They Called Her “Stagecoach” Mary
Stagecoach Mary Fields was born into slavery around 1832…maybe in Tennessee. That is how all accounts of her begin because, well there isn’t much else to say about her early years. Mary’s mother was said to have been a house slave and her father a field slave and even though the purchase and sale of human beings was very well accounted for in numbers there isn’t a lot that matches those numbers to their names. I am going to come back to Mary Fields early years, but first let’s establish a connection between two unlikely ladies. Unlikely in that one was a 6 foot tall, African American, gun toting, cigar smoking, foul mouthed cowgirl and the other a Nun.
After the Civil War and slaves were granted their freedom, many fled to the north as did Mary. Up the Mississippi she went and by one account possibly working as a maid on the steamboat Robert E. Lee. Now steamboats aren’t really my thing, but this boat is the same boat the beat the Natchez in 1870. Could Mary have been working on the boat during this exciting time in Steam Boat history…maybe, but I’ll let you work on that one and let me know. After all, she’s pushing 40 by this time and there is so much more to her story so I don’t want to dwell to long on this historical speculation. She ends up in Toledo, Ohio now working in a convent. The Ursuline Convent in Toledo was founded by 5 sisters in 1854 at the behest of Bishop Amadeus Rappe. I am going to pronounce it Rappe since it has two “p’s” and because Bishop “rape” just doesn’t have a good ring to it. So Bishop Rappe gets these ladies to come to Toledo and they open a school, a bunch of schools actually.
Mary starts work in the convent and here is where the earlier years of her life come into play. She has a very good relationship with one of the nuns, Mother Amadeus Dunne, by some accounts known as Dolly, but her given name is Sarah Theresa Dunne. There is some speculation that Mary was actually the nurse or housemaid for Sarah and her family. Sarah’s father was a prominent business man, John O’Dunne and he is credited with helping a many Irish immigrants settle in the U.S. It is said that perhaps Mary was previously owned by Mother Amadeus’ family and that is why they had such a close relationship and ultimately what brought her to the convent in the first place. Then there is story “B” where Mary actually worked for Mother Amadeus’ brother Edmund Dunne. After the passing of Edmund’s wife Jospehine age 38, Mary was tasked with bringing their 5 children to live in the convent with their Auntie. You know, Edmund was a big politician, no time to raise 5 children…am I right ladies. So the backstory on how Mary Fields ended up at the convent is unclear, but one thing is for sure, the strict nature of her new surroundings was tough and some of the nuns didn’t like her very much.
Mary was the convent’s groundskeeper and one nun’s account of Mary during this time was “God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it.” The wild west is not without its tall tales and so some of the information about Mary is a little iffy, but there is one story that tells of Mary’s bravery. Once, while traveling in Ohio, the horses driving Mary’s coach were suddenly attacked by wolves. The coach flips over on its side throwing Mary. She hurries to flipped cart, using it for protection from the wolves. She spends the night hunkered down in the overturned cart shooting at wolves with her shotgun, switching to her revolver only when she had officially run out of buckshot. Finally, the sun comes up and she uses her muscle to turn the cart right side up. The story goes that she was delivering food and medicine to the convent on that night and despite the bout with the wolves delivers the materials with the only loss being a cracked pot of molasses. Of course the bishop made her pay for the molasses out of her wages…of course he did.
In 1884 Mother Amadeus, aka Sarah Theresa Dunne was called up for missionary work and sent to Cascade, Montana to start a school for Native American children. Shortly after her arrival, Mother Amadeaus became sick with Pneumonia. Once Mary got word, she high tailed it out to take care of her dear friend and as Mother Amadeus recovered Mary decided to stay and help out around the school.
Since Mary was not your average western lady and was known for wearing men’s clothing, shooting gun, smoking drinking…you know, my kind of woman, she also had the tendency for rubbing people the wrong way. One time she got into a disagreement with a janitor of school which ended in a gun fight. This did not sit well with the bishop and we already know he is a bit of a dick and so he insisted Mary be fired. Figures.
