Who was the first African American to drive a U.S. mail coach?
Cascade, Mont., was the quintessential frontier town of the Wild West, packed with saloons and home to a handful of settlers and gold seekers who built up the area after the railroad arrived. As statehood was approaching in 1889, all of Montana had fewer than 350 African-American residents. One of them lived in Cascade, and she delivered its mail. The gender-bending, cigar-smoking, fist-fighting Mary Fields, already in her 60s at the time, became the first African American (and the second woman) to drive a mail coach for the Wells Fargo Co. when she began her mid-Montana route in 1895.
With swagger and style, “Stagecoach Mary” (or “Black Mary,” as she was also known) was the sort of character who populates those frontier tales that have become an integral part of American mythology—except that she was a woman, and she was black. Mary Fields was born a slave in Hickman County, Tenn., in 1832. Accounts of her early life differ, and it is unclear how she spent her first decade of freedom after the end of the Civil War, but around 1878, Fields became a housekeeper at the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo, Ohio, where she developed a close relationship with its mother superior, Mother Amadeus. While Fields stayed at the convent, Mother Amadeus headed west, founding a dozen Indian missions in Alaska and across the Montana Territory. Stricken by pneumonia at St. Peter’s Mission 35 miles outside of Great Falls, Mother Amadeus sought Fields to be her nurse, and from this point on, Fields called Montana home.
At St. Peter’s she became indispensable to the nuns, taking on the lion’s share of “women’s work” (housekeeping and laundry), but also those jobs typically reserved for men, including painting and building maintenance. Physically, she cut a distinctive figure. To combat Montana’s unforgiving environment, Fields wore a buckskin dress over buckskin pants (made from hide she’d learned to tan herself), topped by a buffalo coat and a black-brimmed hat. Of course, no frontier outfit would be complete without a loaded gun, which she wore holstered at her side.
Stories of her hard living and sometimes violent behavior, whether true or not (and which she often spread herself), eventually caught up with her, and Montana’s Catholic bishop, the state’s first, ejected Fields from the convent. The 63-year-old Fields settled in Cascade and, with the help of her old friend Mother Amadeus, got a job driving a mail coach. Braving all sorts of weather and ceasing work only for the worst, Fields brought mail to settlers all over central Montana, one of very few black people in the new state at all, and most likely the only one with a pet eagle.
She kept her route for six years, growing her own legend across the rugged land. Upon her retirement in 1901, Fields was a local star, her birthday celebrated as a school holiday. She lived to be 82 years old, “one of the freest souls,” said the actor Gary Cooper, who met her when he was 9 years old, “ever to draw a breath or a .38.”