"Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38," the actor Gary Cooper wrote of Mary Fields -- a.k.a. Stagecoach Mary -- for an EBONY profile 1959. Mary was a Western inspiration to the classic Hollywood performer. And it's easy to see why. Mary embodied the traits of bravery and independence which defined the American frontier. She was the first African American woman to carry mail for the U.S. Postal Service. At the time of her historic route, Mary was already sixty years old.
The Early Life of Mary Fields
Mary Fields was born into slavery in Hickman County, Tennessee around 1832. At the end of the Civil War, she was emancipated and began working on a Mississippi River steamboat where she met Judge Edmund Dunne. Mary became a servant for Dunne and eventually went to live with Dunne's sister, Mother Mary Amadeus Dunne, who was Mother Superior at an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. Amadeus and Mary bonded instantly. When the Mother Superior was sent to central Montana to establish a school for Native American girls, Mary went too.
There, near the town of Cascade, Amadeus and Mary lived at St. Peter's mission where Mary worked odd jobs: "men's work." Standing six feet tall, Mary was relegated to tough manual labor. Her manner was also not exactly what was considered feminine at the time; she swore profusely and had a temper. Imagine a gruff, gun-toting groundskeeper in a skirt and that was Mary. After ten years at the nunnery, the bishop kicked her out for challenging a subordinate to a duel.
Mary went on to open her own bar in Cascade, which failed, and then a laundry business, which burned down. But by that point, she was beloved by the townspeople of Cascade. Having gained a charismatic reputation for knocking back whiskey with men in local saloons -- where Mary was generally the only Black and only female patron -- she became something of an Old West icon. She even became the mascot for the Cascade baseball team. After each game, Mary gifted the players with handmade bouquets; she loved flowers. Mary was a woman of multitudes.
Becoming Stagecoach Mary Fields
By 1895, at the age of 60, Fields embarked on the career path which would immortalize her name forever. She became a Star Route Carrier for the United States Post Office Department. Mary was the first Black woman in the job and in all, the second woman mail carrier in America. Characteristically, Mary set out on her missions in broad skirts and men's coats -- under which she tucked away her .38 Smith & Wesson. Delivering mail through the rural and rough terrains of Montana via stagecoach, Mary had to fight off wolves, thieves and the elements. When the snow was too deep for her horses (or her mule, affectionately called Moses), Mary trekked out on snowshoes with the sacks of letters bundled up on her shoulders.
When Mary grew older, she did retire from the demanding job. She continued to live in Cascade as a local celebrity until her death on December 5, 1914. At that time, her funeral was reportedly the largest the town had ever seen. And it's easy to see why. A unique figure in both women's history and Black history, Mary transcended barriers for living life, simply, on her own terms.
In Her Own Words
According to several sources, Mary once recited the following poem:
I am Mary Fields.
People call me "Black Mary."
People call me "Stagecoach Mary."
I live in Cascade, Tennessee.
I am six feet tall.
I weigh over two hundred pounds.
A woman of the 19th Century,
I do bold and exciting things.
I wear pants.
I smoke a big black cigar.
I drink whiskey.
I carry a pistol.
I love adventure.
I travel the country,
driving a stagecoach,
delivering the mail to distant towns.
Strong, I fight through rainstorms.
Tough, I fight through snowstorms.
I risk hurricanes and tornadoes.
I am independent.
No body tells me what to do.
No body tells me where to go.
When I'm not delivering mail,
I like to build buildings.
I like to smoke and drink in bars with the men.
I like to be rough.
I like to be rowdy.
I also like to be loving.
I like to be caring.
I like to baby sit.
I like to plant flowers and tend my garden.
I like to give away corsages and bouquets.
I like being me, Mary Fields.