“Stagecoach Mary” Fields: The Richest Woman in Town
May I confess to having a bit of envy toward anyone who has ever had a really cool nickname? It doesn’t matter who they are. From Wild Bill Hickok to Meadowlark Lemon, if they’ve got a cool nickname, I love them! I’ve considered trying to get a snappy moniker to stick to me, but that’s not the sort of thing you bestow on yourself. (Although, I do think “Leather Lady Lequoia” has a certain ring to it and I would not object if you saw fit to use it!) But, today, we’re going to learn about a woman who didn’t have to come up with her own nickname. We’re going to learn about Stagecoach Mary Fields!
Born into Slavery
Mary Fields was born a slave in Tennessee, in 1832. This is the part of the story where I would normally try to include some amusing anecdotes about her childhood. But, alas, I shall refer you back to the part about Mary Fields being born a slave in 1832. Being born in 1832 meant she would continue to live as a slave for thirty-three years. It also meant that when slavery was abolished in 1865, she had quite a few years to make her own choices and call her own shots.
I can practically hear you saying, “Um, Leather Lady Lequoia, if you think a freed slave in the 1800s got to call her own shots, you need to brush up on your history.” And, to that, I say, “Thank you for using my new nickname. And, please wait until you learn more about this woman before you pass judgment!”
Let Freedom Ring
In 1865, Mary Fields’ opportunities looked about like those of any other freed slave. She went to work on an estate. That might have been where her story ended, if not for the fact that she went to work on the estate of a prominent Tennessee judge, by the name of Edmund Dunne. When Judge Dunne’s wife died, in 1883, it was Mary Fields who was given the task of delivering the five Dunne children to Edmund Dunne’s sister.
As it happened, Dunne’s sister was the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. What might have been just a trip to Ohio ended up altering the course of Mary Fields’ life. Mother Mary Amadeus must have taken a shine to Mary Fields, because upon meeting, they formed a bonded friendship. To fully appreciate this pair of friends, pause for a moment and reflect on this picture: It was 1883 and there was a friendship between a nun and a 6-ft-tall, 200 pound, dark-skinned, freed slave woman who wore a rough cap and men’s trousers. Mary Fields was also known to carry a jug of whiskey and conceal a service pistol under her work apron. She wasn’t what you might call genteel! No, they weren’t the sort of duo most people would have expected to encounter in a nation that was still licking its wounds from the Civil War.
Nobody’s Eliza Doolittle
When Mother Amadeus took a position at St. Peter’s Convent, near what would become Cascade, Montana, Mary Fields joined her there. When Mother Amadeus became ill, it was Mary Fields who nursed her back to health. And, when Mother Amadeus was well, Mary Fields stuck around and helped at the convent.
Mary Fields continued to stay at the convent. She cared for the nuns’ practical needs and they, in turn, tried to help her become a little more refined. The nuns were not successful in their Pygmalion attempt! Mary Fields liked to swear and smoke cigars. She also didn’t mind an occasional fistfight, which she was sure to win, by the way!
Eventually, her rough edges caused her removal from the convent. A bishop had received complaints about her and he insisted that she leave. Mother Amadeus moved Mary into living quarters in Cascade and helped her secure a job as a mail carrier. Mother Amadeus may have secured the interview, but Mary got the job because she could hitch a team of six horses faster than any other applicant, even though she was around sixty-three-years-old at the time! She was only the second African American to work for the U.S. Postal Service.
Mary’s route was between Cascade and the convent, so she was never far from the nuns she loved so dearly. She never missed a day of work. When a pack of wolves spooked her horses and the wagon overturned, she stood guard and protected the shipment of supplies for the convent, through the night. I’ll bet you can guess how Mary Fields came to be known as Stagecoach Mary. She might just as well have been called Snowshoe Mary because when the snow was too deep for her horses, she delivered mail on foot, wearing snowshoes.
Fun Facts about Stagecoach Mary
When Mother Amadeus was sent to Alaska, in 1903, seventy-year-old Mary Fields was heartbroken. When Stagecoach Mary finally gave up her mail route, she found she had no shortage of admirers. Here are some fun facts about Stagecoach Mary:
- She had two failed attempts at operating a restaurant. She might have been successful, if not for the fact that she fed anyone, even if they couldn’t pay. No shoes. No cash. No problem!
- Her birthday became a school holiday for the students of Cascade.
- By order of the Mayor, Stagecoach Mary was the only upstanding woman allowed to drink in Cascade’s local bar.
- In 1910, when the New Cascade Hotel was leased to a new to a new manager, the owner stipulated in the contract that Mary Fields would be served free meals for the rest of her life.
- When her home burned to the ground, in 1912, the townspeople built her a new home.
- She babysat area children for the rate of $1.50 an hour. Most of that income was spent purchasing treats for the children!
- In 1914, when Stagecoach Mary was in her final days, she took her blankets to a patch of tall weeds, lied down and waited to die. She wasn’t one to impose on people! She was discovered by three brothers she used to babysit and taken to a nearby hospital. She died a few days later of liver failure. Although she died penniless, she was really the “richest” woman in town.
- Gary Cooper took notice of Stagecoach Mary when he was a youngster visiting from Dearborn, Montana. In 1959, he wrote a story for Ebony magazine, in which he said, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.”
- Stagecoach Mary has been portrayed in two television movies: The Cherokee Kid, in 1996 and Hannah’s Law, in 2012.
Surely, you can see why Stagecoach Mary is a hero of mine. And, you know, when you get right down to it, I would have loved her even if she hadn’t had a cool nickname.
Happy Trails, y’all!