In the annals of the history of the West there have been so many individuals that typified the rugged individualism that characterized the western United States during the late 1800's. Sure, there was Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Buffalo Bill, and other men that are so well documented in today's history books. But, women on the other hand haven't been so fortunate to take center stage in the history of the Western frontier. It is so often told that the West was won with the six gun, the Winchester rife and the grit determination of men. But, women have always taken a back seat in regards to what history says about how the West was actually won. The West was a place and time when resourcefulness and courage were demanded of everyone. American history is filled with real individuals whose exploits continue to enlighten us today. All have managed to leave lasting legacies. An authentic account of one of histories more forgotten remarkable individuals that typified the individualism of the times was Stagecoach Mary.
Just who was Stagecoach Mary and how did she manage to acquire that name Stagecoach? Today, when we think of pioneers of the Wild West several images come to mind: the gritty gunslinger, the uncompromising lawman, or even the wagon train trail boss. However, there is a much different image to be had for those that really came to know the western frontier during the 19th century. Just imagine a gritty, cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, fist fighting, straight shooting six foot tall black woman. That is the picture of the famous Stagecoach Mary Fields. Through-out the history of the old west there have been so few accounts of the women who left a lasting legacy. One that the history books today so often omit. There are stories of Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane and their impact in history. But none more elusive than the remarkable life of one child slave who grew up to become a living legend in the rugged foothills of Montana in the late 1800's. An entrepreneur and stagecoach driver whose exploits remain a unique authentic portrayal of the rugged individualism of the times.
Fields was born a slave around 1832 on a plantation in Hickman County Tennessee. The exact date today remains unknown. But, what we do know is that Mary's mother Susanna was the personal servant to Mrs. Dunne. History recounts that the plantation was owned by Judge Dunne whose daughter named Dolly was born around the same time as Mary. It was just a matter of time before Mary and Dolly became fast childhood friends. A friendship that would last a lifetime.
In the years before the Civil War life was hard for male slaves never knowing if or when they would be sold and stripped away from their wives or children. It was right after Mary was born Mary's father was sold to another plantation. From the onset of slavery in the United States and even before the Civil War very few Blacks ever learned to read or write, but, with the closeness of Mary's friendship with Dolly Dunne paved the way for an education that would serve her well for the rest of her life.
When the Civil War ended with the emancipation of slavery many Blacks left their former owners and ventured out on their own. Mary on the other hand stayed on the Dunne plantation feeling a certain loyalty toward the Dunne's. Dolly though left a few years before the war to attend a boarding school. A few years later she entered the Ursuline Catholic Convent in Toledo, Ohio where she became a Nun and took the name Sister Amadeus. It was never known why Dolly decided to become a nun. We can only assume it was her calling. But, within a few years Mary now over 30 years old at six feet weighing over 200 lbs took advantage of her emancipation and went to Toledo, Ohio at the request of Dolly. It was there at the Convent that Mary started her second phase of her life. Mary took care of the nuns as their personal maid, cook and nurse. At over 6′ tall and 200 pounds, there weren't many chores around the convent that she couldn't handle. Mary chopped wood, did rudimentary carpentry, and whatever else was necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of the convent.
In 1884 Mother Amadeus left the Ursuline Convent to found the St. Peter’s Catholic Mission School in Montana, west of Cascade. Mary stayed on in Toledo for three more years. But, when word reached the Convent that Mother Amadeus was suffering from pneumonia Mary duty bound went to Montana to care for her childhood friend. Now, almost 40 years old Mary nursed her friend back to health and for the next ten years she provided protection for the nuns and the school. Phase three of her life was filled with driving supply wagons hauling essential supplies to St. Peter's Catholic Mission to and form Cascade.
Mary Field's always had a quick temper almost as fast as her draw. Soon her fiery temper became as legendary as her ability to get the hard jobs done. It was one altercation that pushed Mary into phase four of her life. This happened when Bishop Filbus N. E. Berwanger fired Mary from her position with the nuns following a shootout with a cow puncher that left her unharmed but the cow puncher more embarrassed than hurt. Mary never allowed social conventions or expectations of feminine behavior to circumscribe her. Rather, she carved a space for herself that allowed her the freedom to exploit both her penchant for hard work and her desire to help others.
So now at the ripe old age of close to sixty she settled in the town of Cascade County, Montana and opened a restaurant that soon failed. Mary's pension for charity proved her undoing in running a small restaurant because she refused to charge anyone that was hungry, whether they could pay or not. Soon afterward Wells Fargo was offering a mail contract and was looking for someone for the Great Falls to Fort Benton route to deliver the U.S. Mail. It was known as a rough and rugged route and would require a person of strong will and great survival skills to maneuver the snowy roads and high winds. Mary immediately applied at the age of 60. It was rumored that she could hitch a team of horses faster than any man half her age and due to her toughness, she was hired! Mary became the first African American mail carrier in the United States and the second woman ever to carry the US mail.
The final phase of Mary's life was laid out on the trails of Montana carrying the US mail. Mary was proud of the fact that her stage was never held up, never missed a day and it was during this time that she really earned the nickname of “Stagecoach." Her unfailing reliability, unflinching nerves and her rugged toughness served her well for the years she spent working for Wells Fargo. Now almost 70 years old Mary finally hug up her saddle and retired in Cascade County Montana
By the time she retired the legend of Stagecoach Mary was already born. The townspeople of Cascade adopted Mary as one of their own. They celebrated her birthday twice a year since she didn't know the exact date of her real birthday. Mary Fields was now known as Black Mary and Stagecoach Mary. Today she is still considered an eccentric. After all she stood six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. By the time she retired everyone in Montana knew of her exploits. Personally she had a pet eagle, a pension for whiskey, a liking for baseball (which was a new sport at the time) and had a heart as big as the 44 she was famous for carrying. You could always tell when Mary came around. She always wore a buffalo skin dress that she made herself. Mary was the celebrity of her day. Her legend and tales of her adventures still resound of the tenacity, the perseverance and the rugged individualism that personified what it took to tame the Wild West.
It is told that Gary Cooper had his mail delivered by Mary as a young boy in Cascade County. As an adult, he wrote about her for Ebony Magazine in 1955. Her wrote of her kindness and his admiration for her. The famous western artists Charlie Russell drew a sketch of her. It was a pen and ink sketch of a mule kicking over a basket of eggs with Mary looking none to happy. The legend of Stagecoach Mary lives on in the rugged terrain of Montana to this day.