These Forgotten LGBTQ+ Icons From The Wild West Cast New Light On The Era

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 LGBTQ+ community, too. And surprisingly, many of these people lived out their lives more openly than their fellow Americans in the east. From One-Eyed Charley to Harry Allen and Alice Baker, the hidden histories of these icons cast a whole new light on the era.

The LGBTQ+ frontier

So why are we re-hashing an era that's already so widely documented? Well, a scholar has dug up evidence that proves the Wild West wasn't actually quite the way most people think of it — at least in terms of people and their sexual preferences, that is. In fact, the American frontier set the scene for gender-non-conformists to live as themselves. And it wasn’t just a handful of people living this way, either — records document “hundreds.” Even more surprisingly, the historian doing the digging claims that homosexuality amongst cowboys did little to offend anyone, either.

The records were skewed

It seems that the common persona of male cowboys as a rough-and-ready ragtag bunch that has come to represent the Old West may be somewhat skewed. Instead, LGBTQ+ 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 story stems from recent times. So, it’s time to uncover the truth about the real Wild West.

The American frontier

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. 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 the country earned a reputation all of its own.

Word started to spread

From the 19th century to the early 1900s, it wasn’t just the west — it was the Wild West. With the media often exaggerating the antics of the area at the time with accounts ranging from gunfights and robberies to no-holds-barred romance, it's little wonder we think of the American frontier as a land of lawlessness. And even amongst all of these fantastical stories, a historian has discovered that some, truer ones, have been left out altogether.

Hundreds of hidden histories

Washington State University’s Peter Boag told Atlas Obscura in 2019 that he had begun to research Portland’s gay history. But what he found, ended up being something else entirely. Boag stumbled upon real stories of people in the Wild West who chose to dress differently. And when we say differently, we mean not in line with the norms associated with their gender at birth. It wasn’t a one-off find for Boag, either — he said he found hundreds of tales about the trans community during this time in American history.

Lawless and free

Crucially, though, Boag said that such stories didn’t necessarily indicate that the Wild West was an LGBTQ+-friendly place. Instead, with so much expansion — and little oversight from the law — people may simply 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.”

Tales from the West

What's more, LGBTQ+ 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.” Although society may not have understood what was fully going on, the press still published stories about LGBTQ+ folk. And people were eager to read...

Making headlines

Boag found that newspapers back then actually had a penchant for publishing the tales of trans people. And though this might not fit with many people's understanding of societal norms of the period, it makes sense when you consider the fact that those dailies sold papers filled with sensational stories, just like today. Newspapers even put forward explanations for LGBTQ+ behavior, which appeared to be widely accepted.

An ingenious disguise

It’s no secret that the Wild West was a dangerous place to be, but according to the papers, women had an ingenious way of keeping themselves safe. It's said that they would dress as men to keep out of harm's way when on the road. 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. That wasn't the only reason women donned men's garments, though.

In it for the money

“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. So what about the men then?

The men were missing

This logical reasoning explained away the trans community in the west — when not everyone was simply prioritizing themselves. Boag also suspected that this was why he had trouble finding stories of transgender women during the same era. The behavior of men dressing as women couldn't be made sense with a practical explanation that pointed at safety or money as the root cause of their choice of clothes.

Who were they flirting with?

History also left behind the stories of cowboys who engaged in homosexual relationships. There are countless tales of ranchers who were 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. And it was this topic in particular that Boag broached with True West magazine in 2005.

Life without labels

Speaking about 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.” And actually, it appeared that giving people labels back then just wasn’t the thing to do.

Free love

Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, during the Wild West, people didn’t bother with labels for their sexual preferences at all. 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.”

Notorious characters live on

So regardless of definition, it’s likely many LGBTQ+ 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 stood the test of time.

Meet One-Eyed Charley

Among the Wild West’s forgotten LGBTQ+ 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 tragically, his mother died that very same year.

From Charlotte to Charley

With that, the baby who would later become One-Eyed Charley ended up in an orphanage, where he’d stay for a dozen years. But at the age of 12, he fled the premises and shed his female identity. Instead, he began to outwardly present as male, and with it he also switched his name from Charlotte to Charley.

One big secret

Eventually, young Charley crossed paths with Ebenezer Balch, who owned and operated a livery stable. After their fateful meeting, Balch decided to take the orphan under his wing — thinking, of course, that Charley was a boy. Before long, Charley became Balch’s stable trainee, and he quickly showed his natural ability in caring for horses.

Learning the ropes

From there, Balch taught Charley a few more vital skills — namely, he showed him how to drive a coach. He started out driving with a single horse, then four, then up to as many as a half-dozen steeds. Charley, it seemed, had a knack for steering coaches to and from their destinations. But it would take the Gold Rush to point him in the direction of his destiny.

The call of the Gold Rush

Charley watched as his friends headed west in search of their own fortunes during the Gold Rush. And he eventually decided to follow in 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 in a turn of luck, he gave Charley a job.

A nickname was born

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 still, his secret held firm.

Earning a reputation

Luckily, One-Eyed Charley’s condition — and hidden identity — did little to hold him back in his new stagecoaching role. Instead, he quickly earned a reputation for his quality driving. Some even began referring 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.

A perilous journey

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 worsened by rough weather. Fortunately for those living out west, a new form of transit would come along to make things simpler and safer.

Only the beginning

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.

The secret is up

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. Despite a lack of records, he may have been the first woman to vote in a U.S. presidential election — without anyone actually knowing! One-Eyed Charley wasn't the only pioneer to make it into the history books, however.

Meet Harry Allen

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. And unlike Charley who lived his life in relative peace, Allen made it easy for the dailies to write about his life. What papers wouldn't want to fill their pages with the a string of crimes he committed? From bootlegging to vagrancy and theft, Allen's life was a hotbed for gossip.

Anarchy rules

And it wasn’t just Allen’s crimes that made headlines. His private life became pasted front and center also as he refused to conform to his birth gender. Born a woman named Nell Pickerell in 1882, Allen did something most would only have dreamed of. He wouldn’t dress like a female, nor would he act in the way that society expected of him.

An endless battle

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. True to his defiant nature, he would fight back against such descriptions of himself — which today is referred to as “misgendering.” Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy for everyone to live true to themselves. That's not to say it didn't stop them, though.

Living a lie

Joseph Lobdell dealt with many of the same issues as both Allen and One-Eyed Charley. For he, too, was born a female. Unlike the other two icons, however, Lobdell continued presenting as a woman deep into adulthood and was even married to a man. If that wasn't enough, he also gave birth to a daughter named Helen during that period. Outside of his domestic life, 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 shift.

A sinister threat

At his first taste of freedom, 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 who soon became his fiance. Luck was not on his side, however, as a rival beau found out about Lobdell’s real gender and threatened to expose the secret. With little choice left, the music teacher fled.

Wedding bells (again)

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.

The law stepped in

Lobdell and Perry went on to spend several years living off of the land. 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.

Locked up

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 what it mean to be a transgender man. But not all members of the Wild West’s transgender population transitioned from female to male.

Meet Alice Baker

Take Alice Baker, for example, who 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.

Dropping off the radar

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 LGBTQ+ folk lived quieter lives. 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.

Wild West heroes

As we’ve heard, such discoveries did sometimes become sensational news during the Wild West era, too. But Boag explained why so many other LGBTQ+ 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.