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“Stagecoach Mary” Fields

Kathryn S Gardiner  | Published on 2/14/2020

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights



Mary Fields was born enslaved in Hickman County, Tenn., in 1832, though both the year and the location are best estimates; neither the birthdates nor names of enslaved children were noted in any records. The beginning of Mary’s life would have been marked with only a number upon a property log. Her death was mourned by an entire town. 

 

The Emancipation Proclamation freed Mary in 1865 and she went on to work for a local judge, caring for his home and children. Upon the death of the judge’s wife in 1883, Mary took the five children to a convent in Toledo, Ohio, where their aunt ruled as Mother Superior. In 1884, Mother Mary Amadeus was stationed at a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade, MT. Mary Fields soon followed. She arrived, initially, to care for the ailing Mother Amadeus, but stayed on even when the woman’s health improved. She became indispensable to St. Peter’s by doing the laundry, gardening, hauling freight, repairing buildings, and tending to the chickens. She eventually became the forewoman.

 

A mission wasn’t an entirely a good fit for the spirited Mary, however. The white locals didn’t know what to make of this hard-working, rough-talking, gun-toting black woman who stood nearly six feet tall. One of the St. Peter’s schoolgirls wrote of her, “She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.” Mother Amadeus and the bishop received several complaints. 

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An incident in 1894 would see the end of Mary’s forewoman days at St. Peter’s. A dispute with a male underling—either from the man’s refusal to follow her orders, or his anger that she made higher wages—lead to a standoff and guns pointed. The bishop ordered Mary to leave.

 

Mary established a restaurant in the nearby town of Cascade with Mother Amadeus’s help. After nearly ten years as a forewoman, she lasted barely ten months as a restaurateur, owing largely to her insistence that everyone be fed, whether or not they could pay. Her reputation for being a hard drinker and quick to anger (not to mention armed) likely didn’t help matters. Bankruptcy swiftly closed the restaurant’s doors. In 1895, around the age of 63, Mary took on a challenging new career with ferocity.

 

In the earliest days of the United States Postal Service, mail carriers were contractors, not employees. Would-be deliverers competed for “star routes,” which were awarded to those qualified stagecoach drivers who put in the lowest bid and showed the most skill. During one application, Mary was the fastest to hitch up six horses. For an eight-year span (two four-year contracts), Mary served as a star route carrier, collecting mail from the trains and traveling the rough 12-14 miles of road to make deliveries to Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission.

 

In this occupation, all Mary’s rough-and-tough qualities became her strongest assets. Her stature, harsh demeanor, and skill with guns intimidated bandits looking to raid mailbags. When the snow fell too deep and heavy for stagecoach travel, she would pull on snowshoes and continue on foot, hefting sacks of mail and packages on her shoulders to make her deliveries. 

 

In the era before radios and phones were commonplace, mail carriers represented connection and communication with the larger world. The importance of “Stagecoach Mary” in the lives of Cascade residents, and her personal determination to fulfill her duty, did not go unnoticed. Neither did her diligence as a laundry worker and her kindness as a babysitter. Schools closed on her birthday each year so that children could celebrate her. Restaurants served her for free. When the state of Montana passed a law prohibiting women from saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted Mary an exemption. She still had the occasional dispute with a neighbor or two, but the Cascade community respected and valued her presence. 

 

In 1903, at roughly 71 years old, she retired from her star route. She maintained her laundry business and childcare services, running both in her home. Though the first mail carriers were not official employees of the United States Postal Service at the time, historians have noted the crucial role they played in establishing a nationwide delivery operation. The USPS has since established Mary Fields as the first female African-American star route mail carrier in the country.

 

Mary died Dec. 5, 1914, around age 82, at the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, MT. She was returned to Cascade to be buried and her funeral was one of the largest in the town’s history.

 

One child she met during her years as “Stagecoach Mary” was Frank James Cooper, a boy who would go on to star in High Noon and become a fixture in Hollywood’s golden age of film performing under the name Gary Cooper. Gary, a native of Helena, recalled visiting the small town with his family. In an article in Ebony magazine in 1959, Gary wrote of her, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.”