They say Mary Fields had "the temperament of a grizzly bear" and a quick hand on the draw, but it would be her devotion to her community that made her a legend across the Wild West.
Aloft on a stagecoach pulled by a team of horses, Stagecoach Mary Fields covered over 300 miles every week to deliver mail across the West at the turn of the 20th century.
The six-foot-tall courier was said to have “the temperament of a grizzly bear” and kept a revolver and a rifle on her person. When she wasn’t delivering mail, the postwoman of the Wild West was usually seen at the saloon or smoking a cigar. As the first black woman to ride for the U.S. Postal Service, Mary Fields wasn’t just tough, but she was one of a kind.
Her grit and novelty aside, it was Stagecoach Mary’s commitment to her community that transformed her into a legend. This is her story.
Mary Fields First Foray Into The West
Because she was born a slave in 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee, the details of Mary Fields’ early life are somewhat uncertain. According to some biographers, her mother was a house slave and her father a field slave.
Fields’ life comes into focus for historians after she became a free woman in her 30s following the Civil War. Then, Fields reportedly left Tennessee for Mississippi where she worked as a maid on the steamboat Robert E. Lee.
She eventually took a job as a servant in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne in Ohio where she met Dunne’s sister, Mother Amadeus, who was the Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent in Toledo. Mother Mary Amadeus brought Fields on to work at the convent as a groundskeeper, but Fields quickly ruffled some feathers there. When one sister asked Fields about her journey to Toledo, Fields replied that she needed “a good cigar and a drink.”
Another nun complained, “God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it.” The fiery groundskeeper with a “difficult” nature even loudly complained about her pay.
In 1885, Mary Fields left Ohio behind to travel west to St. Peter’s Convent in the wilds of Montana where Mother Amadeus had established a children’s boarding school. Mother Amadeus had fallen ill with pneumonia and personally called for Fields to serve the nuns and nurse her back to health.
After Mother Amadeus’ recovery, Fields decided to settle in at the new convent. She took over the convent’s wagon team and hauled supplies. She also transported visitors to and from the train station. And when her wagon flipped after a pack of wolves spooked the horses, Mary Fields guarded the supplies for an entire night, single-handedly fending off the pack.
Becoming The First Black Woman To Carry Mail
When she wasn’t assisting the nuns and students and seeing to the chickens and vegetables on the Ursuline Convent, Mary Fields visited saloons, got into fistfights, and smoked cigars. She also trained with a revolver and rifle, earning a reputation as a crack shot.
Her temperament, though part of her charm, would also be her undoing at the Convent when a heated confrontation with a janitor caught the attention of Montana’s Bishop Brondell. Fields and the Convent’s janitor had pulled guns on each other during an argument and Brondell consequently had her removed from her position there.
But Mary Fields still had a strong ally in Mother Amadeus who encouraged Fields to move to nearby Cascade, Montana, where she was the only black resident. At first, the nuns helped her to finance a restaurant but the business failed.
In 1895, Mother Mary Amadeus helped Fields to apply for another job as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. By now, Mary Fields was in her 60s.
Mary Fields secured the position when she hitched a team of six horses to a postal coach faster than any other applicant. She then began her daily, 17-mile trek from Cascade to St. Peter’s. She was the second woman in U.S. history to ride a mail route.
As the only black woman delivering mail in the West, Mary Fields stood out. She earned the nickname “Stagecoach Mary” as she rode her route carrying a rifle and a revolver.
Stagecoach Mary worked as a star route carrier, protecting the mail from bandits. She rode her stagecoach to the train station to pick up mail and then delivered it on several routes, some of which were more than 40 miles. In all, Stagecoach Mary drove over 300 miles each week to deliver the mail.
When winter snow blocked the roads, Mary Fields threw a mail sack on her shoulder and walked over 30 miles wearing snowshoes. Montanans applauded Mary Fields for her commitment – and her kindness.
The Legend Of Stagecoach Mary
In her 60s and 70s, Stagecoach Mary had become a local legend. At 200 pounds, she vowed that she could knock out any man with a single punch — and she never lost a bet.
The mayor of Cascade declared that Mary Fields could drink in the saloon, making her the only woman at the bar who wasn’t a prostitute.
On her 81st birthday, local newspaper Anaconda Standard wrote of Stagecoach Mary:
“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.”
After eight years of delivering the mail, Mary Fields left her stagecoach behind and opened a laundry business. While at a local bar, Fields spotted a customer who hadn’t paid his two-dollar laundry bill. She left the bar, punched the customer, and returned to declare, “His laundry bill is paid.”
In Cascade, Montana, Fields Was A Beloved Figure
Though the American frontier is often associated with bandits, thieves, and bigots, Mary Fields managed to make allies wherever she traveled. The owner of the local Cascade Hotel, for instance, mandated that Fields could eat there for free the rest of her life.
Two years later when her home and business burned to the ground, the townspeople all came together to build Stagecoach Mary a new home.
Despite her grit, she was beloved by her neighbors who entrusted her with their children. She made bouquets of flowers for the local baseball team as one of their biggest supporters.
When Mary Fields died on December 5, 1914, her funeral was among the largest the town of Cascade had yet seen.
Gary Cooper, who would go on to become a Hollywood star in dozens of Westerns, met Mary Fields in Cascade when he was nine years old. Years later, Cooper eulogized:
“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.”