Lovingly referred to by her community as “Stagecoach Mary,” Mary Fields was born into slavery around 1832. Historians believe she may have been born in Hickman County, Tennessee.
Following emancipation, she began working on a Mississippi River steamboat as a servant and laundress. After a time, she ended up living in a convent. There are varied stories about how she found the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo, Ohio. Once there though she befriended the convent’s Mother Superior, Mother Amadeus Dunne. She kept busy as a servant, laundress, and groundskeeper.
Later, she followed the Mother Superior to Cascade, Montana where she went to establish a Native American Girls School at St. Peter’s Mission. She completed tasks typically designated for men, like hauling freight, repairs, gathering supplies, in addition to gardening, and tending chickens. Although surrounded by nuns while working, Stagecoach Mary was anything but. Standing 6 feet, 200 pounds, she wore men’s clothes, smoked, drank, had a temper, and always carried a pistol. In fact, it was a standoff with a male janitor, both with guns drawn, that resulted in her dismissal from the convent.
Following her dismissal, she worked odd jobs to make ends meet. She briefly opened a tavern but due to her allowing the poor to eat and drink free, she quickly went bankrupt and closed its doors after 10 months.
In 1895, at nearly 60-years-old, she applied for and was awarded a contract from the postal service to become a star route carrier. She was donated a stagecoach by Mother Amadeus to aid her in her work carrying the mail as an independent contractor. This made her the second woman in the United States, and the first African American woman to fill the position.
She worked for the postal service eight years delivering the mail and protecting it from would be robbers, wild animals, and inclement weather. She was well known in the saloons along her route and did not have to pay for her drinks.
Once she retired, she returned to providing laundry services as well as babysitting. She was well loved in her community. Upon her death in her 80s, on December 5th, 1914, the town saw one of the largest funerals it had ever held. She was buried in a cemetery on a road that linked Cascade to the mission paid for by money raised by the townspeople.
“Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath or a .38.”Gary Cooper, Hollywood star (1901-1960)