A well-traveled trail rests peacefully between the rich forested hillsides around the town of Cascade, Montana, and snakes seventeen miles west to St. Peter’s Mission. The road, as well as the mission itself, was the hub of activity in 1895. Back and forth along the route, Mary Fields, a former slave from Tennessee, drove a stagecoach carrying mail for people in the central area of the state. Mary was the first African American to deliver the mail and the oldest woman to ever take on such a job.
Fields was born in 1832 and lived with her parents on the Dunn Plantation in Hickman County, Tennessee. Shortly after the Civil War ended, Mary became a free woman. At the urging of her good friend Dolly Dunn, Mary headed west to Montana. Dolly had become a nun and founded a boarding school for Native Americans called St. Peter’s Mission. She invited Mary to visit and consider staying on if she liked.
Once the tough, six-foot-tall Fields arrived, she discovered the mission to be in a state of disrepair. She organized a team of men to work on the school and make repairs and improvements. One of the workers resented a black woman telling him what to do and in a fit of rage backhanded her across the mouth. Just as he was going for his gun, Mary pulled her own six-shooters out first and shot and killed him. The altercation led to her being asked to leave the mission.
Mary then applied for work as a mail carrier on a new route opening into the Cascade Mountains. After proving she could defend herself and her cargo from highwaymen and demonstrating her talent with horses and driving a stage, she was offered the job. She was sixty years old.
Stagecoach Mary, as she would come to be known, transported letters and packages to and from pioneers for five years. She left the United States Mail Service in 1900 and opened a laundry business in Cascade. The business was a huge success, and she spent a portion of the profits treating herself to whiskey and cigars at a local station.
Mary Fields is recognized by the United States Postal Service as being the second woman in history to drive the mail across the Western frontier. She and her mule “Moses” delivered important correspondence that helped to advance the land-claim process and bring about the development of a considerable portion of central Montana.
Sometimes referred to as “Black Mary,” Fields proved a woman could do anything a man could do in the untamed territories beyond the Rockies. Among her many admirers were actor Gary Cooper, who knew her when he was a little boy growing up in her neighborhood in Cascade, and sculptor, illustrator, and painter Charles M. Russell. Russell made a pen-and-ink drawing of the pioneer in 1897. The image, entitled “A Quiet Day in Cascade,” features Mary being knocked down by a hog and spilling a basket of eggs.
Mary Fields was a proud, independent woman who never wanted to be an inconvenience to her friends and neighbors. When she became seriously ill in 1914, she snuck off to a tall, grassy area outside her home and lay down to die. Children playing in the area found her and she was taken to the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, where she died of liver failure shortly after being admitted. The numerous townspeople she had befriended over time escorted her casket to the graveyard.
She was eighty-two years old when she passed away. A simple wooden cross marks the place where she was buried. Friends and admirers laid her to rest at the Hillside Cemetery near Cascade, Montana, located at the foot of the trail that leads the way to St. Peter’s Mission.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.