I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A woman of substantial proportions, a short temper, and carrying a rifle and a pistol, Mary Fields was a formidable opponent to bad guys who thought stealing the mail was a suitable career choice.
Born into Slavery
Mary Fields was born in Tennessee in 1832, or it might have been 1831; authorities didn't bother overmuch with the registration of slave births. Her future was to be either a field slave or a house slave; there were no other options. Although, unlike most slaves, she learned how to read and write.
However, the Civil War released her from bondage in 1865 and she found work as a chamber maid on Mississippi steamboats. While working the river steamers she met a judge named Edmund Dunne. He offered her a job as a servant in his household.
When Dunne's wife died, he sent his five children along with Mary Fields to his sister in Toledo, Ohio who was the Mother Superior of an Ursuline Convent. (There are conflicting reports of how Mary Fields came to be in the convent but there's full agreement that she lived there from 1870 to 1885).
A Convent Life
The Mother Superior of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Mary Amadeus Dunne, and Mary Fields became friends. This is somewhat surprising because Fields is often described as having a prickly character, being easy to fly into a rage.
In the 2005 book Portraits of Women in the American West, edited by Dee Garceau-Hagen, an anecdote is told of how Mary was highly protective of her carefully tended garden. One nun is quoted as saying “God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it.”
She was given to cursing; another trait that did not go down well with the nuns. She was fond of a drink and a good cigar; something else that upset the abstemious convent residents. And, she was frequently in dispute over her wages.
Historynet.com says the six-feet tall, 200-pound woman “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.”
Despite her difficult nature, Mary Fields was valued because of her work in the garden, laundry, and many other chores.
In 1884, Mary Dunne was called on to travel to Montana to do missionary work among the Blackfoot Indians. The Mother Superior contracted pneumonia and became very ill. Word got back to Mary Fields, who immediately went to Montana to nurse her friend back to health.
A Star Route Carrier
Dunne set up the St. Peter's Mission and Fields started working there. One of her tasks was to drive the mission's wagon team to pick up supplies. There's a story, that a pack of wolves spooked the horses causing the wagon to tip and Fields scared off the animals all night until help arrived.
But, the former slave continued to drink hard liquor and smoke cigars, along with wearing men's clothes and firing guns. As history.com reports “News of her subversive behavior reached Bishop John Brondel, who raised serious concerns about Fields’ habits.” One day she and the convent's janitor got into a fight and guns were drawn, although not fired. That was more than the bishop could tolerate and Mary Fields was fired.
She moved to Cascade, Montana and made ends meet by doing odd jobs and taking in laundry. She tried running a restaurant but that failed because she fed too many customers who could not pay for their meals.
In 1895, she secured a regular income when she got a contract as a Star Route Carrier for the U.S. Post Office. These were independent contractors who delivered mail, usually by riding in stagecoaches. The work was handed to whoever bid the lowest price for the job and could be relied upon to deliver the mail in a timely fashion. The Ursuline nuns and Mother Dunne put in a good word for Fields and also bought her a wagon and team of horses.
Mary Fields was the first African American woman to become a Star Route Carrier, and, it seems, no one was going to take the job away from until she was good and ready to relinquish it.
She collected mail from trains and then drove her wagon over rough roads through good weather and bad. Her reputation and the weaponry she carried were enough to deter any would-be villains.
Her routes covered more than 300 miles every week. Sometimes, when the snow was deep she put on snow shoes and still delivered the mail. She carried the mail for eight years until, in her late 60s, she retired.
Behind her abrasive persona, Mary Fields was kind and much loved by the people of Cascade. She babysat for just about every child in Cascade and used the money she earned to buy candy for the little ones.
The owner of the local hotel announced that her meals were on the house for the rest of her life. The mayor of Cascade decreed that Mary Fields was the only woman allowed to drink in the town's bars, other than prostitutes.
Mary Fields colourful life came to an end in 1914; she was either 82 or 83.
- People applying to be Post Office Route Carriers had to meet the standards of “celerity, certainty, and security.” Clerks grew tired of writing out the three words so they put in asterisks instead—* * *—the Star Route name was born.
- A nine-year-old boy growing up in the region met Mary Fields in Cascade and remembered the encounter. In 1959, that young man, now the movie star Gary Cooper, wrote in Ebony magazine: “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, some say in 1832, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls to ever draw a breath or a .38.”
- As with so many of the larger-than-life characters in the Wild West, Mary Fields accumulated a few fanciful legends. To mark her 81st birthday, the Anaconda Standard, a long-since defunct Montana newspaper, wrote that “Mary’s friends claimed if a fly landed on the ear of one of [her horses], she could use her choice of either shooting it off or picking it off with her whip end. And if she was in a mind to, she could break the fly’s hind leg with her whip and then shoot its eye out with a revolver.”
- Asteroid 7091 was first spotted in 1992. In 2019, it was renamed 7091 Maryfields.
- “Meet Stagecoach Mary, the Daring Black Pioneer Who Protected Wild West Stagecoaches.” Erin Blakemore, history.com, January 28, 2021.
- “Stagecoach Mary Fields.” Shelby Amspacher, Smithsonian Postal Museum, April 1, 2020.
- “Stagecoach Mary Fields: The Gunslinging Badass Who Was America’s First Black Postwoman.” Genevieve Carlton, allthatsinteresting.com, August 3, 2020.
- “Mary Fields, A Rough and Tough Black Female Pioneer.” George Everett, historynet.com, February 1996.
- “Stagecoach Mary.” John C. Abercrombie, amazingblackhistory.com, November 5, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 20, 2021:
What a great article, Rupert! Stagecoach Mary was a badass to the enth degree. A woman far beyond her times. She lived life on her terms. I have nothing but respect for her tenacity.
Thanks for another enlightening article, Rupert!
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on July 18, 2021:
This is great information. You really do your research.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 16, 2021:
This was very interesting. Mary Fields was quite a formidable woman. I enjoyed reading this bit of history.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 16, 2021:
Rupert, this was very interesting and entertaining, if not educating. The Black African- American Negroe(BAAN) is a person with ingenuity, which some whites did not possess. Historically, we have. Booker T. Washington, Martin L. King jnr, and more recently, ex-President Barak Obama. It's now time for white folks to give any coloured person the respfct due from birth.