Picture this scene – a crowded saloon in Cascade, Montana circa 1885. The saloon is filled with boisterous cowboys and rowdy miners. Standing in the middle of the saloon is a Black woman over six feet tall – 6’2’’, to be exact. She weighs 200 pounds; she is wearing a man’s jacket and a pistol tucked in the waist of her skirt. And although women weren’t allowed in saloons, the mayor has made an exception for her. She’s drinking, smoking cigars, and swapping stories with the men. She’s having a great time. Someone challenges her story, an argument ensues, a fight breaks out - she wins and goes back to her drinking and storytelling.
This woman is Mary Fields, later known as Stagecoach Mary – a pioneer and trailblazer. She was born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee in 1832. Mary’s life could have been very bleak, but her life turned out to be anything but. Stagecoach Mary became a legend. She was an independent and determined woman who never married and had no children. She made her mark in history by becoming the first African American woman to drive a stagecoach to deliver mail as a contract employee of the United States Postal Service, a job usually reserved for men.
Mary went to work for him in his household where she became friends with one of Dunne’s sisters, Dolly Dunne. The two women bonded and formed an unlikely friendship due to the women’s stark differences: Mary was a former slave while Dolly Dunne was from an influential family; Mary was a whiskey- drinking, gun-toting, saloon- loving woman and Dolly was set to become a Catholic nun. However, both had loving hearts and their surface differences were irrelevant to them as they formed a lifelong friendship.
Dolly Dunne became a nun at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio. Mary moved there to join the Sister and to work at the convent in the 1870s. Dolly became a Mother Superior known as Mother Mary Amadeus. In 1884 she moved to a new position at St. Peter’s convent near Cascade, Montana to establish a boarding school and mission for Native Americans. That next year Mother Amadeus developed pneumonia and became seriously ill. She sent for her old friend, and Mary moved to Montana to help nurse her back to health.
Mary Fields’s Years at the Convent
The move to Montana opened a whole new life for Mary. After Mother Amadeus recovered, Mary stayed and worked at the convent for ten years doing all the laundry, driving the freight wagon for supplies, taking charge of construction projects, taking care of well over 400 chickens and tending to the garden. Mary was dedicated, able to work independently, and became invaluable to the convent.
Mary was a woman way ahead of her time. She completely dispelled the notion of gender and race roles. And while most people in the town really liked Mary, she was a woman who didn’t bite her tongue, and so she got into frequent arguments and even fist fights in the saloons. Mother Amadeus and the other Sisters had tried to get Mary to change her combative ways, but Mary was her own person – independent and freewheeling. Mary was a hard worker; she respected the Sisters and was very protective of them; and they were very fond of and protective of the sometime wayward woman. But Mary would not be tamed.
When the convent was in dire need of repairs, Mary, with a natural flair for leadership, oversaw the construction crew. She knew what had to be done and the best way to do it. Because she was a woman – and a Black woman at that - overseeing the construction crew of men was a formidable task and didn’t always go smoothly. When the men didn’t want to follow her orders, she argued and frequently got into fist fights (which she usually won). One man complained and demanded to know why Mary, a Black woman, made more money than he did. He complained around town and even went to the Bishop. Mary had enough of the disrespectful man, and she ended up shooting him on the grounds of the convent. Some say Mary walked up on him when he was working, and some say she challenged him to a duel. Bullets started flying—hitting the convent buildings and the laundry hanging on the lines. The man turned to run away, but was struck in the backside. He survived, but unfortunately, the Bishop had received so many complaints about Mary this was the final nail in the coffin – Mary was fired.
Mother Amadeus and the other nuns were heartbroken. Mary had worked at the convent for ten years and she was a dear friend and a hard worker. But the Bishop was adamant that Mary had to go.
Mary moved into the town of Cascade and became an entrepreneur. She opened her first business – a restaurant. Mary was a kind soul and would feed anyone who was hungry whether they could pay or not and gave money to those who asked. It was not a very good business model; many people took advantage of her generosity. The restaurant didn’t turn a profit and the business failed. She ended up opening another restaurant and it also failed mostly due to Mary’s generosity.
