“…she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.”
– Schoolgirl’s Essay
“could whip any two men in the territory” and “had a fondness for hard liquor that was matched only by her capacity to put it away.”
– Actor Gary Cooper
These are two very similar reactions to one of the oddest characters in the history of America’s Old West: Miss Mary Fields, otherwise known as “Stagecoach Mary”. I first became aware of Mary while watching the first half of the final season of “Hell on Wheels” the western drama on the AMC Television Network. And I was so intrigued that I had to do a posting about her, now that the series is in its final season. I’m not even sure that Mary will make any appearances in the remaining episodes. But I wanted to write just a little about her while she’s still in my mind. I’m not certain how many of the characters in “Hell on Wheels” are based on actual historical figures, other than Thomas C.
Durant, President Grant, and Brigham Young. But “Stagecoach Mary” played by Amber Chardae Robinson (left) just seemed too odd an addition to be fictional, so I looked her up and there she was, very much a real, fact-based character – ALWAYS ready for a fight!!
Stagecoach Mary Was Born a Slave
Stagecoach Mary began life as a slave – Mary Fields – in Marin Hickman County, Tennessee, where she was born around 1832. As she was a slave child records are sketchy. But with the end of the Civil War came an end to legal slavery in the United States. She worked for a time in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. Following the death of the Judge’s wife Josephine in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida, Fields took the family’s five children to live with their Aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus (below),
the Mother Superior of a convent in Toledo, Ohio. Mary Amadeus was assigned to set up a school for Native American girls: St. Peter’s Mission in Cascade Montana. Mary Fields was very fond of Mother Mary, so when she received word that Mother Mary was ill with pneumonia, Fields rushed to Montana, and nursed her back to health. After Amadeus recovered Fields stayed on at St. Peter’s doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, as well as some typically men’s jobs such as hauling freight, repairing buildings and eventually becoming the forewoman.
Mary Fields is Obliged to Leave Montana
Around 1894, Mary Fields had developed some pretty hard drinking habits, and she wasn’t at all shy about asserting her authority over the male employees of St. Peter’s (below). The Native Americans named
Fields as the “White Crow” because they said “she acts like a white woman but has black skin.” Indeed the essay from the schoolgirl at the top of this posting was written during this time. After some complaints by one such employee who was angry that this black woman made more than he did an incident that involved some gunplay broke out and the Bishop asked her to leave. She tried opening up a kitchen, but this failed after two years either because she gave food away to too many of the needy who couldn’t afford it, or just because she was a lousy cook, depending on which internet source you believe. But there was as opening for a stagecoach driver for the U.S. Postal Service. Mary managed to win this job either because she could hitch a team of horses more quickly than the other applicants, or because Mary Amadeus interceded on her behalf, again depending on whose internet account you are reading.
Mary Fields Becomes “Stage Coach Mary”
Mary’s physical appearance by this time was most imposing: Fields stood 6 feet tall and weighed about 200 lbs, and liked to smoke a rather pungent type of hand-rolled cigar. Her skin was once described as “black as a burnt-over prairie.” She was known to pack a pistol
strapped under her apron, and always had a jug of whiskey by her side. She dressed in much the same garb a man would in her job, wearing a wool cap and boots with her apron covering her in front. But importantly, her acquisition of this job made her was the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States and the second woman to work for the United States Postal Service. And she achieved all of this at the age of 60! She never married and though she was quite literate she left no writings behind. She drove her route utilizing horses and a mule named Moses. And she earned her moniker “Stage Coach Mary” by being utterly and relentlessly reliable. She never missed a day of work, and if the snow was too deep for her horses to make it the full distance, she would slap on snowshoes, sling the mail over her back and make the delivery on foot.
Stagecoach Mary’s Retirement and Legacy
All of this hard living, and hard riding eventually began to take its toll even on such a sturdy woman as Stagecoach Mary. So she finally retired in 1901 to Cascade Montana. But she still needed a source of income, so she opened a laundry service. And she regularly supported the local baseball team (below). She had a standing bet (which she never lost) that she could knock out any man with one punch. And
the mayor granted her a permit that made her the only woman who wasn’t a prostitute who could drink in any bar in town. Her personality was indeed remarkable and pugnacious to say the least. But her contribution to not only women’s history, but also to the history of Montana was also important . In the words of www.blackcowboys.com : “…reaching remote miner’s cabins and other outposts with important mail which helped to accommodate the land claim process, as well as other matters needing expeditious communication. These efforts on her part helped greatly to advance the development of a considerable portion of central Montana, a contribution for which she is given little credit.”
Miss Mary Fields died in 1914. A young boy who lived in Cascade during Mary’s retirement years, who would grow up to be the movie star, Gary Cooper wrote of her in “Ebony” magazine in 1959:
“Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.”