March is Women’s History Month. For the past 4 years, I’ve dedicated this month’s column to an interesting woman or to women in history who were firearms enthusiasts and perhaps a bit outspoken for their time. This year is no exception. Meet 6-foot-tall, 200-pound Mary Fields, also known as “Stagecoach Mary,” the first African American to become a U.S. postal service star route mail carrier.
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Born into slavery around 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee, little is known about Mary Fields’ early life. What we do know begins around 1878, when she became a housekeeper at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio. Mary had a close relationship with Mother Superior Amadeus Dunne, formally known as Sara Theresa Dunne. According to Sister Kathleen Padden, archivist for the convent, Mary followed Sara, a relative through marriage of the Warner family (who owned her in Arkansas) to Toledo.
Mary Fields not only did the laundry and manage the kitchen at the convents, but she also grew and maintained the garden and grounds. Yes, the Sisters enjoyed her company – even though she was known to smoke cigars and carry a flask of whiskey in her pocket. One Sister was quoted as saying, “God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it.”
At some point, Mother Amadeus was sent to work as head mistress at St. Peter’s Mission – a school for Native American girls in Cascade, Montana, while Mary remained in Toledo. However, in 1885, Mary relocated to Montana, apparently to care for Mother Amadeus who was ill with pneumonia. After nursing her back to health, Mary remained at the mission, repairing buildings and helping build a convent, eventually rising to crew foreman. She also hauled supplies back and forth from town for the mission.
Although Mary was strongly devoted to the Sisters, and they adored her, the territory’s bishop ordered them to send her away. Apparently, she had a short temper, drank in saloons with men and got into a few fights … including the time when she may have pulled out her six-shooter and fired at a man in self-defense.
With the help of Mother Amadeus, Mary got involved in the restaurant business … twice. Neither was a success, since often Mary let those she knew couldn’t pay eat for free.
In 1895 Mary Fields became the first African American star route mail carrier and kept the job for 8 years. She traveled with horses and a mule between Cascade, Montana, and families in neighboring areas, an extremely difficult and dangerous route. It is said that she never missed a day of work. If the snow was too deep for the horses, Mary put on snowshoes and carried the sacks on her shoulders. Her reliability earned her the name “Stagecoach Mary.”
Numerous sources mentioned a night when a pack of wolves startled Mary’s team of horses and the wagon flipped on its side. Armed with her pistol and shotgun, and sheltered behind the wagon, she kept the wolf pack off all night. At daybreak, she continued on delivering the mail.
At close to 70-years old, Mary retired and started a laundry business in town. She was a beloved citizen who often ate for free at the local hotel. Mary even became a mascot of Cascade’s baseball team, making buttonhole rosettes for each player on the team and presenting players who hit a home run with a bouquet of flowers from her garden.
In her final years, Mary worked as a baby-sitter, charging $1.50 a day. She often spent most of the money she earned buying candy for the children of the town. Each year on her birthday, the schools in the town of Cascade closed to celebrate the occasion. Stagecoach Mary Fields died of liver failure in 1914 around the age of 82. She was laid to rest at the foot of the mountain trail that led to St. Peter’s Mission.
Although I spent time researching Stagecoach Mary Fields from numerous resources, some information was a bit different. However, regardless of the details, Mary Fields was a tough frontier women who broke barriers every day, expanding societal roles.