Thursday, November 2, 2017
Stage Coach Mary
By Paisley Kirkpatrick Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary, was the first African-American woman to be a star route mail carrier in the United States. She wasn't an employee of the United States Post Office because the Post Office Department did not hire or employ mail carriers for star routes. Instead, they awarded star route contracts to persons who presented the lowest qualified bids, and who posted bonds and sureties to substantiate their ability to finance the route. Once they obtained a contract, the contractor could drive the route themselves, sublet the route, or hire an experienced driver. Some individuals obtained multiple star route contracts and conducted the operations as a business. Mary Fields obtained the star route contract for the delivery of U.S. mail from Cascade, Montana to Saint Peter's Mission in 1885. She drove the route with horse and wagon, not a stagecoach, for two four-year contracts from 1885 to 1889 and from 1889 to 1893. Born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee, in 1832, Mary was freed when slavery was outlawed in the United States in 1865. She took the opportunity to work in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne's wife Josephine died in 1883, in San Antonio, Florida, Mary took the family's five children to their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. In 1884, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana Territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter's Mission, west of Cascade. Learning that Mother Amadeus was stricken with pneumonia, Mary hurried to Montana to nurse her back to health. After Mother Amadeus recovered, Mary stayed at St. Peter's, hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, and repairing buildings. Eventually she became the forewoman. The Native Americans called Mary Fields 'White Crow' because she acted like a white woman even though she had black skin. Local whites didn't know what to make of her. One schoolgirl wrote an essay saying, "She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature." In 1894, after several complaints and an incident that involved gunplay with a disgruntled male subordinate, the bishop ordered her to leave the convent. Mother Amadeus helped her open a restaurant in nearby Cascade. Mary served food to anyone, whether they could pay or not. The restaurant went broke in about ten months. In 1895, although she was approximately 60 years old, Mary Fields was hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. This job made her the second woman, and first African American woman, to work for the U.S. Postal Service. She drove the route with horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day of work, and her reliability earned her the nickname of Stagecoach Mary. If the snow was too deep for her horses, Mary delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders. Mary Fields died in 1914 at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, Montana, but she was buried outside Cascade.