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Wild Women Of The West: Charley Hatfield

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Of The West: Charley Hatfield "The secret the fearless prospector had to share was that he was a she..."

Charley Hatfield Wild Women of the West Cowgirl Magazine

Charley Hatfield shook a massive wooden rocker resting in a creek bed several yards from the base of Pikes Peak in Colorado. He sloshed it from side to side in the clear mountain water, and pieces of gravel sifted through the crude screen on the device. Charley’s rough hands carefully inspected the yellow rocks that remained in the miner’s pan. Gold nuggets gleamed up at the miner and he smiled. Other prospectors in close proximity of the find, shot angry, envious looks at his discovery. He cast a wary glance around, pocketed the gold and returned to his work.

The need to keep a watchful eye out for greedy competitors who might jump his claim was great. Charley glanced over at his primitive camp and gear and spotted a double-barreled shotgun. Should anything go wrong he was ready to handle the situation. The two revolvers in his belt and the sheath knife in his boot-leg offered him an added sense of security against predators of any kind.

Fellow prospector George West watched the potentially volatile scene from his own claim downstream from Charley’s. The tall, handsome man ran his rope-calloused hands through his brick-red hair as he surveyed Charley’s camp and belongings. Once he was sure the greedy eyes of the competing miners around had turned away from his friend’s claim he returned to his own work. Charley was one of his best friends and would help defend him if any trouble arose, he had done so on a couple of similar occasions.

George surrendered a pan of worthless rock back to the creek and removed a half-smoked cigarette from his pocket. Searching his clothes for a match to light his smoke he came across a hand-written note scrawled across a scrap of paper, tucked into his shirt. He scanned the faces of the miners around him wondering who would have given him the note and when they did it. There wasn’t anyone he considered a likely candidate.

He watched Charley step out of the stream and load a sack of gold nuggets into a saddlebag draped over a tree branch. He nodded approvingly to George. George nodded back, unfolded the note and began to read. The handwriting was neat and every line was evenly spaced. “Friend George, I cannot wait to thank you for your unselfish kindness to me, and that of your pards. I must be in Gregory Gulch by ten o’clock today or perhaps lose the opportunity of my strange life in these mountains.

“I cannot wait to catch my mule, but will walk to Tucker’s Gulch and get a pony from John Scott for the trip. Will you please have her stabled for me by Saturday when I will be down, and can then, perhaps fulfill my promise to you of giving something of my history. Be sure you are the only man, woman, or child west of the Missouri river that will ever have it from my lips. I am dreadfully tired, but I must go to Gregory this morning. Goodbye until Saturday. Charley.”

George looked up from the note hoping to see Charley before he had left the area, but the miner had already disappeared into the thick spruce trees that lined the site. George studied the note again then placed it back into his pocket. Curiosity about Charley’s history left him too preoccupied to continue panning.

Within a week after receiving Charley’s note, George met up with the mysterious miner at a ranch near Golden, Colorado. The secret the fearless prospector had to share was that he was a she. For fifteen years Charley had masqueraded as a man. What began as the means for a thirteen-year-old orphan girl to secure employment in 1850, grew to include a way for her to serve her country as a soldier, work as a miner, and seek revenge against the desperado who had murdered her husband.

Charley would not agree to tell George her story until he promised to keep it a secret for twenty-five years. She had built a life around the male disguise and divulging the information would affect her livelihood. George, who was the publisher of the Colorado Transcript newspaper as well as a part-time miner, pledged that Charley’s true identity would be safe with him forever if she chose. “My name is Charlotte,” she told George. “My friends call me Charley.” The circumstances surrounding Charley’s birth in 1837 were just as controversial as the life she would later lead.

Charlotte was the product of an affair between two lovesick people who had pledged themselves to one another for an eternity. They were eager to marry, but their nuptials were postponed by a death in the family. Charlotte’s father left his betrothed in Louisiana, where they lived, to settle the estate he had inherited in Kentucky. For a while the pair continued their romance through the mail. But when the letters stopped coming, Charlotte’s mother assumed the young man had had a change of heart, and she married another. When her fiancé eventually returned and learned that his beloved had wed, he was heartbroken. After a brief encounter, the two separated. He left her to her husband and returned to France where he was borne. He never knew he had a daughter.

Ashamed and financially unable to care for her child, Charlotte’s mother sent her to live with her uncle in New Orleans. Charlotte was raised to believe that her parents had died and that her mother was her aunt. It wasn’t until Charlotte was fifteen that she learned the truth. Looking back over her childhood, she remembered how her aunt’s eyes would fill up with tears and her voice would choke back sobs when they were together. She later recalled, “My remembrance of the place and its people are misty – all about it seems more like something I once saw in a dream, but whose characters time has effaced.”

