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Wild Women Wednesday: Charley Hatfield

Charley Hatfield sought revenge for a number of tragic events in her life. She embodies the wild women of the Old West.

May 04, 2016

According to the February 8, 1885, edition of the Colorado Transcript, when Charley Hatfield was born in 1837, her mother gave her the name of Charlotte.  Her friends and family called her Charley.  The circumstances surrounding the infant’s birth 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.  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 born.  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 believing that her parents had died and that her mother was her aunt.  At the age of twelve, Charley left the boarding school where her uncle had sent her and married a riverboat pilot.  The couple had two children, a boy and girl.  Three months after the birth of her daughter, news came that her husband had been killed.  “It was 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.  “It was my only resort from starvation or worse,” she later wrote in her autobiography.  She placed her children in the care of the Sisters of Charity and set about to make a new life for herself, vowing all along to find Jamieson and kill him for depriving her son and daughter of their parents.

Charley was convincing as a man.  She cut her hair to the proper length and donned a suit.  She found a job as a cabin boy on a steamer and rose through the ranks to eventually become a pantry man.

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 in St. Louis, 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 headed for California–the only woman in a party of sixty men.  Charley recorded her overland route with 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.

Charley settled in a mining camp in the Sierras where she panned for gold.  All attempts at finding the Mother Lode were a bust so 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 1859, Charley relocated to Colorado and began panning for gold around Pikes Peak.  Again, she had no luck in finding the glittery substance and decided to abandon prospecting in favor of opening a bakery and 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 General Samuel R. Curtis’ regiment at Keokuk, Iowa, and because of her good penmanship 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.”

Charley was wounded at the Battle of Westport.  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.

Charley continued with her life dressed in male attire.  She never failed to provide for her children and 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 the man for a second time. Charley and Jamieson rode toward 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 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 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 explained 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 gender.  Charley sought refuge from her newfound popularity back 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.  Some historians believe there were more than one “Charley Hatfield” and that the stories of their lives have intertwined over the years to become one.  Still others insist that there was only one person by that name–a daring woman unafraid to fight for liberty, for herself, and for the nation.  Historical records show that she eventually moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, and lived out her days surrounded by her loving family.

Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.

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