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Unsung Heroes: ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields

2011 October 12

When you think of the Wild West there are a lot of names that spring to mind, half-mythologised figures straight out of the legends of the American West. Wild Bill Hickock with his gambling, Calamity Jane, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp shooting things up in Tombstone. One name that may not come to mind but really should is that of ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields – the most hardcore postal worker of the last 200 years.

Mary Fields was born into slavery in Tennessee sometime around 1832, the exact year being uncertain. Not too much is recorded about this phase of her life, other than, apparently, a fondness for physical altercations and bad homemade cigars. (Let’s just stop and consider what a badass figure Fields must have cut, standing six feet tall, well muscled, and puffing away on a cheap cigar.)

It’s a few decades after the abolition of slavery in the US that the really interesting part of Fields’ story begins. Around 1884 she moved to Cascade, Montana and sought employment with a group of Ursuline nuns there. She signed on to do the heavy labour – hauling freight, stone work, carpentry, that sort of thing. She stayed here for a while, eventually becoming forewoman.

One somewhat apocryphal story from this era tells of Fields’ freight wagon being overturned and attacked by wolves. Fields holed up in the wagon overnight, keeping the wolves at bay with her rifle and revolver, bringing the cargo in safely the following morning. Whilst this story may or may not be accurate what is undeniable is that the Great Falls Examiner (the only paper in the area) records Fields as being the cause of more broken noses than anyone else in town. She had little patience for the often inappropriate ways of men in frontier towns, and no problem with defending herself.

Why did she leave? Well, remember that fondness for fights? Yeah, she ended up having a gunfight with a coworker. He had complained that she earned $2 more than him, despite her being black and female. She dealt with this the way all sensible people deal with workplace disputes – she tried to shoot him. She missed on the first shot, a gunfight broke out, the bishop’s laundry was damaged, and Fields found herself out of a job.

Sepia tint photo, a portrait of Stagecoach Mary Fields standing holding her rifle, a dog lying at her feet.

So Fields moved on, applying for a job with the United States Postal Service. She was around 60 at this point, and being a mail carrier was not an easy job. Riding between frontier communities, living on the road in all extremes of weather, dealing with outlaws and wild animals; this was not a job for the faint of heart. But Fields impressed in the interview, being the fastest applicant to hitch a team of horses, and so the job was hers. This made her the second woman and the first African American woman to work for the Postal Service.

So reliable was Fields, living up to the postal service’s unofficial motto of being stayed by “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night,” that she picked up the nickname ‘Stagecoach’. Along with her mule, Moses, she spent the next decade or so carrying mail out to frontier outposts and remote mining posts.

In the winters Montana gets some serious snow. On more than one occasion the trails would become impassable to horses because of the depth of snow drifts. When you’re pushing 70, there’s snow too deep for horses to pass, and miles to the next outpost, you stay at home and drink by the fire, right? No, of course not, not when you’re Stagecoach Mary Fields you don’t. She pressed on through with the mail over one shoulder and her rifle over the other, walking up to 10 miles between outposts and depots to ensure the mail arrived on time.

Everything has to end eventually though, and around 1902 she retired from the Postal Service to settle down in the town of Cascade. The nuns helped her buy a laundry business, but she never really enjoyed working there. Her two loves by this time in her life were the local baseball team, for whom she often grew flowers, and drinking in the town bar, still smoking those homemade cigars.

Just because she’d settled down, though, doesn’t mean Mary Fields lost any of the grit and pugnacity that had served her all her life. One customer, according to stories, failed to pay his laundry bill on time. Fields, drinking in the bar, heard him talking outside. Excusing herself from her drinking companions she stepped outside and decked him with one solid blow to the jaw. She may have been in her mid 70s by this point but Stagecoach Mary Fields was not a woman with whom one messed. The satisfaction of seeing the guy laid out, so she said, was more than worth the price of the laundry bill.

In 1914, after a hard-lived life, Fields’s liver finally gave out. Her neighbours buried her in Cascade’s Hillside cemetery, and for a while her birthday was an unofficial holiday, with the town’s schools being closed to celebrate her.

For further reading on the West’s toughest postal worker you can check Robert Miller’s The Story of Stagecoach Mary Fields (though be aware that it is a short piece aimed mostly at children, and can be horribly expensive to find). She’s also mentioned in Cheryl Smith’s Market Women: Black Women Entrepeneurs Past, Present and Future and Jessica Ruston’s nicely illustrated Heroines: The Bold, The Bad And The Beautiful.

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