A Woman You Should Know — Mary Fields, who did not let snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stay her from her swift completion of her appointed rounds.
Today the United States Postal Service has never seemed so important and yet so fragile. Attacked even. To one woman, the mail was her life and she would defend it with a pistol and a rifle if she had to. She was the first African American (and only second woman) to become a mail courier. Technically, a “star route mail carrier” which was a person who delivered mail from a direct route to one person or household.
Later there would develop a scandal involving the star routes (having nothing to do with Mary Fields) when it was discovered postal officials were receiving bribes to be awarded lucrative delivery contracts. The star routes were temporarily shut down in 1876 (Mary’s career was after this time period.)
Fields was born — by best guestimate around 1832. She never knew the actual date of her birth. She was born to enslaved parents and was herself an enslaved person. She was raised and worked on a plantation in Tennessee. Her father was sold away from the plantation when Mary was a young girl. It broke her heart.
Emancipation came as it did for many after the Civil War. Mary found various jobs, including maid on a steamboat, the Robert E. Lee, on the Mississippi River. According to various (and vague) telling’s, she was befriended by a Judge Edmund Dunne who was riding the steamboat and he offered Mary a position in his household. She accepted.
Judge Dunne was born an Irish Catholic, he would eventually go onto become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Arizona Territory. He was raised in Ohio by a prosperous business father. Dunne married and had five children, but his wife died young. And here entered Mary. It seems Mary took care of the children, eventually safeguarding their passage (her first courier job) to the Judge’s sister Mary Amadeus in Toledo, Ohio. The Judge’s sister was born Sarah Theresa Dunne, a somewhat frail child inflicted with asthma and other ailments. Her family might have been acquaintances with the family that had enslaved Mary. Sarah would border at an Ursuline school and took vows in 1861, eventually elected Mother Superior. She was now Mother Amadeus.
In delivering the children to the care of Mother Amadeus and her school Mary stayed on working for the Convent, this sometime around 1870. Mary worked as hard as any man because she was strong — stronger than — any man. She stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. A solid, large, dark woman who was not as easily intimidated as she was intimidating to others.
She developed a connection and a warm friendship with Mother Amadeus, and it was here (or perhaps earlier) Mary learned to read and write. Somewhere in the early 1880's (remember dates are a bit sketchy in Mary’s biography) Mother Amadeus moved to St. Peter’s Mission in Montana, her job being to run a school for the Native Americans students. These were the Blackfeet tribe, nomadic people who hunted bison and fished trout. By the 1880s they were forced to adapt to the European settlers streaming west. Their lands were restricted, the bison nearly gone, and many wiped out by disease brought by the “white man.” And now the white man was culturally transforming them into God’s children, or something like that.
St. Peter’s Mission had been founded by Jesuits in 1860. There was a chapel, boy’s school, and now a girl’s school. By the time Mother Amadeus arrived there was a post office (important to our story), a convent and opera house would be built next.
Life on the Montana frontier was a struggle, in particular during winters where temperatures could reach below 30 degrees. At the mission everyone lived in drafty, log cabins. The nuns were expected to do everything including take care of the priests, of which Mother Amadeus complained. There was little financial help from anywhere. Mother Amadeus requested more people to staff the struggling mission and boarding school. Always of gentle healthy, she fell ill and asked that Mary come and tend to her. Mary did, settling into the mission outside Great Falls and soon Mother Amadeus recovered from pneumonia.
How strange life for Mary must have been. She was the only African American for miles around. Many of the Blackfeet children had never even seen a black person. She was given the name “White Crow” because, as one student said, “she acts like a white person but has black skin.” It was meant as a name of honor. Mary didn’t mind. Many of the whites continued to call her “N. Mary.”
Mary was in charge of construction and repairs to the buildings, growing vegetables (she loved to garden) and raising chickens. At one time over 400 and took revenge on a skunk who dared killed 60 of her charges. She blasted the damn skunk to Kingdom Come. Mary was particular about her territory and her work. She was surly, had a sharp tongue and had no problem reprimanding some of the hired hands (white) if they did something she didn’t like, like step on the lawn she herself had just mowed. They did not like having a black woman telling them what to do. It often led to fights. Supposedly once with guns drawn, but nothing fired. Another time she may have gotten into a gunfight with a man who is variously reported to have objected to taking orders from her or to her wages being higher than his. Another story has him backhanding her and her reaching for her guns. Another time she threw a rock at someone.
She cursed, she smoked hand-rolled cigars and she drank whiskey, but she was loyal, a good person and responsible. The Ursuline nuns adored her. Bishop Brondel, however did not. Brondel, a native of Belgium was the Diocese of Helena. He probably read one schoolgirl’s essay about Mary: “she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a Republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.” The Bishop’s desk was full of complaints and he felt the “black woman” did not set a good example for the children at the mission. He instructed the sisters to dismiss her. Mind you from a position she adored, was good at and was not compensated for. The nuns spoke in her defense. To deaf ears. The nuns came to Mary in tears. Mary decided to confront the Bishop and traveled to the capital, Helena. She was still dismissed.
Mary had worked for the nuns for a decade without pay. It was unfair and she must have burned, not at her friend Mother Amadeus but at just another slight, another injustice a person, a woman, of her skin color could expect. Mary moved to a nearby town, Cascade. The population in 2010 boasted only 685 people. In a state with less than 350 African Americans she was again the only black person living in town.
Cascade was a rough and tumble western town filled with men (and women) seeking gold, adventure, a better way of life. Mary stood out and not just for the color of her skin. She wore buckskin from hide she tanned herself. She also was not averse to fighting with her fists though a loaded gun was always at hand. It was claimed she could knock out two men at the same time. She made bets and never lost.
