Stagecoach Mary Began Western Journey In Toledo

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.

I

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Old Places and Faces

2 responses to “Stagecoach Mary Began Western Journey In Toledo

  1. The real ‘Stagecoach Mary’ story:

    Mary Fields, Black Mary, and ‘Stagecoach Mary’ are all one of the same person. Mary was born in 1832, a slave in Arkansas and was owned by a Catholic family; the plantation owner had a single girl child the same age as Mary. Mary’s mother was the House Slave Servant and the plantation owners’ favorite cook; therefore Mary was always in the main house, in the kitchen and not in the fields, as a Field Slave. Mary’s father was a Field Slave, and Field Slaves were not allowed in the Main House, much less, to court a House Slave. Mary’s mother became pregnant by Mary’s father and he was beaten and sold to another plantation for getting Mary’s mother pregnant. After Mary’s birth, Mary’s mother and her were allowed to stay in the main house, and Mary became the plantation owner daughters’ playmate, therefore being the owners daughter’s playmate, Mary was allowed to read and write, a rarity for that time.

    After the emancipation and coming into adulthood, Mary was 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. Mary became her own woman and traveled solely from Arkansas, up and down the Mississippi River, to Ohio, then finally to Montana where she got her nickname at the turn of the 20th Century. She earned this nickname by working for the “United States Postal System” delivering the United States Mail through adverse conditions that would have discouraged the most hardened frontiersmen of her time. All by herself, she never missed a day for 8 years, carrying the U. S. Mail and other important documents that helped settle the wild open territory of central west Montana.

    Mary had no fear of man, nor beast, and this sometimes got her into trouble. She delivered the mail regardless of the heat of the day, cold of night, wind, rain, sleet, snow, blizzards, Indians and Outlaws.

    Mary was a cigar smoking, shotgun and pistol toting Negro Woman, who even frequented saloons drinking whiskey with the men, a privilege only given to her, as a woman. However, not even this fact, sealed Mary’s credentials given to her, her credentials boasted that, “She would knockout any man with one punch”, a claim which she proved true.

    Her fame was so acclaimed, even the Actor, Gary Cooper, two time Academy Award Winner, told a story about her in 1959 which appeared in Ebony Magazine that same year. While, Annie Oakley and Martha Canary (Calamity Jane) were creating their history with Buffalo Bill, Stagecoach Mary was making “her Epic Journey!”

    Despite Mary’s hardness, she had another side of her, a kindness so strong, even today, in the beginning of the 21st Century, the town of Cascade, Montana, and other surrounding communities celebrate her birthday. The Epic movie is in pre-production mode. Check out website at http://www.stagecoachmary.net

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s