Opinion — Stagecoach Mary, Wild West Pioneer Woman

Published 10:23 am Friday, March 4, 2022

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She was strong, an independent spirit and brave which put on her on equal footing with the men of the West during the 1800s. Born into slavery in 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee Mary Field’s formidable strength burst forth.

After the Civil War ended Fields was emancipated finding employment as a chambermaid on board a Mississippi River steamboat named Robert E. Lee. While there she met Judge Edmund Dunne and eventually worked as a servant in the Dunne household. After Judge Dunne’s wife Josephine’s death in 1883, Fields took their five children from their Florida home to the judge’s sister, a nun Mother Mary Amadeus in Toledo, Ohio. Mother Amadeus was the Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent and she and Fields developed a strong friendship which lasted their lifetime.

In 1884 Mother Amadeus and five nuns were sent to the Montana Territory to establish a Native American girl’s school at St. Peter’s Mission west of Cascade, Montana Unfortunately, the harsh winters got the best of the Mother Superior and she contracted pneumonia. Upon learning that her friend was ill, Fields rushed to Montana to nurse her back to health and Mother Amadeus recovered. Fields stayed on at St. Peter’s Mission performing numerous jobs which included maintenance, laundry, freighter, cook and forewoman. For a woman with an “I do what I please” attitude the quiet life in a nunnery had its challenges and Fields’s smoking cigars and taking drinks made the convent staff uncomfortable. It all came to a boiling point when in 1894 Fields was barred by the bishop from the convent after she and a male worker were involved in an incident involving gun play. Consequently, Fields moved to Cascade opening Mary’s Cafe serving food to anyone whether they could pay or not, yet, it closed due to bankruptcy about 10 months later.

As one could see Fields cared for the people in her life. By 1895 the 63 year old Fields landed a job as a Star Route mail carrier, which made her the first U. S. African American female mail carrier and the second female carrier in the United States. Her job involved using a stagecoach, hence the nickname “Stagecoach Mary,” to transport mail in all types of weather and rocky terrain in Montana. Fields had two, four year contracts delivering mail from Cascade, Montana to St. Peter’s Mission, a 34 mile round trip from 1895 to 1899 and 1899 to 1903. This enabled her to visit and stay connected with Mother Amadeus and the children she loved so dearly.

Fields was an expert markswoman so it is not surprising that she carried numerous firearms, most notably a 38 Smith and Wesson to protect herself and the mail from wolves, bandits and thieves. Fields had reliable horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day of work; and was so dedicated that when the snow was too deep for the horses she delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the mail sacks on her shoulders.

Fields was a respected figure in Cascade with the town closing schools to celebrate her birthday each year. The postal matron was allowed into saloons by the Cascade’s mayor even though Montana had passed a law outlawing women entering them. In 1903 Fields at age 71 retired from the Postal Service. She was adored by everyone, and that was proven, when her house caught fire in 1912 volunteers built her a new one. In addition, Fields babysat for many Cascade children and owned and operated a laundry service from home. Sadly, she died at age 82 on Dec. 5, 1914 at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, Montana.  Her funeral was one of the largest that Great Falls had ever seen and her burial was outside of Cascade.

Fields, although Catholic, lived by her own standards in that she preferred living her freedom, which may have been off putting for some. Fields respected the calling of Mother Mary Amadeus and loved her dearly. The sister and others who loved Mary accepted her as she was. Stagecoach Mary indeed made her mark in the American West caring for her friends and delivering the mail.

Judy Moore can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com. She works as a tour guide at The Central High Museum living in Wylliesburg.