With the help of hard-earned money from Mother Amadeus Mary opened a couple eateries that failed, it was said because she insisted on feeding so many who were down on their luck. In her café, in those years she heard a lot of “N Mary come here.” “More coffee N Mary.” “I want this N Mary.” “Give me that N Mary.” Called, daily, an offensive name to her face as if it were no more than saying how do you do. Still the town took to her (mostly). Many still thought her strange with her men’s clothes, her smoking and her gruff manner she possessed when irritated. She just didn’t suffer no fools and supposedly broke more men’s noses than any other person in all of Montana. She was legend.
Cascade’s mayor became a fan and allowed Mary to drink in the saloons, a privilege not granted to blacks, or women of any color.
Around 1895 Mary applied for an obtained a contract by the United States Post Office Department to become a Star Route Carrier with the Wells Fargo Company. A Star Route Carrier was an independent contractor who used a stagecoach to deliver mails. Her route was roughly 15 miles from Cascade to St. Peter’s Mission where she had been dismissed. This would allow her to stay connected with the nuns. The job was said to pay a whopping $75 a month, a salary men fought to obtain. It was seen as a job for a man, a tough man. There weren’t many citizens of Cascade as tough as Mary even though she was at least 60 years of age. Still strong as an ox, as fearless as any cowboy.
She was used to living in a segregated world. Born into it, freed into it. She knew she had to maintain a careful cohabitation with the endless white faces she encountered on a given day. A woman, who was too tall, too masculine, too dark to ever fit it. Not that fitting in was even an option for a woman of color, in the west which was just as prejudice as everywhere else.
She knew that her public route was risky and she would be vulnerable, not so much to Cascade’s citizens, but to those with an ill intent and others passing through who might not take to a black woman out on her own with a horse a mule and a job and responsibility. It was said she was a crack shoot. Probably by necessity.
It was claimed she won the job out over another man (or men) because she, at the age most women were great-grandmothers, was the quickest to hitch a team of six horses to the wagon.
On her fist day she sat out with her horses and her mule Moses, her apron over her skirt over her men’s clothing, a cigar in her mouth and her firearms within reach. Proud.
Over roughly 8 years (again dates are disputed) Mary, now and better, nicknamed “Stagecoach Mary” through hazardous road conditions, brutal weather, and outlaws traveled her route six days a week. If she couldn’t get through by horse she strapped on snowshoes and hefted sacks on her shoulders. Once attacked by wolves (one said to be 7 feet tall as the maybe tall tale goes) she never faltered except for the one time she was thrown and had to be nursed back to help by the nuns. She never missed a day. So prized was the safe delivery of the mail it was said it was better the mail person and horse perish before the pouch of mail.
After she retired, she returned to doing laundry out of her home and babysitting. One story (probably not entirely true but the spirit of it being truthful) had Mary confronting a customer who refused to pay for his laundry. Though she was 72 she confronted him on the streets like the gunslinger she was rumored to be and knocked him out with her fists and declared his bill “paid in full.” It was said she could still knock out a man with one punch. I’m sure she had to defend her womanhood, and her race many times.
She continued to enjoy her whiskeys in town. She ate for free at the local hotel. She met a young boy who was so impressed by her when he became a big movie star, he talked about her to Ebony magazine. He was Gary Cooper.
Mary continued to garden, and she became Mascot Mary to the Cascade Cubs, the baseball team, a sport she loved. Still she remained vulnerable to prejudice. In 1911 her home/laundry mysteriously burnt down.
It’s not sure how many “friends” she had, frontier life, especially for a woman, especially a woman of color had to be lonely and strange, fraught with injustice. So, she got herself a pet eagle and she fought for the right for women to vote. If they weren’t her “friends” the town did respect Mary and a bunch pitched in and rebuilt her home/laundry.
Proud to the end, and independent when she fell sick, she lay down in the grass behind her simple home to die. But some children found her, and she was transported to Great Falls and its hospital where she died of liver failure in 1914. She was near or about 82 years old. She is buried in a cemetery at the foot of the trail, her former mail route. At the time marked by a simple wood cross.
Many African Americans helped settled in west after the Civil War hoping, like all settlers, for opportunity, a better way of life. They too were pursuing their American dream. They traveled like the white settlers, on foot, by horse and wagon. The hardships were many. But there was a sense of freedom, wide open land and prospects. Some settled easily, some joined with native American tribes, and fought alongside them. The remain largely out of movies and history books though they were indeed an integral part of the landscape.
Many African American women, with or without their families, ran laundries, worked in hotels, on farms, others wrote for newspapers, and herded cattle, taught schools. Some, like Mary and Martha Clarke became outlaws (maybe another post for another day). We have heard so little about their struggles and their triumphs and their real contribution to settling the west. Many, like Mary found purpose and community.
Zemeckis is an award-winning documentarian and the author of three best-selling books, including “Feuding Fan Dancers,” a feminist history of Sally Rand and Faith Bacon, showgirls during the Golden Age of entertainment. Zemeckis is the founder of the program Stories Matter, female storytellers mentoring underserved female writers. Honored for her work inspiring women, in 2020/21 Zemeckis will be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in part for “sharing and preserving stories of women who were once marginalized and stigmatized . . .” but due to her work “these women are now celebrated for their independence and personal agency.” The Medal is officially recognized by both Houses of Congress and is one of our nation’s most prestigious awards. Past recipients include Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Elie Wiesel, Sen. John McCain and HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco. Her IG features best-selling authors and their writing tips. @lesliezemeckis.