Armed with a rifle and dressed in the comfortable clothes of a man, this badass slave became the first black woman employed to carry the U.S. mail. At 200 pounds, she was said to be a match for any two men in Montana Territory. She had a standing bet that she could knock a man out with one punch, and she never lost a dime to anyone foolish enough to take her up on that bet. By order of the mayor, she was the only woman of reputable character in Cascade allowed to drink in the local bar, and while she enjoyed the privilege, she never drank to excess. She was often spotted smoking cigars in public, and she liked to argue politics with anyone.
Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary, was born into slavery in either 1832 or 1833; her exact birthday is unknown. Her birthplace and other details about her early childhood are also unknown. What is known is that she worked for the Warner family in West Virginia in the years leading up to the Civil War. Fields was emancipated in 1863 or shortly after the Civil War; she then moved from West Virginia and went up the Mississippi River where she worked on steamboats.
Fields ended up in Ohio, specifically Toledo. There, she began working at Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart. There is debate over how and why Fields ended up working at the convent. Yet, what is known is that Fields’s gruff style was not something that fit into the serene calm that was the convent.
During her time at the convent, Fields washed laundry, bought supplies, managed the kitchen, and grew and maintained the garden and grounds. Mary was known to lose her temper and was quick to yell at anyone who stepped on the grass after she had cut it.
It is unclear why Fields left Toledo. Many sources think that she moved to take care of an ill friend. Mother Amadeus Dunne, who had been Mother Superior in Toledo before moving West, had fallen ill. Fields and Mother Amadeus were known friends. Some records date their friendship all the way back to the Warren family in West Virginia, though this claim is not substantiated.
Once she arrived West, Fields got to work. She mainly worked for Saint Peter’s Mission near Cascade, Montana where she did many of the jobs she had done before in Toledo. This mission was run by Ursuline nuns and was where Mother Amadeus Dunne resided. Fields performed maintenance and repair work. She also gardened and did the laundry. One major thing that Fields was also in charge of was the locating and delivery of supplies needed for the mission. Yet Fields had no official contract with the mission and nuns; thus, she was free to come and go as she pleased, taking additional work outside the mission.
Fields was unfortunately dismissed from the mission. This was due in part to her crass behavior, unruly temper and penchant for drinking and smoking in saloons with men. The final straw appears to involve an argument in which Fields and another mission janitor, a male, got into a fight and were agitated to the point that both drew guns. While neither ever fired their gun, this incident was enough to make the Bishop of the area demand for the nuns to relieve her duties.
Fields moved to neighboring Cascade, Montana, where she tried but failed to open one or more eateries. They were said to have failed due to her giving nature of allowing folks who could not pay to eat for free. Fields also reportedly set up a laundry shop and did other odd jobs to make money. It is around this time that Fields’ drinking, gun toting, and smoking become well known to the townspeople of Cascade.
In 1895, in her early sixties, Mary Fields obtained a contract by the United States Post Office Department to be a Star Route Carrier. A Star Route Carrier was an independent contractor who used a stagecoach to deliver the mail in the harsh weather of northern Montana. Fields was the first African American woman and the second woman to receive a Star Route contract from the United States Post Office Department. This contract was secured with the help of the Ursuline nuns. The nuns wished to look out for Fields as they felt connected with her. This was because they did not wish to see her go as the nuns heavily relied on Fields for work done around the mission.
Fields built a reputation of being fearless while working as a mail carrier. Fields’ job was not only to deliver the mail but to also protect the mail from bandits, thieves, wolves and the weather as well. Fields gained her nickname “Stagecoach Mary” due to her use of a stagecoach as a method of transportation to deliver the mail. Fields was also known for the guns she carried. During the time that Mary was delivering the mail, she was known to carry both a rifle and a revolver.
Fields spent eight years delivering the mail as a Star Route Carrier. During this time, she became beloved by the locals of Cascade, Montana for her fearlessness and generosity, as well as for her kindness to children. Fields retired from being a Star Route Carrier in the early 20th century. After her retirement, Fields settled into life in Cascade, Montana.
Upon retiring, Fields started a laundry business in town. She also opened an eatery as well as babysat the local children. She remained famous, even becoming the mascot for the town’s baseball team. Fields was beloved by the people of Cascade, so much so that she drank in saloons for free and ate for free at local restaurants and hotels.
Mary Fields died on December 5, 1914. After her death, the townspeople raised money to have her buried in a cemetery on a road she drove frequently that linked Cascade to the mission. Fields’ funeral was said to be one of the largest in town.