Monday, April 14, 2014

Stagecoach Mary

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

A while back, I did a blog on “Working Women of the West.”  No, I wasn't talking about the soiled doves.  These were the women who didn’t just follow their husbands to California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, etc. and took up keeping house the way they did back East.  These women found ways to work and to support themselves and their families. It’s a short blog and if you click HERE you can see it.

In doing research for a class I teach (Pioneering Women of the West) I came across several interesting women.  One in particular was mentioned in just two lines in PLAINS WOMEN: WOMEN IN THE AMERICAN WEST by Paula Bartley and Cathy Loxton. “Black Mary, as she was known, lived in Montana and became the second woman in history to drive a U.S. Mail coach.  She spent eight years hauling freight and was a familiar sight with a cigar clamped between her teeth.”  Well, I had to look up more information on her, didn't I?  There’s quite a lot on Mary out there on the internet.  

Black Mary was better known as Stagecoach Mary, and some even knew her by her given name Mary Fields.  Mary was born as a slave in Tennessee. Her year of birth is in dispute and has been listed between 1814 and 1820.  Like some slaves of the south, Mary was taught to read and write alongside her master’s daughter, Dolly.  The girls were friends growing up and after she was set free, Mary was invited by Dolly, now a nun, to join her at a Native American school. The story goes that Dolly was sick and Mary went west to nurse her back to health. Once Dolly recovered, Mary stayed on as help at the St Peter Mission School. Being six feet tall, weighing 200 pounds and toting two six-shooters, Mary took on the role of protector and ‘handy man.’ She did the heavy work, chopped wood, dug holes, made building repairs and fought off wolves and outlaws to bring supplies to the school.

Her character followed her stature and she was known to drink, smoke and to get into brawls.  One such fight, on school grounds, got her fired.  A local worker was upset that a black woman was making a better wage than he was and called her out.  She left the gun fight the winner, but also jobless, as the bishop couldn't abide her reckless ways.  Upset at losing a close friend, Dolly and the nuns pooled their money to help Mary open a restaurant, but she went broke feeding the homeless.

When word went out that the Postal Service was looking for drivers, she applied.  Though the other applicants snickered at a 60-year-old black woman applying for the job, she soon proved her stuff. Mary hitched the teams of six horses faster than any of the men and got the job.   For ten years, rain, shine or snow (sometimes on foot in the snow) Mary delivered mail to the surrounding farms and towns of Cascade, Montana.  At age 70, Mary decided to ‘slow down,’ and is said to have opened a laundry.  She also tended a garden and avidly followed the local baseball team.  She died in 1914 from liver failure and was laid to rest at St. Peter’s Mission. 

Mary Fields references:

A lesson from Pioneering Women of the West online workshop.
copyright 2012

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. What a wonderful woman, someone to truly admire. I was very impressed that she could work like a man at age 60 and on for ten more years. I'm such a pathetic weakling, she puts me to shame.
    Her entire life is fascinating. I've never heard of her, so thanks for telling us about her.

  2. How kind to go broke feeding the homeless. I have a hard time working all day now. I would have been toast in the 1800's.


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