Mary Fields (circa 1832–1914), also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary, was the first African-American female star-route (contract) mail carrier in the United States. She was not an employee of the United States Post Office Department, which did not hire or employ mail carriers for star routes, but rather awarded star route contracts to persons who proposed the lowest qualified bids, and who, in accordance with the department’s application process, posted bonds and sureties to substantiate their ability to finance the route.
Fields had the star route contract for the delivery of U.S. mail from Cascade, Montana, to Saint Peter’s Mission in 1885. She drove the route for two four-year contracts, from 1895 to 1899 and from 1899 to 1903.
Author Miantae Metcalf McConnell provided documentation discovered during her research about Mary Fields to the United States Postal Service Archives Historian in 2006. This enabled the USPS to establish Mary Fields’ contribution as the first African-American female star route mail carrier in the United States.
Fields was born into slavery in Hickman County, Tennessee, in around 1832. After the Civil War ended, she was emancipated and found work as a chambermaid onboard the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. There, she encountered Judge Edmund Dunne and ultimately worked in his household as a servant. After Dunne’s wife died, he sent Fields and his late wife’s five children to live with his sister Mother Mary Amadus in Toledo, Ohio where she was Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent.
In 1884, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana Territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, west of Cascade. Learning that Amadeus was stricken with pneumonia, Fields hurried to Montana to nurse her back to health. Amadeus recovered, and Fields stayed at St. Peter’s, relegated multiple charges regarded as “men’s work” at the time such as maintenance, repairs, fetching supplies, laundry, and gardening, hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, and repairing buildings, and eventually became the forewoman. The Native Americans called Fields “White Crow”, because “she acts like a white woman but has black skin”.
Life in a nunnery was placid, but Fields hearty temperament and habitual profanity made the religious community uncomfortable. In 1894, after several complaints and an incident with a disgruntled male subordinate that involved gunplay, the bishop barred her from the convent and Fields moved to Cascade where she opened a tavern, but waned due to allowing the cash-poor to dine free. It closed due to bankruptcy about 10 months later.
By 1895, at sixty years old, Fields secured a job as a Star Route Carrier which used a stagecoach to deliver mail in the unforgiving weather and rocky terrain of Montana, with the help of nearby Ursuline nuns, who relied on Mary for help at their mission. This made her the first African-American woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service. True to her fearless demeanor, she carried multiple firearms, most notably a .38 Smith & Wesson under her apron to protect herself and the mail from wolves, thieves and bandits, driving the route with horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach Mary” due to her preferred mode of transportation. If the snow were too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.
She was a respected public figure in Cascade, and the town closed its schools to celebrate her birthday each year. When Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted her an exemption. In 1903, at age 71, Fields retired from star route mail carrier service. The townspeople’s adoration for Fields was evident when her home was rebuilt by volunteers after it caught fire in 1912. She continued to babysit many Cascade children and owned and operated a laundry service from her home.
Fields was Catholic, though she preferred the company (and activities) of local men to the sisters and their religious trappings. She died in 1914 at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, and her funeral was one of the largest the town had ever seen. She was buried outside Cascade.
Yesterday afternoon (March 26th, 2021) at 3 pm, Rep. Jessica Karjala’s (D-HD 48) bill, HB 662, Establish the Mary Fields Memorial Highway, was heard in the House Transportation Committee. After hearing the bill, the Committee chose to vote on it right away. Rep. Usher immediately made a motion to table the bill. Chairman Loge asked for a voice vote to table the bill, but there were three dissenting votes, one of which was Representative Derek Harvey (D) Butte. Rep. Karjala was not sure who the other representatives were who also voted against tabling the bill. Rep. Usher wanted the Chairman to explain to Rep. Karjala that the Committee had already determined a set of criteria for Highway Memorial legislation and that the bill to honor Mary Fields did not fit their predetermined set of criteria. Chairman Loge added that they had to hear the bill first before determining their predetermined criteria. One member of the Committee said after the hearing they had no knowledge of the Committee’s ‘predetermined’ criteria for memorial highways.
Rep. Wendy McKamey (R-HD 19), MT House Representative from the Cascade area, offered to cosponsor, but the bill hearing was scheduled incredibly quick because of the fast approaching transmittal deadline. If they would have passed it out of committee – like they should have – she would have been added as cosponsor.
Categories: Womens History