About Mary Fields
Mary Fields was born around 1832 Hickman, Tennessee, into slavery; and died in 1914 in Cascade, Montana of liver failure.
Also known as Stagecoach Mary, she was the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States, driving her mail route by stagecoach from Cascade, Montana to St. Peter's Mission, Montana.
Mary Fields was born as a slave in Tennessee during the administration of Andrew Jackson -- a feisty sort with whom she shared driving ambition, audacity, and a penchant for physical altercation on a regular basis. She was six feet tall; heavy; tough; short-tempered; two-fisted; powerful; and packed a pair of six-shooters and an eight or ten-gauge shotgun. She smoked rather bad homemade cigars.
According to some historians, she was owned by Judge Dunn and grew up on his family farm. She became friends with his daughter, Dolly, who was around the same age.
After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, some ex-slaves left the plantations and farms of their former owners when they were burned by the Union. Mary, however, stayed with the Dunns. When she did leave, she spent time in Ohio and along the Mississippi River.
By 1881, Dolly Dunn was a nun known as Mother Amadeus, and went to the far northwest state of Montana to set up a school for women and girls of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe in the town of Cascade.
The school, called Saint Peter’s Mission, consisted of old buildings that were badly in need of repair. Mary joined her in 1884 -- perhaps in response to a letter saying Mother Amadeus was ill -- and since she was as strong as any man and very good at fixing anything, she soon became the foreman, or boss, of the other workers at the school.
She broke more noses than any other person in central Montana
... so claims the Great Falls Examiner, the only newspaper available in Cascade at the time.
Once a 'hired hand' at the mission confronted her with the complaint that she was earning $2 a month more than he was ($9 vs. $7), and why did she think that she was worth so much money anyway, being only an uppity colored woman? (His name, phonetically, was Yu Lum Duck.) To make matters worse, he made this same complaint and general description in public at one of the local saloons (where Mary was a regular customer), and followed that up with a (more polite) version directly to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger himself (to no avail).
This was more than enough to boil Mary's blood, and at the very next opportunity the two of them were engaged in a shoot-out behind the nunnery, next to the sheep shed. (Actually it turned into a shoot-out, because when Mary went to simply shoot the man as he cleaned out the latrine -- figuring to dump his body in there -- she missed. He shot back and the fracas was on.)
Bullets flew in every direction until the six-guns were empty, and blood was spilt. Neither actually hit the other by direct fire, but one bullet shot by Mary bounced off the stone wall of the nunnery and hit the forlorn man in the left buttock, which completely ruined his new $1.85 trousers. Not only that, but other bullets Mary fired passed through the laundry of the bishop, which was hanging on the line, generously ventilating his drawers and the two white shirts he had had shipped from Boston only the week before. What his laundry was doing at the nunnery is not clear.
That was enough for the bishop; he fired Mary, and gave the injured man a raise.
how she got her nickname
This incident was too much for the Mother Superior’s superior. He knew of Fields outstanding service for the mission but this was the last straw. He told Mother Amadeus,”Send that black woman away.” During the time she had worked at the mission her pay had been in board and a little spending money, now Mother Amadeus helped Fields open a eating house where she prepared and served meals. Due to Field’s kind heart she would not let anyone go hungry, money or not. So she was soon broke.
When Mary heard that the United States Postal Service was looking for someone to deliver mail from the town of Cascade, Montana to families in the surrounding areas, she applied for the job. Even though she was about 60 years old at the time, Mary proved herself the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses and was hired. Thus, Mary became the second woman and the first African American woman to work for the United States Postal Service.
Mary drove the mail stagecoach along the trails that linked Cascade to the remote homesteads. One of her stops was Saint Peter’s, which was located 17 miles from Cascade. Mary loved the job, despite the many dangers and difficulties. Thieves and wolves roamed the countryside, always ready to pounce on prey.
adopted by the town of Cascade, Montana
Mary continued to deliver the mail until she was almost 70 years old. Then she decided to “slow down.” the nuns at the mission helped her open a laundry service in Cascade. This, however, was not enough to keep Mary busy and she spent much time caring for her garden (or drinking in all male saloons with special permission by the Mayor of Cascade).
An avid baseball fan, she often presented the town’s team with bouquets of flowers from her garden.
The people of Cascade so loved and respected Mary that on her birthday they even closed the schools to celebrate the occasion. By the time she died in 1914 at age 82 she had became a memorable icon for her life as a true westerner of the American frontier.
The townspeople laid her to rest at the foot of the mountain trail that led to Saint Peter’s Mission, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross which may still exist today.
Mary in images
Mary in song
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- African Americans and the Old West
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- Mary Fields, CascadeMontana.com
- "Historic Women - E-G", LegendsOfAmerica.com
- © Jerome C. Krause
- Gary Cooper's article for Ebony reprinted Oct 1977
Mary Fields, aka: Stagecoach Mary (1832-1914) - Born as a slave in Tennessee, Fields was one of the first women entrepreneurs, stagecoach drivers, pioneers of the American West. Orphaned as a child, she grew up with Ursuline nuns but received no formal education. With the nuns she traveled west but never known for her quiet temperament, she left the convent when she was still in her teens. Living by her wits and strength, she became known, as a hard drinker, a notorious brawler, a cigar smoker and one of the wildest women of her time. The pistol-packing muscular, six-foot tall woman drew attention wherever she went and was constantly re-inventing herself as a successful entrepreneur.
Over the years, she ran several restaurants in a number of towns in Montana, Wyoming, and southern Canada. Never married, she found her ideal job in 1895 when she became a U.S. mail coach driver for the Cascade County region of central Montana. She and her mule Moses, never missed a day, and it was in this capacity that she earned her nickname of "Stagecoach," for her unfailing reliability. When she retired in Cascade, Montana, spending most of her time gardening, she was befriended by Gary Cooper; the actor who, as a child, grew up with her as a neighbor. In 1914 she died of a failure of her liver. Neighbors buried her in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross. Given the limitations society placed on her by her skin color and gender, Fields stands out as a woman who was far ahead of her times during those adventurous days of the Old West.