Fortunately, the “Classroom” column has a number of knowledgeable readers, and a few of them, from time to time, send in suggestions of historic figures who need wider recognition. Recently, one from B.J., requested a profile on Mary Fields, someone I had thought about several months ago. His prompting was enough. Here’s our take on this legendary woman of the West.
It is in William Katz’s book “The Black West” (1996) that you’ll get a good introduction to Fields, who he described as six feet tall, heavy and a legend in her own time. She was, Katz writes, “one of the most powerful characters to stride the Rocky Mountain trails.
Born a slave in Hickman County, Tenn., in the 1830s, Fields’ nickname was “Stagecoach Mary” because she was the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the U.S. This occurred after she obtained her freedom at the end of the Civil War. She was also the second woman to be hired by the U.S. Postal Service. Katz also pointed out that Fields was fond of cigars and wasn’t opposed to carousing in saloons with the ability to hold her own in a round and round of drinks. Along with a whip to spur her horses along, she kept a jug of whiskey by her side and a loaded pistol strapped under her dress or apron.
Long before she began delivering mail, she worked as a domestic in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. After his wife died in 1883, Fields dutifully took the family’s five children to live with their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. A year later, Amadeus left for Montana, where she established a school for Native American girls. When she fell ill, the ever-loyal Fields rushed to comfort her and nursed her back to good health. Even after Amadeus had recovered, Fields remained to help, doing the laundry, hauling freight, tending a vegetable garden, feeding chickens, becoming a veritable “handywoman” and ultimately a forewoman around the mission and convent.
Things were going along quite well for Fields at the mission, despite her drinking, smoking, and swearing, but eventually her behavior began to annoy some of the males around the mission, leading to a shootout. When the bishop at the mission was informed of the incident, he ordered Fields to leave the convent.
By 1894, Fields—who was called “White Crow” by the Native Americans, obviously not for her dark complexion but rather because she acted like a white woman—was no longer at the convent, but Amadeus remained a good friend and helped her open a restaurant near the convent.
Fields’ generosity was her undoing because she often made sure the hungry were fed, even if they did not have the money to pay. Within 10 months, she was broke and forced to close her restaurant.
Fields was 60 years old in 1895 when she was hired as a mail carrier. She received this distinction because of her speed and skill in hitching a team of six horses.
According to one source, her team included a rare mixture of horses and mules pulling her coach. She never missed a day and lived up to the postal adage, as neither rain, sleet nor snow or dark of night kept her from deliveries. There were times when the snow on her route was too deep for the horses, but it didn’t impede her at all. She merely slipped on a pair of snowshoes and threw the bag of mail over her strong back to complete her assignments.
She was so reliable, so highly regarded in her county that each year on her birthday, the schools were closed to pay tribute to her. Fields was such an honored citizen that after the state of Montana passed a law forbidding women from entering saloons, the mayor granted her a special exemption.
In 1914, the robust, hard-living woman died of liver failure. To commemorate her passing, the actor Gary Cooper saluted her memory in an article for Ebony magazine in 1959. “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38,” he said.
Fields was immortalized in a 1976 television documentary “Homesteaders,” with Esther Rolle portraying her. Twenty years later, Dawnn Lewis portrayed her in the TV movie “The Cherokee Kid,” and Kimberly Elise evoked her three years ago in the TV movie “Hannah’s Law.”
Given these productions, Fields has received more attention than many of the great Black West icons—Deadwood Dick, York, bronco buster Bill Pickett, Bass Reeves, Isom Dart, Jim Beckwourth—and even surpassing two other notable Black women of the West—Elvira Conley and Cathay Williams.