This is the second article of a Four Part Series on Black Folks, who helped to tame the west. First we looked at US Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves. Today we take a look at Mary Fields aka Stagecoach Mary.
Mary Fields was born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee sometime in 1832. She lived on the family farm. Both the farm and Mary was owned by Judge Edmund Dunn. The judge’s daughter, Dolly, was about the same age as Mary. They became good friends. It is not known who taught her, but Mary was taught to read and write.
She, like countless others, was also freed by the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863. Yet, she stayed with the Dunn family. After the Judges death and upon the death of his wife Josephine (1883), Mary took the family’s five children to join Dolly in Toledo, Ohio. This was where Dolly lived after becoming a nun, followed by being named Mother Superior Mary Amadeus.
A year later, Mother Superior was sent to the Montana Territory. At the request of the Jesuits, she was assigned to head a school for Indian girls at St. Peter’s Mission. Accepting the assignment she left with five Ursuline nuns heading for the mission. Their task, as the first to do so, was to create and establish a curriculum to teach Native Americans from the Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfoot, and Gros Ventre-Assiniboine Reservation located in central and eastern Montana. The cold and severe winters along with other frontier elements made the task even more daunting for the nuns.
For some unknown reason, Mary Fields stayed behind. Later, learning of Mother Amadeus bout with pneumonia, she went to the St Peters Mission aid her friend. Mother Superior Amadeus recovered and Mary ended up staying at the mission. She earned her keep by taking a job with the Ursuline nuns. The 6 foot, approximately 200 hundred pound dark-skinned black woman, was an imposing figure to the locals, no matter their race. Her duties included hauling supplies from around Cascade County, Montana area, Great Falls, or Helena to the St. Peters Mission. By now she had become hardened by the frontier life. She took to smoking harsh cigars and carrying a pistol strapped under her apron. That type life alone designated certain duties such as required including patchwork carpentry, chopping wood, cutting down small trees and digging various type holes for the mission.
Her Biography says that Native Americans of the area called her “White Crow” because “she acts like a white woman but has black skin.” One schoolgirl wrote of her in an essay, saying “she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.”
She became known as a fist fighter that would protect her rights at the drop of a hat. One website reported that the Grate Falls Examiner stated “She broke more noses than any other person in central Montana.”
There are different reports on the cause of a gunfight between Mary and one of the disgruntled workers at the mission. Mary was in charge, acting as the Forman, which reportedly angered this particular individual. Some say the man didn’t like to be told what to do by a black woman. But in our experience, even today, these issues are normally based upon economic reasons. The fact she was earning a reported $2 per month more that he, evidently, sent him off on a constant complaining campaign to whoever would listen. He even registered a complaint with the managing Bishop in charge of the nuns and mission. The old, why should an “uppity colored woman” make more than a man was his rant.
The man’s nerve wracking complaints caused an altercation that resulted in a shootout. One version of how it started says the man hit Mary. As she fell, she pulled her six-shooter and fired, missing the guy. He pulled his gun firing, but missing and the shootout was on. Another report says Mary went looking, found the man by a latrine he was cleaning, and fired at the man upon sight. She missed and the shootout was on. Without going into further specifics of the differing details of the subsequent shootout, in fact there were several gunshots fired by both parties in the back of the mission. Both emptied their six-shooters ending with the man getting wounded in the buttocks. The altercation caused Mary to get fired by the managing Bishop as soon as he got wind of the gunfight. It was said the Bishop had been asking the nuns to get rid of her a long time before the shootout.
After the firing, her friend Mother Amadeus helped her open a restaurant in Cascade, which was not that far from the St Peters mission. Evidently, the gruff exterior and frontier mannerisms of Mary hid her compassion for the downtrodden and destitute. It seems that all you needed to eat in Mary’s restaurant was an appetite. She may have been an excellent friend, nanny, worker, but her cooking wasn’t that well received. Nor was she a very good business person. Thus, the place went broke within ten months. Before the closure, she fed any (person who would eat what she prepared) and everybody whether they had the money to pay for the meal or not. I would guess everybody, except the man with which she had the shootout.
At 60 years-old in 1895, she won a job as a mail carrier. She won because she was the fastest of twelve other cowboy applicants, half her age, to hitch a team of six horses to the mail wagon. With this assignment, she became the second American woman employed by the United States Postal Service and the first black woman mail carrier in the US. The nickname “Stagecoach” was earned in recognition of her reliability. Is the snow too deep for her horse team? No matter, Mary used snowshoes while carrying the mail sacks on her shoulders. She, and her mule, Moses, would deliver the mail in blizzards, extreme heat to the outlying and miner’s cabins.
That was just nature elements that attempted to stop this determined woman. For six years, she rode a stagecoach carrying the mail, money and other items for delivery over a frontier postal route. The trails were littered with desperate people who did mind taking a chance on stealing whatever this black woman was carrying. In those rare occasions where some desperado had not heard of Stagecoach Mary, they may try to rob her. Their first surprise would be that she was a woman driving a six-horse team coach. Added to their shock of seeing this tall black woman alone and out in the wilderness, was the site of a double barrel ten gauge shotgun leveled at them. The question now became, who has the drop on whom? Since it was said she never lost a piece of mail or any other valuables in her care during a stagecoach run, we know how those confrontations ended.
She didn’t have to worry about hostile Indians because most Sioux had not seen a black person before, much less such an imposing tall and armed black woman like Mary. Rather than deal with someone or something they didn’t fully understand, they would not bother her. Can’t you just imagine two young Sioux braves pointing at her coach coming down the trail, turning their pony’s aside to get out of the rolling wagon wheels path. As Stagecoach Mary cracks her whip at the horses, yelling “Git-up-there Moses.” One of the braves turns to his friend and says while pointing in the coach’s direction…”Bad medicine.”
She finally moved on to a job that was less treacherous because of health issues. She opened a laundry (also in Cascade, Montana) at the age of seventy. Spending most of her time drinking, cigar smoking and spitting in the local saloon instead of doing laundry, she was reportedly content with life. Stagecoach Mary died of liver failure in 1914. Life expectancy in the old west for those who died violently was 35. For those who live an uneventful life and took care of themselves averaged 70 years old. Mary, an ex-slave, and black woman lived to be around 82 years old. Can you believe it?
Actress Esther Roll played Mary Fields in a 1976 TV Documentary, entitled South by Northeast, Homesteaders. Dawnn Lewis played her in a 1996 TV movie, The Cherokee Kid. Kimberly Elise was cast as Mary in the 2012 TV-movie Hannah’s Law. Next in this series is James P. Beckwourth. , American mountain man.
Peace, make it a day in which Jesus Christ would be proud of you,
Codis Hampton II
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