Stagecoach Mary Fields, portrayed by Becky Stone
Mary Fields was the only African-American living in Cascade, Montana from 1885 until she died in 1914. Fields lived and worked at the St Peters mission school located about 20 miles outside of Cascade that served a few white, but mostly Blackfeet, girls. Fields was drawn there by her fierce loyalty to and deep friendship with Mother Mary Amadeus, the Mother Superior. Mary Fields eventually lost her job at the mission school, but she moved into Cascade and never left.
Much of her history is unknown because slaveholders rarely kept records on the lives of their property. Fields had been enslaved in Tennessee, but the end of the Civil War led to her working for wages on steamboats on the Mississippi, then for an Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio, and eventually working for room and board at the Ursuline mission school on the Birdtail Prairie in Montana. Fields was an exceptional person. She was literate. (That in itself is a great feat for a former slave.) She was a master gardener. Mary was an excellent farm hand who could repair most equipment as needed. She was a crack shot with a rifle, a good cook, and she had a way with horses, dogs, and children. She ran her own businesses – a laundry, a restaurant, and offered childcare in Cascade. At the age of 70, she became the first African-American woman to become a star route carrier from Cascade out to her beloved Ursuline mission with all stops in between. She delivered the mail faithfully to the mission and isolated homesteads in blizzards, freezing cold, and blasting heat for eight years. Hence, Fields earned everyone’s respect and the moniker of “Stagecoach Mary” in addition to being called “Black Mary” and “N — Mary”. She was a legend in her own time. The town showed their love to her by giving her privileges not afforded most women, by patronizing her businesses, and by rebuilding her house when it burned down. The town’s children celebrated her birthday twice a year at the schoolhouse, and the townspeople celebrated her life in one of the largest funerals held in Cascade at that time. Earl Monroe was one of the children who grew up with Mary as a caretaker. Years after her death, he replaced the unmarked cross on her grave with a granite tombstone that reads simply Mary Fields 1832-1914. No labels such as “Black” or “Stagecoach” are in front of her name. It was as Mary would have wanted it.
Becky Stone grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania before going to Vassar College where she earned a degree in Drama. She earned her M.A. in Elementary Educational Counseling from Villanova University. Becky worked seven years as an elementary and middle school counselor in the Philadelphia School System. In North Carolina, she taught drama for 10 years at a Christian classical school.
Her performance experience includes acting professionally in regional theater companies and storytelling at schools, universities, museums, festivals, camps and libraries.
She presented her first Chautauqua character, Pauli Murray, in 2003 for the Greenville [SC] Chautauqua. Becky has since developed Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker and Mary Fields (Stagecoach Mary).
America’s westward expansion has become iconic. When we think of the Wild West, we see images of covered-wagons and railroad trains. We envision conflicts between settlers and Indians, farmers and ranchers and cowboys and townsfolk. There are gunfights, saloons, bandits and bounty hunters. Rarely do we see women. Still more rarely do we see women of color. Women were there; people of color were there. Americans of Mexican, Indian, Asian and African heritage carved out communities alongside white European settlers. It is time we acknowledge that we do not know the whole truth of our own history. Our popular stories do not include the non-white people who lived there. Their stories have been dropped from the narrative. But their stories are remarkable, often fun and definitely worth knowing. We can take pride in them.
Mary Fields’s story is one of those remarkable stories. Fields was born an enslaved person in Hickman County, Tennessee. As is true of most enslaved people, Fields did not know her exact birth date. Researchers are not sure where she spent her enslaved years. She is rumored to have been owned by the Warners in Arkansas. Somehow through them she made a connection with the Dunne family. Then came freedom. Fields picked up odd jobs on her journey to a new life. She worked as a domestic in homes and on riverboats until she reached Ohio. By then her life had become entwined with Sarah Dunne, a woman fourteen years her junior. It’s likely Fields served Dunne’s family as a domestic. Sarah and Mary were fast friends before Sarah joined the order of the Ursuline nuns in Toledo, Ohio. Sarah became Sister Mary Amadeus. Mary worked for the convent cleaning, cooking, washing laundry and managing the grounds. She reluctantly remained at the convent when Sister Amadeus was called to serve at the St. Peter’s Mission in Montana. However, when word reached Mary that her beloved Sister Mary Amadeus had pneumonia, she left for Montana to nurse her friend back to health. Mary Fields lived in Montana until she died.
There is no record of how Mary learned the skills she had mastered. She was literate and that alone set her apart from most Americans at that time. She was as tall and strong as any man. She could build and repair structures at St. Peter’s Mission. Mary was a crack shot with a rifle. She could wrangle, train and drive horses. She could garden well enough to grow food for the people at the mission, and she grew many herbs for healing. She also cultivated flowers to give as gifts and to celebrate special occasions. All of these were skills needed to survive in the West.
