Bandits beware: In 1890s Montana, would-be mail thieves didn’t stand a chance against Stagecoach Mary. The hard-drinking, quick-shooting mail carrier sported two guns, men’s clothing and a bad attitude. As the first African American woman to carry mail, she stood out on the trail—and became a Wild West legend. Rumor had it that she’d fended off an angry pack of wolves with her rifle, had “the temperament of a grizzly bear,” and was not above a gunfight. But how much of Stagecoach Mary’s story is myth?
Born Mary Fields in around 1832, Fields was born into slavery, and like many other enslaved people, her exact date of birth is not known. Even the place of her birth is questionable, though historians have pinpointed Hickman County, Tennessee as the most likely location. At the time, enslaved people were treated like pieces of a property; their numbers were recorded in record books, their names were not.
Her story becomes clearer after the end of the Civil War, when she was freed. Many formerly enslaved people headed north to friendlier territory. So did Fields, who seems to have gone up the Mississippi River working on riverboats and acting as a servant and laundress for families along the way. She ended up in Ohio, living a life that was well outside the norm—in a convent.
READ MORE: Women in the Civil War
It’s not clear how Fields discovered the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo, Ohio. Some accounts say she accompanied a daughter of the Warner family to the convent. Others say she headed there with a family friend who was a nun.
The religious community, which still exists today, was serene and disciplined. There, Fields worked as a groundskeeper. Her gruff style and penchant for cursing raised eyebrows in the quiet convent. When asked how her journey to Toledo was, she reportedly told one of the nuns that she was ready for “a good cigar and a drink.” Historical records show that the nuns complained about her volatile temper and her “difficult” nature.
Recommended for you
According to historian Dee Garceau-Hagen, one nun remembered Fields’ wrath when anyone disturbed her lovingly kept grounds, saying “God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it.” Fields also tussled with the nuns over her wages—behavior that would have shocked white women who expected African Americans to be well behaved and subservient.
Though Fields struggled to adjust to the sheltered life of the convent, she did make a friend: Mother Amadeus Dunne, the convent’s Mother Superior. Known for her fearlessness and charisma, Dunne was called to missionary work by her bishop and headed to Montana where she founded an Ursuline convent there in 1884. There, she assisted Jesuit priests who were starting schools for the Blackfeet Nation. In 1885, Fields got word that the beloved nun was gravely ill, and headed to Montana to help her.
The West suited Fields, who nursed Dunne back to health and began working for her new convent near Cascade, Montana. But though she faithfully served the nuns in the harsh, sparsely populated community, news of her subversive behavior reached the bishop, who raised serious concerns about Fields’ habits of drinking, smoking, shooting guns and wearing men’s clothing. When Fields and the convent’s male janitor pointed guns at one another during an argument, it was the final straw.
Kicked out of the convent, Fields was on her own—and she set about living a life that was shocking by 19th-century standards. She took in laundry and did odd jobs, started businesses and became known for liking hard liquor and gunfights.
This tough reputation ended up paying off. In 1895, she got a contract from the postal service to become a star route carrier—an independent contractor who carried mail using a stagecoach donated by Mother Amadeus. It suited Fields to a tee. As a star carrier, her job was to protect the mail on her route from thieves and bandits and to deliver mail. She was only the second woman in the United States (and the first African American woman) to serve in that role.
“Stagecoach Mary” or “Black Mary,” as she was nicknamed, carried a rifle and a revolver. She met trains with mail, then drove her stagecoach over rocky, rough roads and through snow and inclement weather. And though she intimidated would-be thieves with her height and her tough demeanor, she became beloved by locals, who praised her generosity and her kindness to children.
For eight years, Fields protected and delivered the mail. Eventually age caught up to her and she retired. The community rallied to support her, despite occasional dust-ups with neighbors. Local restaurateurs gave her free meals; saloon regulars chatted with her until bars became forbidden to woman due to a town ordinance. When she died on December 5, 1914, her funeral was one of the largest the town had ever seen.
Because of scant records and the temptation to create Wild West legends out of ordinary people, many facts about Field’s life are still fuzzy. What is clear is that her real-life persona was extraordinary enough to draw plenty of attention on its own. Mary Fields didn’t need to be a myth to stand out from the crowd—but she didn’t seem to mind her outsized reputation.
READ MORE: 11 of History's Fiercest Females