Like many mythical figures of the Old West, it’s challenging to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the life of the African American heroine Mary Fields (better known as “Stagecoach Mary”). She left no diary or memoir behind, so all historians have to piece together her life are second-hand accounts and records. Despite this limitation, there’s no questioning that the real-life Fields was a remarkable individual who defied rigid gender roles and racial barriers during the 19th century.

From Slavery to a Convent

Born as a slave in the 1830s, Mary Fields was freed during the American Civil War. She worked for a time as a chambermaid on a Mississippi steamboat. Afterward, she headed to Toledo, Ohio, where she found employment as a groundskeeper in an Ursuline convent. In 1884, five Ursuline sisters headed to central Montana to open a school and convent at St. Peter’s Mission. When one of the sisters, Mother Superior Mary Amadeus, fell desperately ill with pneumonia, Fields and some of the sisters left northeast Ohio and headed to the Montana mission to help.

St. Peter's Mission, Montana.

St. Peter’s Mission. (The Catholic World, 1897)

Fields become a vital member of the understaffed mission. She regularly drove the mission’s wagon into the nearby town of Cascade to get supplies and retrieve visitors. To feed the mission’s staff and students, she kept 400 chickens and tended to a large vegetable garden. A crack shot with a rifle, Fields hunted wild birds. She reportedly carried a Winchester rifle for protection against wild animals during her regular journeys between the mission and the town. During one reported episode, a pack of wolves frightened the wagon’s horses, causing it to overturn. Fields spent the whole night into morning guarding it against the ravenous wolves. The mission desperately needed those supplies. Field knew it and was willing to sacrifice her life to protect them. At daylight, she overturned the wagon by herself, reloaded the supplies and made the trip back to the convent.

Steadfast Postal Agent

Fields presented an imposing sight. She stood over 6 feet tall and weighed around 200 pounds. She smoked cigars or a pipe, drank hard liquor with the men in Cascade’s saloons and got into a handful of scuffles with them. After 10 years at the Montana convent, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Brondel had enough of Fields’ troublesome behavior, so he banished her from the mission. With the help of  Mother Superior Amadeus, Fields opened a restaurant in town, but it failed. She struggled to make ends meet with only her laundry business, so the mother superior helped Fields obtain a contract with the U.S. Postal Service in 1895.

Mary Fields in wagon

Fields in her wagon. (Ursuline Centre, Great Falls, MT)

Fields made history by becoming the first African American woman to carry mail on a “star route” for the U.S. Post Office Department. Over a period of eight years (two four-year contracts), she faithfully drove the U.S. mail wagon between Cascade and the convent. The distance between Cascade and St. Peter’s was roughly 20 miles. Mail served as a lifeline to the outside world and a vital means of communication. If snow impeded her route, Fields made the hike on foot with the mail bags over her shoulders.

After she became too old to continue her mail route, Fields retired and worked as a laundress, did janitorial work in local saloons and babysat the town’s children. On December 5, 1914, she died and was buried at Hillside Cemetery. Only a plain wooden cross with her name written on it marked her grave. But in the 1970s, the citizens of Cascade placed a boulder with her name and birth and death dates etched into it. Still, it’s a simple monument for someone with such an extraordinary personality.

The Legend Lives On

Fields’ notoriety has grown in recent years. Dolls, children’s books, T-shirts, artwork and other Stagecoach Mary memorabilia is now sold. Fictional portrayals of her appeared in the AMC western-drama Hell on Wheels (2011-2016) and the Netflix original film The Harder They Fall (2021). Similar to “Rosie the Riveter,” Mary Fields has come to embody female strength and fortitude and a figure that shattered gender and racial barriers. The difference is that Rosie the Riveter is not based on a real-life person. Like other Old West legends, Fields will continue to captivate Americans as long as her story is told.

Stagecoach Mary with her rifle. (Ursuline Centre, Great Falls, MT)

Feature illustration courtesy of Audrey Benjaminsen.

Further Reading

Amspacher, Shelby. “Stagecoach Mary Fields.” Smithsonian National Postal Museum (blog). Smithsonian. April 1, 2020. https://postalmuseum.si.edu/stagecoach-mary-fields.

Garceau-Hagen, Dee. “Finding Mary Fields: Race, Gender, and the Construction of Memory.” In Portraits of Women in the American West, edited by Dee Garceau-Hagen, 120-155. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Everett, George. “Mary Fields, A Rough and Tough Black Female Pioneer.” HistoryNet. Accessed January 31, 2022. https://www.historynet.com/mary-fields-female-pioneer-in-montana.htm.

Hardaway, Roger D. “African-American Women on the Western Frontier.” Negro History Bulletin 60, no. 1 (January-March 1997): 8-13.