By Walter Giersbach
Life in the 19th century was vivid and terrifying, colorful and amazing in its variety. But you wouldn’t know it looking at yellowed news clippings and daguerreotypes. It was explosively colorful, literally and metaphorically, where the times concerned Mary Fields.
Fields has several admirable and notorious claims to fame. She’s best remembered, when remembered at all, as the second woman to officially carry the U.S. mail and the first African-American to do so. Of more notoriety, she shot a co-worker and created enough problems to get her kicked out of the nunnery where she had been staying.
Fields stood six feet tall and reputedly weighed about 200 pounds, liked to smoke cigars, and was described as “black as burnt over prairie.” She often had a pistol strapped under her apron, carried a 10-gauge shotgun, and had a jug of whiskey by her side.
This was not your 21st century woman. Born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee, about 1832, she was freed with the Emancipation Proclamation. Unlike many slaves, Fields had learned to read and write. She then worked at the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne’s wife, Josephine, died in 1883, Fields took the family’s five children to their Aunt Dolly, Mother Mary Amadeus, who was the mother superior of the Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio.
The following year, Mother Mary Amadeus was sent to Montana to establish St. Peter’s Mission. This was a school for Native Americans in the town of Cascade, midway between Helena and Great Falls. When Fields learned that Mother Mary was ill with pneumonia, she hurried west to care for her. After Mother Mary recovered, Fields stayed on in Cascade to haul freight to keep the school functioning. She also chopped wood, did stone work and rough carpentry, ending up as forewoman of the crew. When needed, she made supply runs to the Montana Central (later Great Northern) train stop and even 25 miles north to Great Falls and 60 miles south to Helena.
While making one such run, Fields’ wagon was attacked by wolves. The horses bolted and overturned the wagon. Anecdotal evidence says Fields kept the wolves away with her revolver and rifle. At dawn’s light, she got the freight to the school. The nuns were relieved in no small part because they’d invested $30 for the food. When a keg of molasses was found to have broken, Fields was docked a portion of her pay for the loss.
Native Americans in the area called her White Crow because “She acts like a white woman but has black skin.” The local whites were a bit more mystified, and one schoolgirl wrote, “She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low foul creature.”
This was Mary Fields’ life for a decade until there were complaints and an incident with a disgruntled hired hand at the mission. Everyone knew that Fields had a temper. The Great Falls Examiner, Cascade’s newspaper, reported Fields broke more noses than any other person in central Montana.
The worker complained loudly that Fields was earning $2 a month more than he, and why was she worth that being only an uppity colored woman? He voiced his gripe at the local saloon where Fields was a regular customer, then he took his grievance directly to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger himself.
This made Fields’ blood boil. Next chance, Fields and the hired hand confronted each other by the sheep shed behind the nunnery. She’d gone after the man simply to shoot him as he cleaned the latrine, figuring perhaps to dump his body there. She missed, he shot back and the fight was on! Bullets flew until both their guns were empty. The only blood spilled, however, came when one of Fields’ bullets ricocheted and hit the man in the left buttock, ruining his new $1.85 trousers. Then the bullet passed through the bishop’s laundry, ventilating his drawers and two white shirts that had been shipped from Boston the week before.
The bishop, incensed, ordered Fields to leave the convent.
Ever resourceful, and with the help of Mother Mary Amadeus, Fields opened a restaurant in Cascade. The restaurant went broke ten months later, quite possibly because Fields served food to anyone regardless of their ability to pay.
In spite of Fields being in her 60s in 1895, she was then hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of horses. She drove the horses and wagon, along with her mule, Moses. This earned her the nickname of “Stagecoach Mary.” When the Montana snows grew too deep for the coach to continue on a run, Mary would put on her snowshoes, shoulder the mail bags, and begin walking with Moses, never missing a day of work.
At the age of 72, Fields decided to slow down. The mission nuns helped her open a laundry service in Cascade. In addition, she tended her garden.
One customer, however, failed to pay up because she hadn’t put the extra starch into his shirt cuffs and collar. Hearing him in the street, Fields left the saloon and knocked him flat with one blow. She told her drinking companions that the satisfaction from this act was worth more than what she was owed. The hapless customer also allowed that the tooth Fields knocked out was the one that had been giving him trouble. Both were satisfied.
Stagecoach Mary grew to become a respected figure in Cascade, and for many years the town closed its schools to celebrate her birthday. When Montana passed a law forbidding women to drink in saloons, Cascade’s mayor granted her an exception.
When Mary wasn’t cleaning, she babysat children, but spent most of the money she earned buying treats for the children. During this time, a small boy visiting from nearby Dearborn, noticed her. The young boy was a Montana native named Gary Cooper. Fields got free food and liquor wherever she went, and attended every home game the Cascade baseball team played. According to local sources, she gave flowers from her garden to any player who hit a home run, and would rain a fury of fire and profanity on any umpire who made a bad call against the home team. Despite her gruff exterior, Mary was also kind hearted, and so beloved by the townspeople in Cascade that when her home burned down in 1912, the townspeople helped build her a new one.
Fields died of liver problems in 1914 at the age of about 82. Actor and early Montana friend Gary Cooper wrote of her in Ebony magazine, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.”
In these times of sanitized living, it’s hard to conceive of the drama of daily life more than a century ago. And who’s to say what we’ve gained or lost since then?
Walter Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in a score of print and online publications and he writes frequently on military history and social issues. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online booksellers. He has directed communications for Fortune 500 companies, publicized the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.