Notes From The Frontier
The Amazing Story of a Gutsy Black Woman and Ex-Slave
When the famous Hollywood star, Gary Cooper, was growing up in Montana in the early 1900s, as a little boy he met a frontier legend and he never forgot it. The legend was a towering, six-foot-plus black woman named “Stagecoach Mary.” And she could drink, smoke, cuss, fistfight and shoot better than any man in the state. Or, as Gary Cooper put it: “She could whip any two men in the territory and had a fondness for hard liquor matched only by her capacity to put it away.”
Mary was born a slave around 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee, although the date and exact place remain unknown. The Civil War freed Mary and she got work on the Robert E. Lee Mississippi River steamboat as a chambermaid. She was on board the Robert E. Lee during the big boat race against the Natchez in 1870 and loved to tell stories of the race. Many years later, she related to the Cascade Courier newspaper in Montana, that the crew threw everything within reach--including any cargo and barrels of ham and bacon—to feed the boilers as other crew sat on the relief valves to boost the steam pressure. “It was so hot up in the cabins, passengers had to take to the decks,” she told the Courier. “It was expected the boilers would burst.” But, she said, the boilers held and the Robert E. Lee won.
Mary eventually worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When his wife Josephine died, the Judge trusted Mary to escort his five children to live with his sister, a Mother Superior at the Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. Mother Mary Amadeus Dunne immediately took to Mary Fields. Even though Mary was hard-edged and foul-mouthed, Mother Amadeus recognized that the big black woman had a heart of gold and could be relied upon no matter what.
The next year, the Mother Superior was sent to Montana Territory to start a school for Blackfoot Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, just west of Cascade. When she became deathly ill with pneumonia, she sent for Mary, who rushed to Montana to nurse her back to health. Mary stayed at St. Peter’s, doing mostly man’s work, hauling freight, growing vegetables, tending chickens, and repairing buildings. She was so good at carpentry she was promoted to foreman.
Mary also did other man’s work for the town, handling the stage that brought visitors from the train station. And she hauled critical supplies for the convent. But she preferred drinking and telling stories in saloons during her leisure time. She was not appreciated by all the nuns, however, some of whom complained about her bad language and rough ways. One nun wrote: "May God help anyone who walks on the lawn after Mary has cut it!"
The Native Americans gave Mary Fields the name, “White Crow,” because she acted like a white woman but had black skin. The locals, too, were perplexed by her. One schoolgirl wrote an essay about Mary, declaring: “She drinks whiskey, she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.”
Father Landesmith, who was the chaplain at nearby Fort Keough, visited St. Peter’s in 1887 and was charmed by Mary. She told him of her battle with a skunk that had invaded the coop and killed more than 60 baby chicks. She killed the rapscallion and brought it to show the sisters and visiting chaplain. The sisters were amazed she didn’t get sprayed by the skunk. Mary explained that she was careful to make a frontal assault!
She continued to work at the convent for 10 years, but Mary's wild ways caught up with her. In 1894, after many complaints and a fistfight with a local cowhand, her future at the convent was on the line. The final straw was a gunfight in which she shot a disgruntled male subordinate in the buttocks when he challenged her after complaining she—a black woman—made more than he did. Bishop Brondell, the first Catholic bishop in Montana, told Mary she must leave. Even Mother Amadeus could no longer protect her dear friend.
It was 1895 and Mary was 63 years old, with no place to go. She applied for a postal carrier position and got the job because she was the fastest applicant at hitching a team of six horses. She was the first black woman in the nation to manage a mail route. She held the job for more than eight years and never missed a day of work. She was always well-armed with a rifle and a pearl-handled silver Smith and Wesson .38 “Lemon Squeezer.”
She drove her route with horses and a mule named Moses. One winter night, a pack of wolves spooked her team and her wagon overturned in the snow. She scared off the wolves, righted the wagon with her own brute strength, loaded the spilled cargo, and made the delivery. A keg of molasses was the only casualty. But the bishop charged her for the breakage!
At age 71, Mary retired from her postal job and moved into town. She was loved by the townspeople, babysat their children, and ran her own laundry. In 1910, when the New Cascade Hotel was sold, the owner stipulated that Mary would continue to have meals free of charge for the rest of her life. In 1912, when her home and laundry burned down, the townspeople built her a new home. And, when Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, Cascade’s mayor gave her an official exemption. Even the school closed down to celebrate her birthday each year.
When she died in 1914 at age 82, she had many pallbearers and all the townspeople and children gathered to bury her in a small cemetery along the road of her postal route between Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission, a road she had traveled thousands of times as America’s first black woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service.
Years later, at the height of his Hollywood career in 1959, Gary Cooper, the little Montana boy who had looked up to the towering legend, wrote admiringly of Stagecoach Mary for Ebony Magazine: "Even though she was born a slave," he wrote, “she was one of the freest souls to ever draw a breath...or a .38!"
SPECIAL NOTE: "Stagecoach Mary" is Notes from the Frontier's most popular of more than 400 posts! "Stagecoach Mary" was first posted on NotesfromtheFrontier.com and Facebook on July 6, 2019
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