One of the more colorful and tough female characters of the American West is not a young and tough male gunfighter, but a woman. An older, black woman and former slave, who was known in those parts simply as “Stagecoach Mary”. In fact, Mary Fields is considered one of the first real pioneer women of the West. A short tempered, two fisted, hard shootin’ , hard drinkin’ woman whose adventurous reputation first began in Toledo, Ohio.
As the story is told, Mary was born a slave in Tennessee. She grew up there and spent her early adult life on the farm of a Judge Dunn who allowed her read and write. She also became close friends with the judge’s daughter’s, Dolly. After the Civil War, Dolly became a nun and took the name Sister Amadeus, eventually moving to Toledo and living at the Ursaline convent. It is told that shortly thereafter she sent for her friend, Mary Fields.
Mary obliged the request, came north to Toledo and worked at the convent for a time, but Sister Amadeus didn’t stay in Toledo long. She made a move to the West where she became the headmistress of a school for Native American girls in Montana. For some reason, Mary chose not to accompany her friend at first and stayed behind in Toledo, but when she learned that Sister Amadeus was very ill with pneumonia, Mary finally made the trip to Montana and it wasn’t long after that, a true legend of the Old West was born. After Mary helped nurture her friend, Sister Amadeus, back to health, she decided to stay on in Montana and worked as much-needed hand at the school, known as Saint Peter’s Mission. The school had several old buildings that were badly in need of repair and such work seem to fit Mary’s temperament and abilities just fine. At a height of more than six feet, Mary was reputed to be as strong as any man and very adept at fixing anything. With her talents recognized and appreciated, she soon became the foreman at the school and it was her task to oversee the other workers. Given that, she was a woman and a black woman, there was some resistance in those days, especially from one particular man who was not happy that Mary was earning more the he did and stated he did not want to take orders from an “uppity colored woman”. The emotions were raw and Mary had little use for the man and his attitude. An argument ensued and then violence. As one story tells it, the two of them got into a gunfight outside the nunnery one night, and Mary, no stranger to guns and shootin’, let the bullets fly from her six-shooter. While no one took a direct hit, a ricochet caught the man in the buttocks and other bullets put holes in the Bishop’s laundry that was hanging on a nearby clothesline. When the bishop heard about the ruckus, he demanded that Mary be fired. And she was. But that setback didn’t slow her down, by 1895, she had managed to secure a job as a U.S. Mail carrier, thus becoming the first African American to land a job with the U.S. Postal Service, and the second woman in the U.S. to do so. Braving bitter cold and the brutally rugged mountains, Mary developed a reputation as she and her team of horses pulled a stagecoach through the dangerous mountain passes and trails to remote cabins and miner’s camps-even in the coldest of the winter. It was said that if the snow was too deep to use the stagecoach, she and her mule “Moses” would walk the mail to its intended destinations. Her actions and determination helped to expedite much of the early communication those in this developing area of the country. In doing so, she played a major role in the settlement of Central Montana where she was known simply as “Stagecoach Mary”. As Mary began to age, she eventually wanted to leave rigors of the job to someone else. At nearly 70 years of age, she left the postal service and moved to Cascade to open a laundry. But it seems that washing clothes was not her only pastime. The cigar smoking Mary also spent a considerable amount of her hours in the saloons, drinking booze and playing cards with the regular crowd of local roughs. And at the age of 72, according to one account, she called a local man out into the street who had failed to pay for his laundry and she knocked him flat-with one blow. She reportedly said that was worth as much as what he owed her, so the score was even.
The legend of Mary Fields is well known in Montana and parts of the West but not so much in this part of the country, although it was from here that much of her strong character and untamed spirit was forged. Mary died in 1914 at 80 years. Liver failure, they say. She’s buried in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade where a simple wooden cross marks her grave. While she may have been largely forgotten in Toledo, her life’s work in Montana was not. The locals still remember and still tell the story of this one-time Toledoan who they say “broke all the boundaries of race, gender and age” and was a true pioneer.