watsonville, where he died on December 18, 1879, after developing tongue cancer. But his death was just the beginning of his legacy.
Yes, for when the coroner examined Charley’s body, he discovered his lifelong secret. Yes, the famous driver was actually a woman. After that, the tale of One-Eyed Charley’s true sex became something of a press sensation in the area. And it continues to amaze modern historians, but not for the reason you might think.
Namely, he may have been the first woman to vote in a U.S. presidential election – without anyone actually knowing. For women, of course, didn’t receive the right to vote until 1920 in the United States. And this further claim to fame is inscribed in Charley’s gravestone in Watsonville, California in relation to the 1868 election. Who’d have thought it?
Next up, the life of Harry Allen has also fascinated people. For he, too, became a newspaper sensation at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, Allen made it easy for the dailies to write about his life. For you see, he committed a string of crimes, from bootlegging to vagrancy to theft.
And it wasn’t just Allen’s crimes that made headlines, though – he also refused to conform to his birth gender. For he was born a woman, and named Nell Pickerell in 1882. But Allen wouldn’t dress like a female, nor would he act in the way that society expected of him.
So, the papers covered Allen intensely, knowing that his way of life would intrigue readers. To make matters worse, journalists would refer to him by his given name and feminine pronouns. Now, he would fight back against such descriptions of himself – which today is referred to as “misgendering.” On that note, let’s find out about another icon.
Well, Joseph Lobdell dealt with many of the same issues as both Allen and One-Eyed Charley. For he, too, was born a female, however he continued presenting as a woman into adulthood and marriage to a man. In fact, he gave birth to a daughter, named Helen, during that period. Furthermore, Lobdell had a great shot and became known as “the female hunter of Delaware County.” When his abusive husband left him, though, things started to change for Lobdell.
Namely, he opened a singing school, as he was a talented fiddle player himself. While working there, and presenting as a man, he met a young woman to whom he became engaged. But a rival beau found out about Lobdell’s real gender and threatened to expose the secret, so the music teacher fled.
However, things began to turn around again for Lobdell in 1860 when he met another woman named Marie Louise Perry. This time, nothing would come between their relationship, and the pair exchanged wedding vows in 1861. Oddly enough, they went on to live in the woods, even raising a pet bear.
Yes, Lobdell and Perry spent several years living off of the land. And they hunted and gathered, and got the rest from the charity of others. Eventually, though, the pair got in trouble with the law for their vagrancy. Crucially, once he got to jail, officials realized that Lobdell was not actually a man, even if he presented as one.
Heartbreakingly, Lobdell eventually landed in Ovid, New York’s Willard Insane Asylum. There, doctors pondered his unique case, in which he declared himself a man in every way in spite of his physicality. And he, of course, died long before medical professionals evolved to understand his life as a transgender man.
Not all members of the Wild West’s transgender population transitioned from female to male, though. For instance, Alice Baker was born male, but lived as a woman and worked as a teacher in Harrah, Oklahoma. When someone found out about her sex and reported her, she skipped town but continued living as a woman.
In fact, Baker regularly changed her location and name so she could maintain her lifestyle. Eventually, she and her husband left the U.S. altogether for Japan, where they swapped counterfeit bills for gold. And astonishingly, that’s the last known record of her existence. As Boag put it to Atlas Obscura, Baker “really struggled and succeeded despite all the setbacks that came with being herself.”
And while the stories of Baker, Lobdell, Allen and One-Eyed Charley became public knowledge, other LGBT folk lived quieter lives. Indeed, they never made the newspapers for their lifestyles. And the public only found out about their birth gender when they died or suffered from diseases.
As we’ve heard, such discoveries did sometimes become sensational news during the Wild West era, too. But Boag explained why so many other LGBT pioneers have not made it onto the record. He told Atlas Obscura, “As the frontier closed and the Wild West disappeared, these people who found a life there, found validation there, also disappeared from our history.” Fortunately, though, they’ve started to make their way back into the public consciousness. And perhaps that will inspire people today to be as true to themselves as these alternative, Wild West heroes.