A Woman to Know: Mary Fields

Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38. — Gary Cooper

Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38. — Gary Cooper

(image via The National Postal Museum)

Mary was born a slave some time in the 1830s, but historians know little of her early life beyond her status as a slave. When the Emancipation Proclamation freed her in 1863, Mary picked up and left the East Coast, immediately following the Mississippi River in search of a new life.

She found various jobs in convents and missions as she worked her way West, but her quick temper and gruff demeanor didn’t endear her to her employers. Mary became known for her whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking ways, and she lost out on several jobs and business ventures when folks took a dislike to her saloon-frequenting reputation.

But in 1895, when Mary relocated to Cascade, Montana, she landed the job that would make her a household name: a postal service contract and the title of Star Route Carrier (the first-ever Black woman to enter the serevice). Previous mail carriers abandoned the perilous route outside Cascade; thieves and bandits lay in wait and locals often lost their precious mail to wolves and other wildlife. But the danger and adventure made it a perfect job for the six-foot-tall, gun-toting, fiery-tempered Mary. Turns out, the qualities that failed to endear her to previous employers made her a legend in Cascade.

In her eight years driving her stagecoach on the mail route, “Stagecoach Mary” became a beloved local figure, renowned for her adventurous spirit and kindness with young pioneer children. When she retired in 1904, she opened a laundry service in town and continued her tour of fame. The local baseball team considered her an honorary mascot and saloon owners invited her to drink for free. When she died in 1914, the town raised enough money to throw her a party-style funeral, befitting the beloved “Stagecoach Mary.”

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