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Nevada’s Yesteryear: Story of Old Charlie tells of justice

Long ago in the early days of Nevada around Carson City and Virginia City, the story of an old Paiute Indian woman was unfolding. She was always seen walking alone and almost never in the company of someone else.

When other women from the Indian colonies came to town to do housework, she would tag along , but always stayed far behind. When all the other women would take some time off and go to the back alleys to visit and gamble in various ways, this one always stood apart and alone. She was tall and lean and her face was etched with deep bitterness.

Questions about the old woman from the townspeople were politely brushed off or wholly ignored by those in the Paiute tribe. None of them were seen talking to the old woman and none of them would address her either. She was never seen talking to a Paiute man as well. But she was usually present at Paiute activities.

As time passed, curiosity among the whites grew more mysterious and questions about who was this so solitary a Paiute woman. Eventually, another Paiute woman revealed the truth of what was going on. The old woman was actually a man wearing women’s clothing and that his name was Old Charlie. But any more than that, the Paiute woman refused to say.

Now the curiosity of the whites grew even deeper. How could they confirm this statement to be factual? People began to watch much more carefully when Old Charlie passed by. His walk, although slow, really was that of a man, and that he was taller than the other women.

More time would go by before more of the story came out about Old Charlie.

By some manner not reported, it was learned that he was serving a life sentence for a crime against the Paiutes and the judgment upon him had been imposed by the tribe itself. He was to never leave the land of the Paiutes as long as he lived, never to wear a man’s clothes or follow the activities of a man. He was to dress, live and mingle with the tribe as a woman.

In May 1860 when he was a young man, Old Charlie, had taken part with the Paiutes in the Battle of Pyramid Lake, which was part of the war with the U.S. Army between the Northern Paiute, Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Charlie had tried to avoid being involved but was pressed into the middle of it by his friends.

As the battle raged, Charlie became terrified, threw away his weapons and fled the battle scene, which turned out to be a rout of the Army by the tribes. However, they were eventually defeated by the Army in later battles.

For Charlie though, traditional Paiute justice of the time demanded that for the rest of his life he must live as a woman for turning coward and fleeing the battle. He became a common sight around Carson City and Virginia City as well as on the V &T trains for many years. He refused to talk about his life to whites, but gradually even more details about him became known.

Finally, after many years, Old Charlie decided it was time to die and he simply wandered off into the hills behind Virginia City and was never seen again.

(Adapted from a story by Harold’s Club, Reno, 1954)

Dave Maxwell is a Nevada news reporter with over 35 years in print and broadcast journalism, and greatly interested in early Nevada history. He can be reached at maxwellhe@yahoo.com.

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