Mary Fields. Stagecoach Mary. Black Mary. White Crow. All of these names bless the legendary woman most Americans don’t know about. Combing the leaves on my family tree lead me to our Texas/Mexico origins and all the agricultural and frontier building we have done since becoming reluctant Americans. Miss Mary introduced herself to me while I began researching in earnest. The Black origins of the Wild west and cowboy culture fascinate me.
The Infamous Miss Mary Fields born enslaved in Tennessee introduced herself as a true American Icon. A child of Manifest Destiny and True Grit.
She was born enslaved around 1832 and freed at age 30 after the Civil war. After she was emancipated, she went to work on steamboats on the Mississippi River. During that time, she met Judge Edmund Dunne.
Through Dunne, Mary met his sister, Mother Amadeus, who was in charge of an Ursuline convent in Ohio. She was going to work at one of the schools her brother opened. He introduced Miss Mary to her in hopes that she would work with her. The two women became friends, and Mary went to work at the convent.
Mother Amadeus left Ohio after a few years for the Montana Territory to establish schools, including one at St. Peter’s Mission southwest of Great Falls. When she came down with pneumonia, Mary travelled from Ohio to care for the nun and stayed on to work at the mission hauling freight, washing laundry, raising chickens and gardening, according to “More than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women,” by Gayle C. Shirley.
Soon Miss Mary’s physical strength and no-nonsense ways made her notorious. Mary was called the White Crow by local Indians because she acted like a white woman, but had black skin. She dressed in men’s clothing, smoked cigars, and drank whiskey. She lived life on her own terms and had a reputation for iron clad integrity and exceptional hard work. Near South Falls, Mary became foreman of the other workers, one of whom didn’t like taking orders from a black woman, according to a biography of Mary at the Cascade Web site. During an argument, the man punched Miss Mary. As she fell, he reached for his gun. Mary grabbed her pistol and returned fired in defense of herself, but apparently didn’t hit him. This caused much outcry and people asked the Church to remove Miss Mary. The Bishop fired Miss Mary and she moved to Cascade Montana to start fresh at 60 years old.
In 1895, she became the first African-American female star route mail carrier, delivering mail by stagecoach. Fields earned the nicknamed “Stagecoach Mary” for her fearlessness, speed of delivery, and reliability. Miss Mary got the job because she was the applicant who could most quickly harness a team of six horses.
She became the second woman and first African-American to work for the U.S. Postal Service. Miss Mary didn’t let snow, bandits, wild animals or rough terrain keep her from delivering the mail. She was also known for being fearless in the face of stagecoach thieves and was made Infamous by running a pack of wolves off with her shotgun. When snow drifts stopped the horse-drawn wagon, she carried the mail on foot. Nothing stopped Miss Mary from her dedicated mission. Nothing.
Aside for her trailblazing work with the USPS Miss Mary owned a café, and a laundry service. Her restaurateur days were short lived. Her Tennessee cooking was delicious and noteworthy, but her largesse and generosity left her coffers empty as she fed the hungry who could not pay. Her famous smoked hog and cornbread is still spoken of. She had a lifelong love of children and Baseball. She also cared for many children in town, earning her the town’s respect and loyalty. Mary baby-sat so many children that the last surviving one died at an advanced age late 2008. A good portion of the money that Mary earned baby-sitting, she spent on treats for the children for whom she cared. Because she was born enslaved, Mary didn’t know her real birthday. So, Mary picked a day as her birthday. On that day, schools closed so children could attend her party. She was the most loyal of fans of the town’s baseball team. She presented players who hit home runs with flowers from her garden. She was so very beloved by them; they made her a mascot for the team.
Mary was such a prominent local character that Charlie Russell, sketched Mary into “A Quiet Day in Cascade.” In the pen-and-ink drawing, Mary has just been knocked down by a runaway hog. Cracked eggs spill from a basket that she’s carrying.
In 1914, when she was in her last illness, Mary walked outside her home and, not wanting to bother anyone, laid down in the tall grass to die. The mayor’s sons, for whom she’d cared, heard her moaning and ran for help. She was rushed to Columbus Hospital in Great Falls; she was buried in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade.
Cascade Montana was not done loving Miss Mary Fields. A few years ago, Cascade had a Mary Fields Day that brought some of Mary’s relatives to Montana. The town still faithfully cares for Mary’s grave.