Mary Fields, c. 1895
Hickman County, Tennessee
Great Falls, Montana
|Occupation||Freighter, cook, domestic worker, star route mail carrier|
|Known for||First African-American woman star route mail carrier in the United States.|
Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary (c. 1832–1914), was the first African-American woman star route mail carrier in the United States. She was not an employee of the United States Post Office. The Post Office Department did not hire or employ mail carriers for star routes; it awarded star route contracts to persons who proposed the lowest qualified bids, and who in accordance with the Department’s application process posted bonds and sureties to substantiate their ability to finance the route. Once a contract was obtained, the contractor could then 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 1903. Author Miantae Metcalf McConnell provided documentation discovered during her research about Mary Fields to the United States Postal Service Archives Historian in 2006. This enabled USPS to establish Mary Fields's contribution as the first African American woman star route mail in the United States.
She then worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne's wife Josephine died in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida, Fields 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 Amadeus was stricken with pneumonia, Fields hurried to Montana to nurse her back to health. Amadeus recovered and Fields stayed at St. Peter's hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, repairing buildings and eventually becoming the forewoman.
The Native Americans called Fields "White Crow" because "she acts like a white woman but has black skin." Local whites did not 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 with a disgruntled male subordinate that involved gunplay, the bishop ordered her to leave the convent.
In 1895, although approximately 60 years old, Fields was hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. This 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, and her reliability earned her the nickname "Stagecoach." If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.
Fields was a respected public figure in Cascade, and on her birthday each year the town closed its schools to celebrate. When Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted her an exemption.
At seventy-one, Mary Fields retired from star route mail carrier service in 1903. She continued to babysit many Cascade children and owned and operated a laundry service from her home.3
Death and legacy
Fields died in 1914 at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, but she was buried outside Cascade. In 1959, actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony in which he said: "Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38."
In the 1976 TV documentary South by Northwest, "Homesteaders", Fields was played by Esther Rolle, in the 1996 TV movie The Cherokee Kid, Fields was played by Dawnn Lewis, and in the 2012 TV movie Hannah's Law she was played by Kimberly Elise. In the short western, They Die By Dawn (2013), Fields is played by Erykah Badu.
Fields is also the subject of a song, "The Ballad of Mary Fields" by Mary McGuinness, on her CD "Places In Between.
- Shirley, Gayle C. (2011) More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women, 2nd Ed. Globe Pequot Press: Guilford, Conn. p.5 ISBN 978-0-7627-6692-5
- Cooper, Gary and Marc Crawford (October 1959) "Stagecoach Mary". EBONY Magazine. reprinted Oct. 1977. p. 98
- Metcalf McConnell, Miantae, "Mary Fields's Road to Freedom" Black Cowboys in the American West, On the Range, On the Stage, Behind the Badge, (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016),156. Metcalf McConnell, Miantae, Deliverance Mary Fields, First African American Woman Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States: A Montana History, (Huzzah Publishing, 2016).
- Drewry, Jennifer M. (March–April 1999). "Mary Fields a pioneer in Cascade's past". Cascade Montana Community Website. Retrieved January 25, 2013.
- "Mary Fields". Legends of America. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
- "History of San Antonio, Florida". sanantoniofla.com.
- Franks, James A. (2000). Mary Fields (Black Mary) (1st ed.). Santa Cruz, Calif.: Wild Goose Press. ISBN 0965717348.
- "South by Northwest". Washington State University. Retrieved January 27, 2014.
- "The Cherokee Kid". IMDb. Retrieved January 25, 2013.
- "Hannah's Law". IMDb. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
- They Die By Dawn. 2013.
- "Amber Charade Robinson". IMDb. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
- Hell on Wheels. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
- Hearst, Michael. "Stagecoach Mary". Extraordinary People.