She was a Wild West legend!
Everyday new stories are being uncovered about the unsung heroes and heroines, the people who fought in wars, rebelled against slave catchers, and turned tragedy to triumph. When we talk about the Wild West, these stories get even more glamorized. It is easy to see how tales of Black cowboys who were fearless and above the law get canonized in the history books. During a time where Black people were expected to be subservient and docile, there were some who just outright refused to live with their backs bent. One of those Wild West heroes is Mary Fields, the formerly enslaved woman who became the first Black woman mail carrier.
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Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary, was born enslaved around 1832 near Hickman County, Tennessee, History.com reports. At the end of the Civil War, like many newly freed Black people, Mary headed north, working on riverboats and finding work doing laundry along the way. She landed in Toledo, Ohio where she found housing at the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart. It’s not clear how she ended up there but while at the convent, she found work as a groundskeeper, standing out as a result of her rough demeanor and tendency to curse. The nuns eventually complained of her temper and difficulty, but Mary found friendship with one nun, Mother Amadeus Dunne, the convent’s Mother Superior.
Dunne was known for her charisma and fearlessness. She eventually relocated to Montana in 1884, finding another Ursuline convent and doing missionary work. She worked with Jesuit priests in Montana to help start schools for the Blackfeet Nation. A year later, when she fell ill, Mary headed there to help her. She began working at the new convent near Cascade, Montana while simultaneously serving as a nurse to Dunne. While she was diligent, Mary’s behavior preceded her in the small town, and the bishop took issue with Mary’s drinking, smoking, and habit for shooting guns and wearing men’s clothing. When Mary got into a shootout with one of the convent’s male janitor’s, she was kicked out of the convent for good.
She stayed in the West, settling into life there. Mary picked back up her work doing laundry and other odd jobs, finding community among other gun slingers and hard drinkers. Her reputation worked in her favor and in 1894, she was offered a job by the postal service as a star route carrier. In that position, Mary worked as an independent contractor who was responsible for carrying mail across the area, using a stagecoach donated by Dunne. While a seemingly simple task, the routes were littered with bandits and thieves. Mary took her job seriously and protected her cargo fiercely, making history as the first Black woman mail carrier.
Residents nicknamed her “Stagecoach Mary” and “Black Mary.” She carried a rifle and a revolver and was the first to give meaning to the name in rain, sleet, or snow. She traveled through harsh weather conditions and rocky terrain to deliver the mail and while she was hardcore, the locals loved her, praising her and noting her kindness to children. Mary would serve as a mail carrier for 8 years before retiring due to age. When she fell ill, the community came together to take care of her, providing free meals and opening their saloons to her, despite bars being forbidden at that time to women.
She passed away on December 5, 1914, and it was said that her funeral was one of the biggest that the town had ever seen. The legend of Black Mary continued far past her death and while there is no way to confirm many of the facts handed down throughout generations, what is clear is that Mary made an impact on many, and her legacy was larger than life. More than a century after her passing, we are still exploring the legacy of Ms. Mary Fields and how her bravery and heroism paved a way of possibility for Black women. In 2021, the story of Stagecoach Mary resurfaced after she was characterized in Netflix’s The Harder They Fall. As we continue to tell our stories, let’s not forget the ones that may not be as known but were equally impactful. Ones like that of Mary Fields. Because of her, we can.
Photo courtesy of Public Domain/History.com