E. J. Guerin|
or, The Adventures of Mrs. E. J. Guerin, Who Was Thirteen Years in Male Attire
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968)
Mountain Charley is a fascinating character of the West and the Gold Rush era. What makes Mountain Charley's story so intriguing is she was a woman who dressed in male attire and disguised herself as a man for a period of thirteen years. Her autobiography is comprised of two interesting, yet conflicting, accounts. The first account is from Mountain Charley's personal diaries, which she published in 1861 when she learned other women were claiming to be her. The second account is of Mountain Charley's friend, George West.
Mountain Charley's diaries begin around the year 1830 in Baton Rouge. She romantically described Anna Baldwin and Henry Vereau as being very much in love. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the two do not wed and Anna married another man. Overcome with their feelings toward each other, Anna and Henry have an extramarital affair, which resulted in Anna becoming pregnant. Anna decided to keep the pregnancy a secret and after delivering a baby girl,1 Anna turned the baby over to her brother to bring up.
As a young child, Mountain Charley spent her early years being adored by her uncle, playing with her servants and especially enjoyed the occasional visits made by her "Aunt Anna." At the age of five, Mountain Charley was placed in a school in New Orleans. Once in school, Mountain Charley never saw her family again, she only heard from them through letters. At the age of twelve, Mountain Charley ran away from school to marry and start a new life in St. Louis. Mountain Charley's autobiography does not mention much about her marriage except that three years and two children later, a man named Jamison murdered her husband. At the age of fifteen, Mountain Charley's life fell apart. She was a widow, had two children and "not a dollar" to feed them.2 She received a letter from "Aunt Anna" revealing the secret about her birth and that she was dying. She was not able to ask her uncle for help because he refused to have any contact with her after he heard of her elopement. Financially desperate and overcome with bitterness toward the man who made her children fatherless, Mountain Charley decided to put her children in the care of Sisters of Charity and to start a new life disguised as a man.
With the help of a friend of her late husband, Mountain Charley suited up in men's clothes and began her new life, disguised as a man and earning a living as one because making a living was "so religiously closed against my sex."3
Her first job was being a cabin boy on a steamer, the Alex.Scott, which traveled the river between St. Louis and New Orleans. The experiences on the Alex.Scott lead to better jobs, one on another steamer, the Champion, as secondary pantryman. After spending almost four years on the water, Mountain Charley decided to try her luck on land and takes a job as brakesman on the Illinois Central Railroad. This position lasted several months until the conductor of the train discovered her true gender. A feeling of fear immediately sent Mountain Charley back to St. Louis.
It should be said that during the many years Mountain Charley was far away from her children, she would visit them often (of course, not before changing back into her original attire). As much as she missed her children, she believed the life she chose to live would ensure her children getting a good education and a promising future.
In 1855, to satisfy her own curiosity, Mountain Charley joined a company of men and cattle and headed through the plains towards the "Land of Gold." The 122-day trek consisted of traveling several miles per day, avoiding dangerous animals, enduring weather conditions that included freezing and sweltering temperatures, lack of drinking water, having to leave necessities with broken down wagons and worst of all, death. After her attempt at finding gold was unsuccessful, Mountain Charley sought other business opportunities. She became a partner in a saloon only to sell her share six months later in order to purchase mules and mountain provisions for a company she decided to form to search for gold again. The expedition was cut short after Indians killed some of her company after an attack. She purchased a ranch in Shasta Valley in order to keep her cattle there and as it turned out, the man she employed to care for her ranch turned the ranch into a successful business resulting in a "$30,000" profit.4
Mountain Charley had the opportunity to confront the second reason she left home – Jamison. There were two incidences where she confronted him. The first one was outside a saloon where Mountain Charley, who was "always armed with a revolver or two," identified her true self, drew her gun and shot Jamison. Not clear who shot first, Jamison shoots Mountain Charley as well and even though they were both injured, they both managed to quickly disappear from the scene. The second incident was months later and, although she did not kill him, she was "a second too quick for him" as he did not draw his weapon in time.5 It was shortly after this incident Jamison revealed her secret and Mountain Charley was then "famous".6 Despite her true gender being known, Mountain Charley continued to dress in male attire because she began to enjoy the life she was leading. During this time when people knew of her gender, she married a man, H. L. Guerin.
These are the accounts Mountain Charley published in Dubuque, Iowa in 1861. About twenty-four years later, George West published the version of the "Mountain Charley I knew."7 Although George West's version contained similar facts to the autobiography, there are conflicting statements too. The conflicting statements were George West claimed Mountain Charley's, first name was Charlotte and the author published her autobiography with initials "E. J." In addition, West claimed Mountain Charley married at the age of eighteen, a year after her mother died. The man she married eventually left her for another woman after Charlotte delivered a stillborn child. Charlotte, assuming her husband had gone in search of gold, disguised herself as a male and went in search of her husband vowing to seek revenge on him. George West also lets the readers know what happens to Mountain Charley after she published her autobiography in 1861. They both serve their country in the Civil War for the Union regiment. Mountain Charley was enlisted as Charles Hatfield and served two years in the war. She acted as a spy in a Confederate camp, ironically, disguising herself as a woman. For her bravery and discoveries while in the Confederate camp, which was proven to have been very important to the Union regiment, Mountain Charley was promoted to Lieutenant Charles Hatfield. Mountain Charley's marriage to H. L. Guerin does not last. She married again and had a total of four children. Her death is unknown.
Combining both accounts, I have decided it cannot be concluded whether Mountain Charley was one fascinating women or several fascinating women all disguising themselves in male attire for reasons of: financial desperation, bitterness to seek revenge, or out of a desire to seek freedom during a time when women established a general, non-specific face.
1 The "baby girl" is the author and due to the fact the author never reveals her birth name, just the initials, E.J., I will refer to her as "Mountain Charley" throughout this paper.
2 E. J. Guerin, Mountain Charley (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), p. 17.
3 Ibid., p. 18
4 Ibid., p. 55
5 Ibid., p. 64
6 Ibid., p. 57
7 Ibid., p. 57
8 Ibid., p. x