Hell on Wheels is a fascinating TV show and I often wonder what characters are real and where does fiction begin in the show. Of all the characters I thought were fiction that character is the wild black female stage driver, Mary Fields. She’s as real as real can get—amazingly. So I thought this month on The Sweethearts of the West blog I would like to tell you about this wild western woman.
Once free from slavery, Mary Fields traveled west with the Ursuline nuns. The nuns hired Mary to do the heavy work and to haul freight and supplies to keep the nuns’ operation both functional and well fed. Among her duties she chopped wood, did stone work and carpentry, dug necessary holes, and when needed, made her supply runs to the train stop, sometimes as far as Great Falls or the city of Helena.
Once Mary's wagon was attacked by wolves, or so the story goes. The frightened horses and overturned the wagon, dumping Mary and all her supplies onto the prairie. Now some who told the story said Mary kept the wolves at bay the whole night with her revolvers and rifle regardless of how the pitch dark might keep her from seeing those wolves. But she did survive and managed to deliver the freight which delighted the nuns who had spent more than $30 on those goods which was their major concern. They docked Mary’s pay for the molasses that leaked from a keg that had cracked on a rock when the wagon overturned. Who could blame her for leaving the convent while in her teens? Besides, Mary’s temperament was not exactly suitable for a convent.
Mary was prepared for such inconveniences as wolves and drunken cowboys, being heavily armed at all times, and ready for a fist-fight at the drop of a hat. Since she did not pay particular attention to her fashion statement, and failed to look or act the part of a typical woman in the Victorian age (except on the frontier), occasionally she would run into men who attempted to trample on her rights and hard won privileges. They should have known better than to mess with Mary. She broke more noses than any other person in central Montana; so claims the Great Falls Examiner, the only newspaper available in Cascade at the time.
Once a 'hired hand' at the mission confronted her with the complaint that she was earning $2 a month more than he was ($9 vs. $7), and questioned why she thought she was worth so much money since she was nothing more than an uppity colored woman? (His name, phonetically, was Yu Lum Duck.) To make matters worse, he made this same complaint and general description in public at one of the local saloons where Mary happened to be a regular customer. He followed up with a more polite version of is complaint directly to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger to no avail.
Needless to say, Mary had had just about enough of this man’s whinning and complaining. So, at the very next opportunity the two of them were engaged in a shoot-out behind the nunnery, next to the sheep shed. Mary actually intended to simply shoot the man as he cleaned out the latrine -- figuring to dump his body in there -- she missed. He shot back and a shoot-out ensued.
Bullets flew in every direction until the six-guns were empty, and blood was spilt. Neither actually hit the other by direct fire, but one bullet shot by Mary bounced off the stone wall of the nunnery and hit the unfortunate man in the left buttock, completely ruining his new $1.85 trousers. Not only that, but other bullets Mary fired passed through the laundry of the bishop, which was hanging on the line, generously ventilating his drawers and the two white shirts he had had shipped from Boston only the week before. (What his laundry was doing at the nunnery is not clear.) In the end, the bishop fired Mary and gave the complaining man a raise. Figures.
Out of work, Mary decided to work at the restaurant business in Cascade. Unfortunately Mary's cooking was only basic, in other words, nobody would eat it and so ended the restaurant business. Mary went back to the kind of work she knew best—driving. This time she landed a job carrying the United States Mail.
She quickly gained the reputation for delivering letters and parcels no matter what the weather, nor how rugged the terrain. She and her mule, Moses, managed to get through anything and everything, from raw blizzards to sweltering heat, to reach remote miner's cabins and outposts with important mail which helped to accommodate the land claim process, as well as other matters needing expeditious communication. These efforts on her part helped greatly to advance the development of a considerable portion of central Montana, a contribution for which she is given little credit.
Known by then as Stagecoach Mary (for her ability to deliver on a regular schedule), she continued driving until she reached well into her sixties, but it took a toll on her. She retired from the mail delivery business, although she still needed a source of income.
So, at the age of seventy, she opened a laundry service, also in Cascade.
Mary figured she deserved to relax a little and didn't work so much at the laundry. Instead, she spent a great deal of time in the local saloon, drinking whiskey and smoking her foul cigars right along with an assortment of sweating and dusty men who frequented the saloon. Thought she claimed to be a crack shot toward the cuspidor, her aim was a bit more in the general locale of that cuspidor to the chagrin of any nearby fellow patrons. But Mary paid no never mind since she did laundry ya know.
One reprobate failed to pay his bill to Mary after he ordered extra starch in the cuffs and collar of his shirt. Noticing him out in the street, she left the saloon and knocked him flat with one blow—this at the age of 72. She told her inebriated companions that the satisfaction she got from that punch was worth more than the bill he owed, so the score was settled. Turned out, the tooth she knocked out was giving him trouble anyway, so there was no reprisal. Actually, he was grateful.
In 1914 she died of liver failure. Neighbors buried her in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross which may still exist today. In spite of her hard drinking, cigar smoking, and occasional fisticuffs, the townsfolk found it hard to believe that this “mellow” old woman of 80 was the hard shooting and short-tempered female character of earlier years they had heard so much about. Of course, we know the truth about Stagecoach Mary and the fact it was all true.
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: