Friday, September 2, 2016

Stagecoach Mary -- An Extraordinary Woman



Sometime around 1832, Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary, was born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee. As a slave, she lived there until being freed in 1865 when slavery in America was outlawed following the Civil War.

She was the first African-American  employed as a mail carrier in the United States and the second woman to work for the United States Postal Service. The woman to work for the Postal Service was Oregon’s Minnie Westman who was hired in 1881.

After being freed, Mary reportedly worked a number of different jobs including emptying chamber pots on the steamboat Robert E. Lee. She was actually working on board when the Robert E. Lee won its famous steamboat race against the Natchezin 1870

She then worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne as a domestic servant.. When Dunne's wife Josephine died in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida. Because of that Mary took the family's five children to their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus who was the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. Mary remained at the convent as employee doing housekeeping and helping to look after the children there.

Mother Amadeus
In 1884, Mother Amadeus was transferred to the Montana Territory to help establish a Catholic school for Native American girls at St. Peter's Mission, west of Cascade.

Learning that Mother Amadeus was stricken with pneumonia, Mary Fields is said to have hurried to Montana to nurse her back to health. When Mother Amadeus recovered, she asked Mary to stay on in the territory. Mary did so and chose to stay and helped build the St. Peter’s Mission School. 

Employed at St. Peter's, and beings the strong 6 foot tall, 200 pound, she worked with others doing laundry, growing vegetables, and tending chickens. 

But Mary also chopped wood, performed masonry and carpentry work to repair buildings, besides hooking up a team and hauling freight. Soon she was supervising the others there, and it's said that she knew how to run a crew. It was not unusual to see her wearing pistol, smoking a cigar, or having a drink of whiskey after her supply runs. 

St. Peter's Convent
It's said that the local Native Americans called her "White Crow" because "she acts like a white woman but has black skin." It's also said that a number of the local whites did not know what to make of her. 

One white schoolgirl wrote an essay saying that "she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a Republican, which makes her a low, foul creature." 

Yes, Republicans have always been for freedom for all -- but that has not always set well with Democrats and others who saw Republicans as "foul creatures" for helping freed slaves against Democrat former slave owners. Remember, those were the days when Republicans were being murdered and lynched by Democrats because they helped freed slaves.  

All in all, Mary Fields remained at the convent for 10 years but her behavior outside of work cost her job. But in 1894, after several complaints. Bishop Brondell received complaints about Mary's hard drinking, constant swearing and even her frequent fistfights. 

It was reported that one of her fights, reportedly over a harness, a small rock was used to strike a ranch foreman in the head. Another incident, the straw that broke the camel's back, was an incident with a disgruntled male subordinate. In that incident it was reported that Mary pulled her .38 pistol and made her angry co-worker back off.



Yes, she was known to carry either a Smith & Wesson Fourth Model double action or a later Smith & Wesson double action known as a "Lemon Squeezer" because of its grip safety. Both were actually considered small "pocket pistols" as they were basically smaller "top break" versions of the Smith & Model 3 except in double action. And for the rifle in the famous picture of her? Yes, she was certainly known for also having a rifle as well as a shotgun nearby. She was not to be messed with.

As for Mary leaving St. Peter's, Bishop Brondell ordered the convent to terminate her employment after the last altercation. And with that, Mary left the convent which she came to love.

Her supporter and friend Mother Amadeus didn't let the Bishop's orders or the then local disdain for Mary stop her from helping her open a restaurant in nearby Cascade. It is said that the Mary Fields served food to anyone whether they could pay or not. But unfortunately, Mary's charitable nature conflicted with sound business practices. The restaurant went broke in about ten months.

St. Peter’s Mission outside of Cascade, Montana, c 1900
In 1895, Mary Fields was about 60 years old when she was hired by the United States Postal Service as a mail carrier in Cascade. This made her the first African American woman, and the second woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service.

It should be noted that as a part of the hiring process, she had to prove that she 
hitch up a team and could actually drive a stagecoach. Mary Fields demonstrated that she in fact had the ability of hitching a team of six horses, and did it faster than anyone else. And yes, she also had to convince the Postal Service that she was physically defend herself. 

St. Peters Post Office where Mary Worked out of
Her duties consisted of driving a stagecoach carrying U.S. Mail for postal patrons living in the central part of the state. She drove the route with horses and a mule named Moses. It's said that she never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname "Stagecoach Mary." 

Her performance was said to be exemplary. It is said that if the snow was too deep for her horses, she delivered the mail on snowshoes and carrying the mail sacks on her shoulders. Her reputation was of a person capable of delivering the mail regardless of weather conditions or how rugged the terrain. 


By 1901, Mary Fields had to leave the U. S. Postal Service after eight years simply because the physical demands of being a postal carrier was just too much. Yes, she was believed to be at least 69 years old when she stopped delivering mail in weather conditions and rugged terrain that would have stopped other far younger.

Believe it or not, even though she was almost 70 years old, she opened a laundry business in Cascade, Montana. Mary also owned and operated her own restaurant again with the help of Mother Amadeus. This time, both businesses were a success.

One bit of trivia about Mary Fields is that she was an avid baseball fan. Yes, she was an avid baseball fan who regularly attended home games. She was known to give the team free meals and even reward Cascade team members who hit home runs with bouquets from her garden.

Cascade Baseball Team with Stagecoach Mary (far right)
Friends, I like the fact that Mary Fields, Stagecoach Mary, was respected and admired by the folks in Montana at the time. She really became a true legend in her own time, and I like that she was given the respect she deserved. I like the fact that she was a respected public figure in Cascade, so much so that on her birthday each year the town closed its schools to celebrate.

And yes, from everything that I've read about her, if they lost you could hear her swear a blue streak that would make most Sailors blush. Yes, she swore, drank hard, and worked harder. She didn't put up with excuses and didn't give any. She was as tough as rawhide and wasn't afraid to take on any man who gave her guff. She was hard as nails and a guardian to all she loved and held dear.

Yes, in many ways she sounds like a hard case. But despite her gruff exterior, Mary was known to be very kindhearted. And in return, she was beloved by the town of Cascade.

In fact, that was so much the case that when her home burned down in the fire of 1912 -- everyone in town got together and built her a new one. And to show just how much she was admired, it's said that when Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted her an exemption. To my thinking, it was the right thing to do.

In 1914, eleven years after opening a laundry and another restaurant, Mary Fields became seriously ill. It is said that because she was too proud and independent to get help, feeling that she would be a burden to others, so she refused help.

It is said that a few children found Mary laying in a field of tall grass near her home. The 82 year old Mary was immediately admitted to Columbus Hospital in Great Falls where she died of liver failure on December 5th, 1914.


Though she died in Great Falls, she was taken to her final resting place in the Hillside Cemetery, in Cascade, Montana. There were numerous friends, neighbors and townspeople in attendance.

It's said her grave, which is located at the foot of a peaceful trail that leads to her beloved St. Peter's Mission, was originally marked with a wooden cross. Today her grave is marked with a simple stone. Yes, a very simple stone that marks the resting place of a very extraordinary woman.

And that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa



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