But the town loved Mary, recognizing her as a woman with a kind and generous spirit. Having been born a slave, she didn’t know her actual date of birth, so she picked March 15. On that day every year she threw a party for all the town’s children, who adored her. One of those children was movie star Gary Cooper who grew up in nearby Dearborn, Montana and was a boy when Mary lived there. He wrote an article about Mary in 1959, published in Ebony magazine, saying, “She could whip any two men in the territory … and had a fondness for hard liquor that was matched only by her capacity to put it away.”
Becoming Stagecoach Mary
In 1895, Sister Amadeus told her about a job driving a stagecoach to deliver mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Mary got the job but had no idea it would make her a legend.
During the 1800s, before the railroad tracks were fully laid, the stagecoach was the most common, and in many cases, the only form of transportation. It was a four-wheel vehicle built like a coach that was used to carry passengers, cargo, and mail, often pulled by four to six harnessed horses. A stagecoach driver had to be skilled with horses and have the strength to control them. During its heyday, the coach could travel around five miles per hour and could cover more than 40 miles per day.
Mary got the job on her own merits. Part of the interview process was how fast she could hitch a team of horses. Of those who had applied, Mary, who was around 60 years old at the time, was the fastest to hitch her team. Driving a stagecoach suited Mary Fields. She had independence, she was her own boss, and she had freedom.
Mary’s territory was the Cascade County region in Montana. Stagecoach travel could be dangerous for any number of reasons: weather, rugged terrain, and the threat of robbery, since valuables were usually transported by stagecoach mail. The Montana territory had all these obstacles in spades. It took courage, strength of body and spirit to be a successful mail carrier. But Mary had those qualities and more. She was a crack shot both with a pistol and a rifle, she never missed a day of work, and no matter how remote the outposts or cabins, Mary delivered the mail. The mail carriers’ unofficial creed of “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” could have been written for Stagecoach Mary Fields.
Once, when Mary’s stagecoach got stuck in the snow, she grabbed the mail bags, walked the nineteen-mile route and delivered the mail to each outpost and each mining camp along the route. There is even an unsubstantiated story of Mary fighting off wolves that had surrounded her overturned stagecoach.
In 1903, Mary retired after driving the stagecoach for 8 years. She was 71 years old and was ready for a new adventure. Her long-time friend Mother Amadeus was sent to Alaska that same year to start another mission. Mary was sad to see her friend leave town. Even though the town loved Mary, Mother Amadeus was Mary’s closest friend and had been for years.
After retirement, Mary put her entrepreneurial skills back to work. She had a babysitting service and opened a laundromat out of her home. Mary did not mellow with age. She still frequented the town’s saloons, drinking, trash talking, and if necessary, getting in fights. While in a saloon drinking one evening, she saw a customer who had refused to pay his $2.00 laundry bill. Mary left the bar, confronted the man, gave him one punch and knocked him out. Mary returned to the bar to finish her drink and told the bar patrons that the man’s bill was paid.
Mary Fields wasn’t just the tough woman who could outfight any man and did a man’s job – she was a compassionate, loving, and kind person. She loved to garden and grew lovely flowers. She also loved baseball. Her favorite team was the hometown Cascade baseball team. She presented each player a boutonniere flower from her garden at each game. She also loved children and babysat for most of the town’s offspring through generations. She spent a lot of her own money buying treats for them.
Mary was the only African-American living in Cascade at the time, and the town apparently loved her. On her birthday, the schools closed so that the children could celebrate that day with her.
Even when she was near-death Mary remained independent. When she fell ill, she went into the woods behind her house and laid down to die. Some kids who were playing nearby found Mary and called for help. She was taken to the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls where she died of liver failure in 1914.
Mary Fields was a person who lived a life of freedom and courage. She refused to abide by the gender and race roles of the time and lived life on her terms. Gary Cooper summed up her best in an article for Ebony Magazine. He said, “she was born a slave but lived to become one of the freest souls to ever draw a breath or a .38.” RIP to this trailblazing woman.