Now she is out in Montana, a strange and wild place all on her own with no income. She started taking in laundry and doing odd jobs, drinking hard liquor, cant say I blame her…she also started a couple of restaurants that eventually failed due to her kind nature. She was known for giving away food to the poor. In 1895 she applies to the United States Postal Service and is granted a contract to be a Star Route carrier. A Star Route carrier is basically a contractor of the Unites States Postal Service hired for the task of delivering the mail with “celerity, certainty and security.” Their slogan was shortened to three asterisk symbols…aka the star symbol and that is how the name star route was born. Basically, using government funds allocated for the post office, they awarded contracts to the lowest bidder. Sometimes horseback was used, but the preferred carrier was stagecoach. This is, of course how Stagecoach Mary got her name.
From 1802 to 1859 postal carriers had to be at least 16, the age was eventually raised in 1902, but they also had to be free, white persons. If they didn’t make the delivery, they didn’t get paid. Most of the time harsh weather and terrain were considered the biggest obstacle, but scheduled routes would sometimes be robbed and terrorized by bandits and since carriers were responsible for their own equipment and security, it was a dangerous job. Star Route contractors are still in use today…they use trucks and cars and such, but they are still an important part of our countries mail system.
Thanks for Mother Amadeus who donated Mary a stagecoach, Mary becomes the first African American women awarded a contract and the 2nd women in history to be a Star Route mail carrier and she was 60…60 years old. It was the perfect job for her! She carried her rifle to fend off robbers and bandits and intimidated would be thieves with her large stature, but she was also a beloved member of the community and her kindness towards people was praised from town to town. She drove the route for 8 years.
Now approaching 70 Mary Fields wants to slow down and so she retires from the postal service and in 1903 and with the help of her friends from the convent she starts a laundry. One story from this time in Mary’s life begins in one of her most favorite hang outs, the saloon. She is playing a game of cards when she looks up and sees someone she recognizes from the laundry. Some cowboy who has yet to pay his laundry bill. Mary, not one to back down from anyone, approaches the man and punches him right in his face and proceeds to tell the man that the enjoyment she received from cold clocking him was payment enough and called it even.
Despite her rough side, Mary was also a wonderful caretaker and was the go to gal for babysitting the children of the town. She also loved baseball and would spend many afternoons on the fields with the men of Cascade. She loved to garden and would bring large bouquets of flowers to the baseball players celebrating the game she loved so dear.
1914, Mary, feeling a bit under the weather, wanders into a field, lays down and never gets back up. She was stumbled upon by a group of children who run back into town and rally the adults who carry their beloved Mary to the hospital where she later died at the age of around 82.
As I mentioned before Mary loved children and was the towns most trusted babysitter. One of her charges would grow up to become the famous and might I say handsome actor, Gary Cooper. Cooper, who is probably best known for his rolls in High Noon or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, is quoted referring to Mary Fields in a 1959 ebony article saying “She was born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, but lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath.”
The story comes full circle here as it is Hollywood who has ultimately shaped our modern view of the Wild West and the pioneers who settled the rugged terrain and desolate areas of the United States. Often times we see the white faces mixed with the Native faces in a battle over territory and the right to exist. The faces that we don’t usually see are those of the African, Mexican and Asian Americans that also helped shape our countries landscape. Sure the cowboys usually receive the glory even among this marginalized population who took a risk and headed west, but let’s not forget about the ladies.
Unfortunately for Mary, she wouldn’t live long enough to see and experience the unprecedented African American migration that was just about to take place. Between 1916-1930 there would be a great shift in African American Migration up out of the South and into the growing western communities. African American businesses would start popping up along the railroad. Between 1916 and and 1918 alone saw the movement of 400,000 African Americans moving into the north and west mainly to California and other northern Urban locations.
Stagecoach Mary was the only African American living in the small settlement of Cascade Montana and she had a huge impact on the communities growth and livelihood, not only as a maid or caretaker, but as a business woman. A tough business woman and she should be celebrated as such.
Follow this link to listen to this episode of Complicated Women of History and to check out some stories of other influential women from our past.