The Wild West of Yester-Year

Stagecoach Mary
By Rachel Kovaciny

She was the first African American woman to drive a Star Route for the U.S. Post Office. She fought off bandits, wolves, and the naysayers who insisted a woman would never succeed at delivering mail in wild Montana. Oh, and she drove that route for eight years, while she was in her sixties. Who was she? “Stagecoach Mary” Fields.

Mary Fields was born into slavery in Tennessee in the early 1830s. After slavery got abolished in 1865, she found a job in the household of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne’s wife died in 1883, Fields accompanied the judge’s children to a convent in Ohio, where their aunt was the Mother Superior, called Mother Amadeus. Mary Fields remained at the convent with the children and befriended Mother Amadeus and many other nuns there. She took on odd jobs around the convent, working in the laundry, gardens, and wherever else they needed help.

Mother Amadeus and several other nuns went to Montana the following year to establish a mission school for Native American children. Word reached the convent back in Ohio: the mission was struggling to get started, and Mother Amadeus had fallen ill. It’s not clear whether Mary Fields was asked or told to go help Mother Amadeus recover from pneumonia, or if she volunteered. Either way, she went straight out to Montana and got to work. Once she had nursed Mother Amadeus back to health, Mary Fields turned her attention to the half-built mission. She took over the laundry, started a vegetable garden, established a thriving chicken flock, and drove wagonloads of supplies to the mission from nearby Cascade, Montana. Some say she also helped finish the mission’s building projects. Six-foot-tall Mary Fields was a force to be reckoned with when she wanted to get something done.

Because she was not actually a nun, but only worked at the mission, Fields did not abide by the same rules as the nuns. She shocked many people by smoking cigars, drinking alcohol in saloons, carrying a pistol and a rifle, and gambling like a man. But she also made many, many friends in and around Cascade and the mission. The Native Americans nicknamed her “White Crow” because she lived with and behaved like white people, but her skin was black like a crow. Fields helped teach children at the mission for a time, and her kindness to children became legendary.

Unfortunately, her bad temper also became a legend. After an 1894 altercation with a man that ended when both he and Fields drew guns on each other, the bishop who oversaw the mission barred her from working there anymore.
Mary Fields opened a restaurant in nearby Cascade, but went bankrupt multiple times, reportedly because she gave free meals to needy homesteaders. Although she was the only Black person in Cascade, Fields continued to make friends and earn the respect of those around her. Unfortunately, friendship doesn’t pay the bills, and she had to close her restaurant.

Friendship may not pay bills, but it does sometimes help you find other job opportunities. A year after the mission had dismissed Fields, Mother Amadeus and the other nuns encouraged her to try for a contract as a “Star Route” mail carrier for the Post Office. Star Routes were independently owned and operated, not run by the Post Office itself. This allowed Mary Fields to choose her own mode of transportation and be her own boss. For eight years, Mary Fields drove a stagecoach between the train station in Cascade to the mission she had helped build, traveling three hundred miles a week on her route. She handled her stagecoach so well, people called her “Stagecoach Mary.” She accepted the nickname with pride. Fields even carried the mail by snowshoe across snow-blocked parts of her route during the winter.

Well into her seventies, people still said Mary Fields could knock out a man with a single punch. The mayor of Cascade made her birthday a local holiday. The owner of the Cascade Hotel declared she could eat for free in his hotel’s restaurant for the rest of her life. When her home burned to the ground, people from all over Cascade worked together to rebuild it for her. After she resigned from her mail route, she opened a laundry business out of her home. One customer who tried to cheat her by not paying his full bill found himself chased down by the 200-pound, six-foot-tall Mary Fields, who knocked him cold and then told bystanders, “His laundry bill is paid.”

Although she had a temper like a grizzly and could out-cuss, out-drink, out-smoke, out-gamble, and out-punch most men, Mary Fields was also a kind and gentle friend to all children and anyone in need. She loved to watch baseball and would make bouquets of flowers for the players on local teams. And when she died in 1914, her funeral was one of the biggest Cascade has ever known. The actor Gary Cooper, who became famous for starring in movies such as the western High Noon (1952), met Mary Fields when he was nine years old, and he remembered her all his life. Many years later, he said of her, “She may have been born a slave, but she lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath... or a .38!”