One of the many services we often take for granted here in the United States is the US Postal Service. Almost every day, no matter rain, shine or pandemic, you can always get your hands on your mail. The Post Office would be nothing without the men and women who serve it—including one of history's most beloved mail officers, Stagecoach Mary Fields.
Take a minute to imagine a time where the mail was not just unreliable and slow, but its delivery could also be extremely dangerous, especially in rural areas. How did citizens get their mail without having to trek miles into the nearest town or twiddling their thumbs at home hoping it would show up? Enter the "star route".
Awarding a star route contract was how the United States Postal Service hired out their mail delivery services to individual mail carriers who weren't employees of the federal government. In theory, the Postal Service was to award different route contracts to the best bidder for the job. Stagecoach Mary Fields was one of those best bidders at the end of the 19th century.
Mary Fields was born a slave in 1832—her exact date of birth is unknown. She is believed to have been born in Hickman County, Tennessee, but due to the poor record keeping of the time, her true birth location is still open to debate. As with many African Americans who were born into slavery, the early part of her life is shrouded in mystery. The story of her life only starts to clear after she was freed following the Civil War.
Following her emancipation, Fields, like many other newly freed slaves, headed north. After working on steamboats on the Mississippi River, she ended up in Toledo, Ohio. While there, Fields worked at the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart, though she did not join the nunnery in a spiritual sense.
Instead, Fields managed the kitchen and the garden, in addition to personally washing all the nuns' laundry. The woman who hired Fields, Mother Amadeus, is believed to have been associated with the family that had owned Fields during the antebellum period. When Mother Amadeus left the convent and opened a school in Montana, then fell ill, Fields followed her.
Once in Montana (considered part of the so-called Wild West at the time), she began working at St. Peter’s Mission, utilizing the same skills she used at her previous job. Though she did the same types of jobs around the mission, she was not an official employee, allowing her to come and go as she pleased. She picked up other odd jobs and spent any remaining time drinking in saloons with rough-and-tumble men. The nuns were less than pleased by their part-time employee's habits.
Fields was ultimately dismissed from her position at the mission due to her outlandish and aggressive behavior, along with her penchant for smoking, drinking, and shooting. The bishop in charge of the mission apparently had enough when Mary and a man on staff pulled guns on each other after an argument.
Despite what seemed to be an unladylike nature, there is also evidence that Fields's caring nature may have gotten the better of her. After being relieved of her duties at the mission, Mary appears to have tried to open multiple eateries which failed—supposedly because of her inability to turn anyone away who was hungry but couldn’t pay. She then moved back into doing laundry and other side jobs to make a living until 1895. It was that year that she decided to take a different career path.
Fields applied for and was awarded a contract with the United States Postal Service as a Star Route Carrier. She was only the second woman to be hired in this capacity and the first woman of African American descent. According to legend, Fields got her job by being the fastest to hitch up a team of horses.
At the time she took the job, Fields was in her early 60s. Standing a staggering 6 feet tall and possessing a no nonsense attitude, she was an ideal candidate for this job. Fields liked her guns and always carried her rifle and revolver to protect herself and her cargo while on the road.
Fields typically delivered her mail assignments with the help of her horses and a mule named Moses. On particularly brutal days, though, Fields was known to slap on a pair of snowshoes and lug her mail on her shoulders to complete her route.
Her utter dedication and reliability soon won Fields a nickname—Stagecoach Mary.
Stagecoach Mary ran her routes for the post office for eight years. During that time she became a legend in and around Cascade because of the courage she exhibited when doing her job, as well as her generosity toward the local children. Fields eventually retired around 1903 and went to live in the town that had grown to love her so dearly.
In her retirement years, Fields stayed an important figure in Cascade. She opened up her own laundry business and an eatery, which the locals supported gladly. Fields was so revered in town that she ate and drank for free at many restaurants and bars in town and even became the mascot of Cascade’s baseball team.
Stagecoach Mary died on December 5, 1914 and was buried in the local cemetery in Cascade, Montana. The townspeople raised money to give her a proper burial in the town that loved her so much. Her funeral is reportedly one of the largest that Cascade has ever seen.
Following her death, the tale of Stagecoach Mary grew into the legend we know today of the tobacco smoking, gun-toting, badass woman who braved the many dangers of the wild west. Not only was she a female doing a ‘man’s job’, she was also a black woman and former slave who left her mark on a country that often saw her as inferior to her counterparts. Since her death Stagecoach Mary has become both a symbol of female empowerment and racial equality.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons