Black Heritage -Stagecoach Mary
Black Heritage Sunday
Stagecoach Mary, Black Mary, or Mary Fields
Businesswoman, Stagecoach Driver, Mail Carrier, Religious Worker
Current technology has so many of us glued to our cell phones or listening to the message from our computers saying “You’ve got mail” that mail boxes are becoming obsolete. Others of us are so attached to Southwest Airlines or Jet Blue when we want to travel that we dare not consider taking a trip by horse and wagon. Well, meet “Stagecoach Mary,” or “Black Mary, or simply Mary Fields. In the 1800s, this stage coach driver carried mail as well as passengers, and unlike your email or your travel on Southwest, she was never late.
Stagecoach Mary was a black, gun-totin’ six-foot tall, heavy, tough, short-tempered, two-fisted, picturesque pioneer, powerful female in the wild west, and “one of the freest souls to ever live or draw a .38” Smith and Wesson pistol. Her biography reads like a folktale, and a glimpse of her striding the Rocky Mountain trails in Montana must have been startling. Stagecoach Mary was the first African American woman to become a U.S. postal service star (or contract) route mail carrier. She was born in a slave cabin in Hickman County, Tennessee, around 1832. It is said that for a brief time she lived on the Mississippi and had been a passenger on the riverboat Robert E. Lee when it raced Steamboat Bill’s Natchez on June 30, 1870.
Now a free woman, in 1870 as well, Black Mary was living in Ohio, where she worked as a general handywoman at the convent run by the Ursulines—an order of Catholic nuns—in Toledo. Several accounts of her work there are given, but Mother Amadeus of the convent was the cause of her move to Montana. In 1884 Mother Amadeus went to Cascade, Montana, to open a school for Indian girls. When Black Mary heard that she was ill, she rushed to Montana to care for her friend. But for her terrible temper, fearlessness of man and beast, constant fighting with the hired men, and a gun duel with one of the men, she might have lived her remaining days working at the mission. After so many complaints about Black Mary to the presiding bishop to Mother Amadeus to “send that black woman away,” she left the mission.
In 1895 Black Mary became a stagecoach driver for the U.S. government. Now in her sixties, she dressed in men’s clothing—hat included—and puffed on a big, black cigar, and for eight years carried mail and passengers between the mission and Cascade. The hard-drinking, quick-shooting mail carrier sported two guns and a bad attitude. She became known for prompt delivery regardless of the weather. When snow was too deep, she left her stagecoach at home and delivered the mail on foot. She sat high atop the stagecoach seat and with expert skill managed the two teams of horses. For those who did not know, Black Mary appeared to be a big, tough, black man. She also broke more noses than any other person in central Montana and protected the Wild West stagecoaches from packs of wolves.
In 1903, her stagecoach days over, Black Mary settled in Cascade and became the town’s only black resident. She opened a laundry and ended her workday with a drink and a rather bad homemade cigar at the local saloon with the men of the community. Inspite of her drinking, cigar-smoking, and occasional fisticuffs, townspeople loved her. The esteem in which she was held was seen in the special privileges she received, such as permission to hang out in the local saloon. A woman of religious belief, she cared for the altar at Wedsworth Catholic Society. The townspeople celebrated her birthday twice a year, or whenever she wished. To celebrate her various birthdays, Cascade’s schools closed. By now she had tamed her temper. The whole town mourned her death, and a simple wooden cross marks her grave in the Cascade Hillside Cemetery. Pen and ink drawings of Stagecoach Mary hang in the Cascade Bank. Actor Gary Cooper, who spent much time in Cascade, brought her career alive. She is still celebrated in Cascade and was celebrated recently on the television show The Voice. She has been honored in articles online, sometimes in a language that we don’t say out loud in church.