Mary Fields (1832-1914) stood six-feet tall in her stocking feet, weighed 200 pounds, smoked cigars, cursed like a sailor, and would knock out any cowboy that gave her excess amounts of back talk. She was also the first black woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States, and the second woman to work for the US Postal Service.
Mary was born into slavery in Hickman County, Tennessee. She was freed when Republican President Abraham Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation. She worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne and when the judge’s wife died in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida, Fields escorted the family’s five children to live with their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio.
The next year, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, west of Cascade. Upon learning that Mother Amadeus was ill, Mary Fields hastened to her side and helped nurse her back to health. After that, Mary Fields remained at St. Peter’s Mission hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, repairing buildings, and eventually becoming a forewoman.
St. Peter’s Mission was not altogether peaceful with Mary Fields about. Her gruff style and penchant for colorful language raised eyebrows. Not long after her arrival, someone asked about her journey. She answered that she was ready for a good cigar and a glass of strong whiskey. Her nature was, for the most part, difficult and she didn’t mind tussling with the nuns over her wages, either. This was a peculiar behavior in those days because no one expected a Negro to be so sassy.
In 1894, someone made an official complaint about Mary Fields. Apparently, there was an incident involving a former male employee and Mary’s guns. The complaint came at an inopportune time because it had a cumulative effect on the Bishop. He was already out of sorts with Mary about her drinking, smoking, cursing, shooting guns, and wearing men’s clothing, so when she was accused of pointing guns at the former male janitor during an argument, the Bishop made her leave the convent. Mother Amadeus helped her to establish a restaurant in nearby Cascade. The problem was that Mary Fields would feed anyone, irrespective of whether they could pay. The restaurant went broke in ten months.
Native Americans referred to Fields as White Crow. She acted in a manner somewhat similar to white women but was black as a crow. Local whites hardly knew what to think of Mary Fields. One local Democrat wrote, “She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a Republican and this makes her a low, foul creature.” It is amazing how little Democrats have changed since the 1880s.
In 1895, Stagecoach Mary was hovering around sixty years of age. This is when Fields was hired as a mail carrier; she could hitch a team of six horses quicker than anyone. She became a “star route” carrier, an independent contractor who carried mail using a stagecoach donated by Mother Amadeus. The position suited Mary Fields to a tee because as a star carrier, her job was to protect the mail from thieves and bandits.
Some said that she actually prayed for someone to try and rob her stage, which she drove with horses and a mule she named Moses. Stagecoach Mary (sometimes Black Mary) never missed a day, and it was her reliability, and her kindness toward children, that earned her the respect and admiration of locals. And Mary was tough: If the snowfall was too deep for the horses, Mary Fields strapped on snowshoes, hoisted the bags of mail on her shoulders, and delivered the mail. She did this sort of thing for eight years, until finally, age caught up with her.
When Mary retired from the mail route, the community rallied to support her —even in spite of the occasional dust-ups she had with her neighbors. Local restaurant owners gave her free meals, and she regularly chatted with saloon customers (so long as they bought her a drink of whiskey).
Mary Fields died of liver failure in 1914. Her funeral was one of the largest turnouts in Cascade’s history. Mary was one tough lady, and she didn’t mind having an outsized reputation, either. Actor Gary Cooper, a native of Montana, remarked of Mary Fields, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath —or a .38.”
- G. Garceau-Hagan, Ed. Portraits of Women in the American West. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2005
- Shirley, G. C. More than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women. Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2011
- Franks, J. A. Mary Fields (Black Mary). California: Wild Goose Press, 2000