At the age of twelve, Charley left the boarding school where her uncle had sent her and married a riverboat pilot. She wrote that he was a “noble fellow and well repaid the sacrifice made for him.” When her uncle heard about the elopement, he disowned her. She was so much in love with her husband that she dismissed her uncle’s reaction outright, “I did not regret getting married…I was happy beyond my most sanguine expectations,” she would later recall.

By the couple’s third year of marriage, they had two children, a boy and a girl. Charlotte was elated with her life. “I believe that now the circle of my enjoyment is complete. My husband, though much absent, was remitting in his love – I had two bright, healthy children, what more could a woman ask?”

Charley wouldn’t know happiness for long. Three months after the birth of her daughter, news came that her husband had been killed. “A man named Jamieson…,” the messenger reluctantly began. “They argued over an old grudge and then Jamieson shot your husband.” Charley went through the next month of her life in a fog, devastated by her loss. After paying for her husband’s burial and settling his outstanding accounts, she had very little money left to support her children. Being a woman and untrained for any profession, she found acquiring reputable work impossible. She decided to disguise herself as a man to gain employment and set about to make a new life for herself.

Charley was convincing as a man. She cut her hair to the proper length and donned a suit. Her appearance did not differ materially from that of any boy of fifteen or sixteen. She found a job as a cabin boy on a steamer and rose through the ranks to eventually become a pantry man.

Once a month she would change back into her dresses and petticoats and visit her children. Her absence from them was tortuous, she later recalled in her autobiography,

“My children would haunt my dreams and play about me in my waking hours, the separation seemed intolerable, and for the first month an eternity.”

Charley’s work would take her up and down the rivers of the Midwest. She kept a keen eye out for Jamieson at every port. Her first confrontation with Jamieson, outside Schell’s Saloon, had left her with a broken thigh. It would take six months for her to heal. Once she was up and around, she decided to head for the “Land of Gold.”

In the spring of 1855, she joined a wagon train as a bushwhacker and took off for California, the only woman in a party of sixty men. Charley recorded her overland route in great detail. Her diary included such trail markers as Court House, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Mormon Ferry, and Independence Rock. Her journal would later be used to guide several wagon trains bound for California and Oregon.

The way west was full of every kind of danger and privation. Charley lost 110 head of cattle upon reaching the alkaline waters around Salt Lake. Despite her best efforts, the thirsty animals couldn’t be stopped from drinking the deadly water. Once the tired and weary wagon train, along with the remaining livestock, made it to the Humboldt River, they were attacked by a band of Shoshone Indians. Charley managed to shoot one Native and stab another before being severely wounded in the arm.

With her arm in a sling, Charley led her battered wagon train to California. On October 29, 1855, the party reached Sacramento Valley, and those who had come west in search of gold purchased provisions to start mining. Charley was among the new prospectors to the area. “We invested in the essentials,” Charley recalled in her journal. “Flour was fifty cents a pound, beef twenty-five cents, bacon fifty cents, pickles twenty-five cents, each and everything in proportion. Board, the poorest and the cheapest, was three dollars a day.”

Charley worked a small claim near the Feather River. Her first attempts to find gold was a disappointment. According to her journal entry, an onslaught of rain made the work nearly impossible. “I did not find my strength sufficient for the business.”

Charley eventually abandoned her quest for gold in the California foothills and traveled to Sacramento. There she sought other business opportunities:  owning and operating a saloon, running a pack mule service, and buying into a cattle ranch. The cattle ranch was the most successful venture, turning a $30,000 profit in a short time.

In the spring of 1859, Charley relocated to Colorado and began panning for gold around Pikes Peak. After three months wading through the icy waters of the South Platte, she collected two handfuls of nuggets. The outcome was substantially less than she had anticipated and again she left the gold field. She used her findings to open a bakery and a saloon. She made money rapidly, but a bout of mountain fever forced her to give up the business and move to Denver. While she was there she became preoccupied with the news of civil war breaking out. She felt compelled to join the fight against slavery and was sure her disguise would afford her the opportunity to do so.

In September 1862 she enlisted and served with both the Second Colorado Cavalry and the First Colorado Battery. She was assigned to Gen. Samuel R. Curtis’s regiment at Keokuk, Iowa, and because of her good penmanship she was detailed to headquarters as a clerk. When the battle of Westport in Missouri broke out, Charley acted as a courier, carrying orders and messages all over the command area. Often she had to travel to the front. Her commanders praised her for her “coolness and bravery.”   

The first day of the conflict left the Union Army with a number of casualties. General Curtis shared with Charley his desire to ascertain the enemy’s battle plans for advancement. Upon hearing this, Charley conceived a way to get into the Rebels’ camp and find out their next move. She borrowed a dress, sunbonnet, and other female fixings from one of the laundry women and transformed herself back into the lady she once was. Armed with a basket of eggs, she snuck across enemy lines and into the Southerners’ camp.   

