Monday, 2 March 2015

Extraordinary Lives : Stagecoach Mary


Of the stories about women’s lives in the Wild, Wild West of the 19th century none can be more extraordinary than that of Mary Fields (c.1932-1914), pictured left. She was even a hero to one of the great Wild West movie cowboys.

Mary’s story begins, as does so many black Americans in the 19th century, in slavery. The exact year of her birth has not been ascertained, but it is believed she was born in, or about, 1832. Even the date of her birth is a mystery. In the town of Cascade, Montana, the townspeople held her is such high esteem in her later years that the local schools were closed on her birthday which, she variously claimed, was in March or October. Yes, Cascade accepted that Mary had two birthdays a year, such was their high regard for her!

Following the abolition of slavery many former slaves left their old slave homes for new lives elsewhere. Mary Fields was one who remained in the service of her former owner, Judge Edmund Dunne, and became a valued and trusted employee. When she felt it was time to leave and move on Mary found work as a chambermaid on the legendary steamboat “Robert E. Lee”. Mary was actually on board the “Robert E. Lee” when it won the race up the Mississippi against the steamboat “Natchez” in 1870.

After a few years Mary decided to go back to work for Judge Dunne. When the judge’s wife died in 1883 Mary took the five Dunne children to live with their aunt, the Mother Superior of a convent in Toledo, Ohio. A few months later, however, the aunt was appointed to lead a mission to Cascade, Montana, to establish a Catholic school for local Native American girls.

On receiving news of the Mother Superior’s ill health in Montana some months later Mary Fields left her job as a carpenter at the Toledo convent and sped across to nurse her old friend. From that moment the Catholic mission of St. Peter’s and the town of Cascade became Mary’s home.

Until now Mary’s life was only extraordinary in that she lived pretty much as a man in a world where women had to know their place. Once in Cascade her life became extraordinary even for a man. Many of the details have been elaborated with legend and apocryphal stories, but there’s no smoke without fire, as they say, and there’s no reason to doubt some of the most extraordinary tales told about her.

Mary’s everyday life at the Mission near cascade consisted of acting as a general “handyman” – chopping firewood, building stone walls, digging trenches. She probably built the schoolhouse and chapel single-handedly. She also tended the mission’s chickens and garden.

One story told is of one of her regular trips to Helena township 120 miles away. Travelling alone as usual, her waggon was attacked by wolves on her return journey. The houses bolted and overturned the waggon spilling all the food and provisions onto the ground, and Mary kept the wolves at bay all night, protecting the supplies for the convent with her rifle and revolvers.

Mary was also quite adept with her fists as well as her guns. Reports tell of many unfortunate men who tried to get the better of her. She was a regular drinker, and the Mayor of Cascade gave her permission to drink in any male-only saloon she liked. There was a standing bet in one saloon that she could knock a man flat with one punch. The bet lapsed after 2 men lost their bet. A local newspaper once wrote that Mary had “broken more noses than any other person in Montana”. Even when she was 69 years old she flattened a man who refused to pay her for his laundry cleaning!

It was this feisty temper that lost Mary her job at the mission. Another mission handyman complained that she earned more than he did, so Mary challenged him to a duel. The unfortunate man ended up with one of Mary’s bullets in his backside, and Mary was dismissed for firing a gun on convent property.

Mary tried several jobs after that. She opened a couple of restaurants but was so charitable towards genuinely poor and needy customers by giving them free meals that they went bust.

In 1895 Mary got the job which led to her nickname. By hitching a team of horses quicker than any of the male applicants she got a job with the US Postal Service.

Now in her 60s Mary drove the mail coach single-handedly. Loaded with mail, money and valuables she made the daily trips across the state of Montana, with just her trusty revolver under her apron and a rifle by her side. Day after day, without fail, Mary travelled over the rough roads (when there were any) to ensure the US mail arrived at its destination, no matter what the weather or attack from Sioux tribes. When the mountain snow got too deep for the horses Mary would strap the mail bags over her shoulder and walk miles and miles. Mary’s reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach Mary”.

Mary retired from the mail service in 1901 and opened a laundry in Cascade. She also baby-sat for most of the families in town. At this stage of her life Mary was a well-known character. The Hollywood cowboy Gary Cooper met Mary when he was a youngster and he was living in Helena township. He admired Mary greatly and contributed to an article about Stagecoach Mary in “Ebony” magazine in 1977.

In 1912 tragedy struck when Mary’s laundry and home burnt down. The people of Cascade clubbed together and built her a new home. Mary died of liver failure 2 years later at the age of about 82.

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