Meet the feisty frontierswoman with a fighting spirit who refused to play by the rules
By Shilo Urban
Illustrations by Conny Gonzalez
Everyone knew not to mess with Stagecoach Mary in 1890s Montana, a largely unsettled wilderness with ferocious weather and unforgiving terrain. Here on the edge of civilization, Mary Fields drove her stagecoach beyond the boundaries of age, race and gender. A whiskey-drinking crack shot who smoked and cursed continuously, Mary made her home in a quiet mountain monastery. Fond of children and physical altercations, she was a beloved babysitter who also had a standing $10 bet that she could knock out any man with a single blow. She never lost.
Heavily armed at all times, Mary fought off wolves and bandits as the first African American female star-route carrier for the United States Postal Service. Standing 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, she sat on top of her stagecoach wearing a men’s hat and jacket, with a cigar in her mouth and a rifle close at hand — and a .38 Smith & Wesson strapped beneath her apron. She crafted pretty boutonnieres from her garden for the local baseball players to wear at every game, and anyone who spoke ill of the team could expect a punch in the mouth.
Mary was born a slave in Tennessee around 1832. Unlike many enslaved people, she learned to read and write. Freed after the Civil War, she worked on Mississippi River steamboats as a laundress and chambermaid. At some point, she became friends with an Ursuline nun named Mother Amadeus Dunne. Mary left the steamboats to join Mother Amadeus at a convent in Ohio, announcing upon arrival that she needed “a good cigar and a drink.” Her ornery nature and habitual profanity ruffled plenty of nuns’ feathers. But she proved her worth as a groundskeeper, keeping the abbey in shipshape through hard physical labor and sheer force of personality. “God help anyone who walks on the lawn after Mary has cut it,” one sister remarked.
But Mary’s destiny was farther west. Mother Amadeus had relocated to St. Peter’s Mission, an isolated outpost 15 miles west of Cascade, Montana. She fell deathly ill of pneumonia, and Mary traveled 1,700 miles to nurse her friend back to health. The West suited Mary. She settled in at St. Peter’s as a forewoman, handling “men’s work” — maintenance and repairs, hunting and chopping wood. She raised hundreds of chickens and tended the massive garden. She coordinated supply deliveries, a critical task in a land where survival was still precarious. Yet she accepted no pay, only room and board. With no contract, she could work on her own terms, coming and going as she pleased.
Although Mary played an indispensable role at the mission, she was never really accepted as part of the community. Her skin was a different color. She was “difficult.” She bickered. She made people uncomfortable. She had the “temperament of a grizzly bear” — not to mention a hearty appetite for hard liquor and homemade cigars. After 10 years, Mary’s ill-fitting disposition finally caught up with her when an argument with a co-worker escalated into gunplay. It was the final straw for the bishop, who kicked her out.
Mary moved to Cascade and adopted a lifestyle that shocked 19th-century sensibilities. She was a single woman who did not depend on a man, a family, or the church for support — and for three decades, she was the only African American in the area. She worked odd jobs. She talked politics and sports. She socialized with men at saloons, enjoying a special exemption from the law banning women from such establishments. Always ready to fight, Mary became known as one of the quickest draws around. She twice tried her hand as a restaurateur, but both businesses failed because she fed the hungry whether they could pay or not.
But in 1895, Mary found her calling as a star-route mail carrier, an independent contractor for the U.S. Postal Office. She was 60 years old. For the next eight years, she delivered packages by stagecoach across the mountainous countryside — and she never missed a single day of work. She drove rocky backtrails on a 34-mile loop from Cascade, transporting vital supplies to remote settlements including St. Peter’s. She battled searing summer heat and wild winter blizzards with temperatures 45 degrees below zero. When the snow became too deep for driving, Mary strapped on her snowshoes and delivered the mail on foot.
She earned a reputation for reliability and speed, and for gunfights and fisticuffs. According to the Great Falls Examiner newspaper, Mary had broken more noses in Central Montana than anybody else. Outlaws proliferated in the region, but she was never robbed; the would-be thieves were too intimidated. Wolves presented another constant threat. One night, a pack of the hungry animals spooked Mary’s horses and overturned her coach, which was loaded with precious food for the mission. She fended off the wolves for hours until daylight arrived.
Mary retired in 1903 and ran a laundry service out of her home, her hearty temperament intact. Well into her 70s, she cold-cocked a man in the middle of the street — he had refused to pay his bill. She became the baseball team’s biggest booster and an in-demand babysitter who spoiled the children with candies and treats. A respected public figure and minor celebrity, Mary ate free meals for life at local restaurants. Schools closed on her birthday to celebrate. When her house burned down in 1912, the townspeople rallied around her, donating the lumber and labor needed to rebuild. Mary died two years later, and her funeral was one of the biggest in Cascade’s history. A simple stone marks her grave, which is located at the foot of the path where she drove her stagecoach through the mountains — and right into Wild West legend.
If Mary’s story seems tinged with the sparkle of a tall tale, it probably is. Most of what we know about her comes from anecdotes and oral histories. Over the decades she has developed into a folk hero, the subject of multiple plays, movies and books. In one early rendition, she wears buckskin and carries a live eagle on her arm. The larger-than-life frontierswoman has become a symbol of freedom and self-sufficiency, a rough-and-tumble individualist with the grit and the guts that made America. But Stagecoach Mary is much more than a myth. She is a human. A woman. An African American. We can hardly imagine how Mary felt out there on the rugged trails, living beyond the boundaries and leaving behind a legacy that inspires us still today.
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