Her modest, unassuming Missouri country girl act worked well. She was able to gain access to Confederate General Shelby’s staff and found out that the Rebels had a fix on the Union Army’s cannon company. While eavesdropping on several other conversations around the campsite, Charley learned everything the Rebels knew about the Yankees’ positions. Just as she was about to be escorted out of the area, a courier rode up fast and presented a dispatch to the general. Shelby read the message then jumped to his feet and began barking orders to the troops around him. “Boys,” he shouted, “I want the pickets along the river doubled! Be quick and quiet! I want twenty of our best men in their saddles quick as lighting.”

The soldiers around the camp leapt into action. There was so much activity that no one took notice of Charley as she snuck off into the woods. She watched the disposition of the troops from behind a tree. As the general mounted his horse, he dropped the dispatch on the ground. Charley waited for the camp to clear and then grabbed the message and disappeared into the timber.

Charley made her way down the river, through the dense forest, and back to her regiment without notice. She presented General Curtis with the dispatch and he immediately moved his men into position. The message revealed a surprise attack the Rebel Army was planning to make on Curtis’s company. Curtis had enough time to realign his troops just before they were fired upon. Charley was recognized for “bravery displayed in the execution of her perilous trust.” She accepted the praise modestly, and with many expressions of thanks to the general for his confidence in her “patriotism and worth to the service.” The fighting along the Missouri River was far from over, however.       

The Battle of Westport resulted in heavy losses for both sides. Charley was among the injured; Confederate soldiers found her on the ground alongside her dead horse. She had a gunshot wound in her leg and a saber cut in her shoulder. She was taken prisoner by the Rebels and removed to a nearby hospital.

Army doctor Jesse Terry removed the coat from Charley’s unconscious form. While inspecting the cut on her shoulder he made the startling discovery that Charley was a woman. He decided to keep the news to himself. He dressed her wound and replaced her jacket, never saying a word to anyone. When Charley regained consciousness she anxiously sought out the doctor who had nursed her back to health.

Terry could tell she was concerned about what he discovered about her and he quickly put her mind at ease. “Your secret is safe with me until you are able to tell me your story,” he told her. “There is not time now and this is no place to hear it.”

During an exchange of wounded prisoners Charley was freed and transported back to her regiment. While she was recuperating she learned that General Curtis had recommended her for a promotion. She was soon upgraded to First Lieutenant and served out the rest of the war with her unit. Doctor Terry kept his word and never told anyone of Charley’s true identity.

Charley continued with her life dressed in male attire, and she never failed to provide for her children.

She never fully abandoned her search for Jamieson. It was while she was on an excursion three miles from Denver City that she came in contact with him again. Charley and Jamieson rode towards one another on a narrow road through a mountain pass. He was riding a mule and from a distance Charley thought there was something familiar about his countenance. As they neared each other she began to realize that it was Jamieson. At roughly the same time he recognized her too. He went for his revolver, but Charley was a second too quick for him.

Charley sent a bullet Jamieson’s way and he tumbled off his mule. A bullet from his gun whistled past Charley’s head, just missing her. She leveled her revolver at him as he tried to pull himself to his feet. Two more rounds sailed into his body, and he fell down again. He wasn’t dead, but Charley was determined to change that. Just as she removed a second revolver from her holster, two hunters came upon the dispute. The hunters stopped the gunplay, constructed crude irons, and hauled Jamieson off to Denver. Charley followed along behind them, cursing the murderer of her husband the whole way.

Jamieson was taken to a boardinghouse and examined by a physician. Three bullets were removed from his body, but none of the wounds were proved fatal. Within a few weeks he was back on his feet and telling anyone who would listen the whole story of Charley’s past life. He told the story of why she was after him and absolved her of blame. He left town and headed for New Orleans.

When word of Charley’s true identity made the papers, she became famous. Her efforts during the Civil War were now made all the more astounding in light of the truth of her sex. Charley sought refuge from her new found popularity in the mountains around Denver. There she married a bartender by the name of H. L. Guerin. The two ran a saloon and a boardinghouse before selling both businesses and mining for gold. The couple had two children together. Charley penned her autobiography in 1861, and subsequent details about her life were published in the Colorado Transcript newspaper twenty-four years later by a reporter who claimed to have known Charley and served with her in the cavalry.  

Some historians believe there were more than one “Charley Hatfield” and that the story of their lives has intertwined over the years to become one. Still others insist that there was only one person by that name, a daring woman unafraid to venture into areas women seldom entered. Historical records show that she eventually moved to St. Joseph, Missouri and lived out her days surrounded by her loving family.

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Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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