Beginning life as a slave in Tennessee sometime during 1832, Mary was the daughter of Buck, a field hand, and Susanna, the personal servant to the plantation owner’s wife. Shortly after Mary was born, her father was sold and left the plantation. Wanting her daughter to have a last name, Susanne gave Mary the name “Fields” due to the job her father had had on the plantation. Susanne died shortly after Mary’s 14th birthday.
When Mary was two weeks old, the plantation owners’ daughter, Dolly, was born. The two girls grew up together and became best friends. At the age of 16, Dolly’s parents sent her to boarding school, leaving Mary alone.
The Civil War began soon after Dolly departed for boarding school and the slaves were left to fend for themselves. Mary now learned a goodly number of skills needed to survive; among them – raising chickens, growing a garden and using natural herbs as medicine.
Mary then went to work for Dolly’s uncle, Judge Edmund Dunne and his wife Josephine, caring for their five children in San Antonio, Florida. When Josephine died in 1883, Mary and the children made the 21-day trip to Toledo, Ohio, to live with their Aunt Dolly, now Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent.
Mary Fields remained with the Ursuline Sisters for many years. The nuns were now her family and she protected them. Mother Amadaus was transferred to St. Peter’s Mission in Montana to establish a school for Native American girls the year after Mary’s arrival. Fields wanted to go with her, but was told it was too rustic and remote. All that changed, however, when word reached her regarding Mother Amadaus’s health status. Learning her friend had contracted pneumonia, Mary was on the first stagecoach to Cascade.
Now 53, Mary began a new life in Montana. As the nuns watched her nursed Mother Amadaus back to health, they were amazed at the woman herself. Not only did she have a great working knowledge of beneficial herbs, along with the skill to fill their table with fresh vegetables; she also knew how to shoot, roll cigars and loved whiskey. She became the mission’s forewoman; tending chickens, repairing buildings and doing laundry, in addition to hauling freight. A rather sizeable woman of that day – Mary stood over six feet tall and weighed in at 200+ pounds.
The Native Americans in the area nicknamed Fields “White Crow”. The name came from the fact that even though Mary acted like a white woman, her skin was black. The local whites were not sure what to make of her and one schoolgirl described her as “. . . she drinks whiskey, and she swears and she’s a Republican . . .”
In 1894, several complaints were made about Mary; one of which was a disgruntled male subordinate, likely on the losing end of a fistfight with her. Though Fields was found innocent of any wrongdoing, the bishop who oversaw the mission ordered her to leave.
Mother Amadeus helped Fields open a restaurant in Cascade; however, the business went broke within about 10 months, due to the fact Mary would serve anyone who came in, whether they paid for their meal or not.
Mother Amadeus then requested the government give Fields the mail route which served the mission. Wells Fargo soon became Mary’s new employer when they hired her to deliver the mail between Great Falls and Fort Benton, Montana; a route which was rugged and required someone with great survival skills to handle the challenges of high winds and snowy roads. The spry 60-year-old Mary was the perfect fit, not only due to her size, but also the fact rumor had it she could hitch a team faster than someone half her age.
Mary was the second woman ever hired as a US mail carrier – and the first black, male or female. Numbered among her other credits were the fact her stage was never held up and she never missed a day of work. If the snow was too deep for her horses, “Snowshoe Mary” delivered the mail by strapping on snowshoes and carrying the sacks on her shoulders. Her unfailing level of reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach”. On one occasion, a pack of wolves spooked her horses. The wagon overturned and Mary stood guard to protect the shipment of supplies for the convent through the night.
Known as both “Black Mary” because she was said to be as “black as a burnt-over prairie” and “Stagecoach Mary”, she had a heart larger than the gun she was known to carry, along with a pet eagle and a love for baseball. Wearing a buffalo skin dress she made herself, Mary became a local celebrity and the subject of legends throughout the surrounding communities regarding her adventures.
Fields was the mail carrier for actor Gary Cooper when he was a young boy growing up in Cascade County. After he became an adult, Cooper wrote an article for Ebony Magazine in 1955, extolling his admiration for Mary and her kindness. The pen-and-ink western artist, Charlie Russell, created an illustration of Mary which depicted a woman who was rather unhappy to discover a basket of eggs her mule had kicked over.
Mary Fields retired from her mail-carrier post in 1901. So loved was she by the residents of Cascade, Montana that in 1910 when the Cascade Hotel was leased to a new manager, the hotel’s owner stipulated in the manager’s contract that Fields would be served free meals for the rest of her life. In 1912, Mary’s home burned to the ground and the townspeople built her a new one.
Mary died in 1914 at the age of 82. Buried in Highland Cemetery at St. Peter’s Mission, a simple cross marks her grave. Until her death, Fields had a standing bet at the local saloon: “Five bucks and a glass of whiskey said she could knock out any cowboy in Cascade, Montana with a single punch.”
The life of Mary Fields has been remembered in several TV broadcasts. Esther Rolle played Fields in “Homesteaders”, Volume 2 of the 1976 TV documentary South by Northwest. In the TV movie, The Cherokee Kid, which was broadcast in 1996, Dawnn Lewis was cast as Fields. In the 2012 TV movie Hannah's Law, the role of Fields was played by Kimberly Elise.
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"Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38." Actor Gary Cooper