Mary Fields

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Mary Fields
Sepia-tone photograph of Mary Fields, holding a rifle
Fields c. 1895
Bornc.1832
DiedDecember 5, 1914
NationalityAmerican
OccupationFreighter, cook, domestic worker, star route mail carrier
Known forFirst African-American woman star route mail carrier in the U.S.

Mary Fields (circa 1832–1914),[1][2] also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary, was the first African-American female star-route mail carrier in the United States.[3][4]

She was not an employee of the United States Post Office Department, which did not hire or employ mail carriers for star routes, but rather 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 awarded, 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.[3]

Fields had the star route contract for the delivery of U.S. mail from Cascade, Montana, to Saint Peter's Mission. She drove the route for two four-year contracts, from 1895 to 1899 and from 1899 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 the USPS to establish Mary Fields' contribution as the first African-American female star route mail carrier in the United States.[4]

Biography[edit]

Early life and career[edit]

Fields was born into slavery in Hickman County, Tennessee, in around 1832. After the Civil War ended, she was emancipated and found work as a chambermaid on board the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. There, she encountered Judge Edmund Dunne and ultimately worked in his household as a servant. After Dunne's wife died,[5] he sent Fields and his late wife's five children to live with his sister Mother Mary Amadeus in Toledo, Ohio where she was Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent.

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, relegated multiple charges regarded as “men’s work” at the time such as maintenance, repairs, fetching supplies, laundry, gardening, hauling freight, growing vegetables, tending chickens, and repairing buildings, and eventually became the forewoman.[6]

The Native Americans called Fields "White Crow", because "she acts like a white person but has black skin".

Life in a nunnery was placid, but Fields' hearty temperament and habitual profanity made the religious community uncomfortable. In 1894, after several complaints and an incident with a disgruntled male subordinate that involved gunplay,[2] the bishop barred her from the convent and Fields moved to Cascade where she opened a tavern, but waned due to allowing the cash-poor to dine free. It closed due to bankruptcy about 10 months later.[7]

Postal service[edit]

By 1895, at sixty years old, Fields secured a job as a Star Route Carrier which used a stagecoach to deliver mail in the unforgiving weather and rocky terrain of Montana, with the help of nearby Ursuline nuns, who relied on Mary for help at their mission.[8] This made her the first African-American woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service. True to her fearless demeanor, she carried multiple firearms, most notably a .38 Smith & Wesson under her apron to protect herself and the mail from wolves, thieves and bandits, driving the route with horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname "Stagecoach Mary" due to her preferred mode of transportation.[6][9] If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.[6]

Later life[edit]

She was a respected public figure in Cascade, and the town closed its schools to celebrate her birthday each year.[6] When Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted her an exemption. In 1903, at age 71, Fields retired from star route mail carrier service. The townspeople's adoration for Fields was evident when her home was rebuilt by volunteers after it caught fire in 1912. She continued to babysit many Cascade children and owned and operated a laundry service from her home.[3][4]

Death[edit]

Fields died in 1914 at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, and her funeral was one of the largest the town had ever seen. She was buried outside Cascade.[10]

Personal life[edit]

Fields was Catholic, though she preferred the company (and activities) of local men to the sisters and their religious trappings.[11]

Legacy and representations in popular culture[edit]

Films[edit]

Print[edit]

  • In 1959, actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for EBONY in which he wrote, "Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38."[13]
  • "Stagecoach" Mary Fields, a screenplay by Georgianne Landy-Kordis[14]
  • A biography for children, Fearless Mary: The True Adventures of Mary Fields, American Stagecooach Driver by Tami Charles[15]
  • Stagecoach Mary, a collection of supernatural tales in pulp-fiction style by Jess Nevins[16]

Music[edit]

  • Fields is the subject of Michael Hearst's song "Stagecoach Mary", as part of his 2015 Extraordinary People project.[17]

Television[edit]

  • In the TV AMC series, "Hell On Wheels" (2011–2016), Fields is played by Amber Chardae Robinson, featured in five episodes during 2015–2016, season five.

Places[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Shirley, Gayle C. (2011). More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women (2nd ed.). Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press. ISBN 978-0-7627-6692-5.
  2. ^ a b Cooper, Gary & Crawford, Marc (October 1959). "Stagecoach Mary". EBONY (Reprinted Oct. 1977 ed.). Johnson Publishing Company. p. 98.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. ^ a b c Metcalf McConnell, Miantae (2016). "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. p. 156.
  4. ^ a b c Metcalf McConnell, Miantae (2016). Deliverance Mary Fields, First African American Woman Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States: A Montana History. Huzzah Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9978770-0-7.
  5. ^ "History of San Antonio, Florida". sanantoniofla.com.
  6. ^ a b c d Drewry, Jennifer M. (March–April 1999). "Mary Fields a pioneer in Cascade's past". Cascade Montana Community Website. Archived from the original on July 29, 2012. Retrieved January 25, 2013.
  7. ^ "Stagecoach Mary Fields | National Postal Museum". postalmuseum.si.edu. Retrieved 2020-11-13.
  8. ^ "Stagecoach Mary Fields | National Postal Museum". postalmuseum.si.edu. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  9. ^ "Mary Fields". Legends of America. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  10. ^ Franks, James A. (2000). Mary Fields (Black Mary) (1st ed.). Santa Cruz, Calif.: Wild Goose Press. ISBN 0965717348.
  11. ^ Everett, George (1996-02-01). "Mary Fields, A Rough and Tough Black Female Pioneer". HistoryNet. Retrieved 2021-01-19.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  12. ^ South by Northwest. Washington State University. 1976. Retrieved January 27, 2014.
  13. ^ Cooper, Gary, as told to Marc Crawford (October 1977). Stagecoach Mary : A Gun-Toting Black Woman Delivered the Mail in Montana. Ebony.
  14. ^ Landy-Kordis, Georgianne (2016). "Stagecoach" Mary Fields : a screenplay. Oklahoma: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 9781530807734. OCLC 1011509713.
  15. ^ Charles, Tami (2019). Fearless Mary : Mary Fields, American stagecoach driver. Almon, Claire. Chicago, Illinois: Albert Whitman Company. ISBN 9780807523056. OCLC 1038041171.
  16. ^ Nevins, Jess (2017). Stagecoach Mary. [Houston]. ISBN 978-1-5393-5231-0. OCLC 986498043.
  17. ^ Hearst, Michael (19 October 2017). "Stagecoach Mary". Extraordinary People. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21.
  18. ^ "7091 (1992 JA)". Minor Planet Center. Retrieved 20 November 2019.
  19. ^ "MPC/MPO/MPS Archive". Minor Planet Center. Retrieved 20 November 2019.