Yes, she smoked cigars and played cards with the men in the saloon. Yes, she had a temper. But she also had patience with children and was a trusted babysitter for many families in Cascade.
And yes, she had many nicknames, the most notable being Stagecoach Mary. Stagecoach Mary was a legend in her own lifetime. But alas, she never drove a stagecoach. The US Postal Service contracted with private carriers to serve remote and sparsely populated areas along what they called star routes. The private carriers had to provide their own mode of transportation, be it horses, wagons, dogsleds, boats or, later, motor vehicles. Star route carriers were expected to deliver the mail with “celerity (speed), certainty, and security.” The contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder. Mary won the contract. She had no stagecoach to offer, but she did have a buckboard wagon and a horse and a lot of experience picking up and delivering supplies to the mission. Mary was about 62 years old when she started delivering the mail and about 70 when she retired.
So, Stagecoach Mary was not an accurate appellation. However, I imagine she preferred it over “Black Mary” or “Nigger Mary.” Mary’s closest friends honored her request to simply be called by her given name, with no descriptors. However, Mary did embrace White Crow, the nickname given to her by her Blackfoot friends. Crows, mystical birds to the Blackfoot, are black and are clever, brave, loyal and like to joke. The Blackfoot had never seen a person of Mary’s color. She had the qualities of the crow and yet knew the white person’s world. So they called her White Crow.
The Blackfoot accepted Mary. Many white people accepted her. Yet there were many whites who could not accept her because of the color of her skin. Those who thought the color of her skin negated all of her good qualities never ceased in their efforts to oust her. They even attempted to kill her one night by burning down her home.
Mary triumphed over their prejudices. Her story would have been lost if her neighbors had not loved her so. Here was a former enslaved person who had become a trusted neighbor. She ran a successful laundry business. She was the only woman allowed to frequent the saloon. Her birthday was celebrated by the town’s children with an annual party at the schoolhouse. Mary was given the role of mascot of the Cascade baseball team. Cascade held a huge funeral for her. They buried her at Hillside Cemetery, the halfway point between Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission. (Was that because they would not bury her next to white settlers?) Eventually, the unmarked tin cross that headed Mary’s grave was replaced with a granite tombstone. The donor was a man who had been among the many children of Cascade who loved her. That headstone is inscribed just as Mary would have wished – no nicknames or embellishments. It reads simply: Mary Fields 1832-1914. And that, my friends, is the truth.
1830-1832? Born enslaved in Hickman County, Tennessee SW of Nashville
1865 – Freed.
1868 – Finds work as a chambermaid on the Mississippi River steamboat, the Robert E Lee
1870 – On the Robert E Lee when it raced the Natchez from New Orleans to St Louis and won!
Late 1870 – Follows Sarah Dunne (Sister Mary Amadeus) to the Ursuline Catholic Convent and School for girls in Toledo OH.
1885 – Moves from Toledo to the Birdtail Prairie, Montana Territory, following Mother Amadeus to St. Peter’s Mission
1885 to 1895 – Works at Ursuline School for Girls at St Peter’s Mission outside of Cascade MT.
1894 – Opens “Mary’s Café” in Cascade. It fails in ten months because she feeds too many for free.
1895 – 1903 – Works as the first African-American woman Star Route carrier
1903 – Starts her laundry business
1912 – Registers to vote. House burned in retaliation?
1913 – Votes in local election
1914 – Attends the Montana State fair Parade for Suffrage Sept. 25th in Helena, MT
1914 – December 5th dies in Great Falls Columbus Hospital in Great Falls MT. Buried in Cascade.
Quotes about Mary
“She drinks, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.”
Upon arriving by train at the convent was asked if she needed anything. “Yes. A good cigar and a drink.”
“God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it.”
“They said she had such a temper the girls were afraid to come to school.”
The three above quotes from an article in the Toledo Blade 2/8/2010
From annals of the Ursuline nuns:
“Mary Fields did everything we couldn’t.”
“Mary was gentle and loving. She held me in her lap and sang to me with a deep voice. She was a second mother to all us kids.” Monroe placed the granite headstone on her grave to replace an unmarked tin cross.
Metcalf McConnell, Miantae; Deliverance: Mary Fields: First African American Woman Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States: a Montana History; Huzzah Publishing, Columbia Falls, MT 59912; 2016
Ms. McConnell’s 10 years of research has paid off with a dramatically written story that includes plenty of information about Fields, Mother Superior Amadeus and the Ursulines, the Blackfoot and Mestis, and the white settlers of Cascade, Montana.
Wagner Martineau, Tricia; African American Women of the Old West; Twodot, Guilford Ct, Helena, Mt. An imprint of Rowman & Littlefield; 2007 Chapter Two
A nice piece of storytelling that fleshes out Mary Fields. The other women in the book have interesting stories, as well.