(The following article was
from the March/April 1999
based in Peterborough, N.H.,
and is being reprinted by permission
of the publisher.)
Mary Fields a pioneer in
By JENNIFER M. DREWRY
When people hear of cowboys or
pioneers, they usually think of tough, brave men. However, there were also many
women pioneers who paved the way west. Among the best known is “Stagecoach
Born sometime around 1812, Mary
began life as a slave in Hickman County, Tenn. Few facts, however, are known
about her early years. According to some historians, she was owned by Judge Dunn
and grew up on his family farm. She became friends with his daughter, Dolly, who
was around the same age.
Unlike most other African
Americans of the time, Mary was taught to read and write.
After the Civil War and the
emancipation of slaves, many ex-slaves left the plantations and farms of their
former owners. Mary, however, stayed with the Dunns. When she did leave, she
spent time in Ohio and along the Mississippi River.
According to some reports, when
Mary was around 30 years old, she received a letter from Dolly, who had become a
nun and was now known as Sister Amadeus. Mary welcomed her friend’s request to
join her at the convent. Soon after Mary’s arrival, however, Sister Amadeus
headed west to become the headmistress of a school for Native American girls in
Montana. For some reason, Mary chose not to accompany her friend. Only when she
learned that Sister Amadeus was ill with pneumonia did Mary head west to
Montana. Mary must have liked the area. After she had helped nurse her friend
back to health, she decided to stay.
The school, called Saint
Peter’s Mission, consisted of old buildings that were badly in need of repair.
Mary, who stood over six feet tall, was as strong as any man and very good at
fixing anything. She soon became the foreman, or boss, of the other workers at
the school. There was one man, however, who did not want to take orders from a
black woman. He argued with Mary, and then struck her. While Mary was falling,
the man reached for his gun. Mary, in self-defense, snatched her six-shooter and
fired. She was as fast with a pistol as any man. When the bishop in charge of
the school heard about the gunfight, he demanded that Mary be fired. Sister
Amadeus could not bear to let her friend go under such circumstances.
When Mary heard that the United
States Postal Service was looking for someone to deliver mail from the town of
Cascade, Montana to families in the surrounding areas, she applied for the job.
Even though she was about 60 years old at the time, Mary proved herself the
fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses and was hired. Thus, Mary became
the second woman and the first African American woman to work for the United
States Postal Service.
Mary drove the mail stagecoach
along the trails that linked Cascade to the remote homesteads. One of her stops
was Saint Peter’s, which was located 17 miles from Cascade. Mary loved the
job, despite the many dangers and difficulties. Thieves and wolves roamed the
countryside, always ready to pounce on prey.
In the winter, heavy snowfalls
plunged the trails under drifts. On several occasions, Mary’s horses could not
cross the drifts. Determined to do her job, she left the horses behind and
walked alone to deliver the mail. Once she walked 10 miles back to the depot.
Mary continued to deliver the
mail until she was almost 70 years old, earning the nickname of “Stagecoach
Mary.” Then she decided to “slow down.” the nuns at the mission helped her
open a laundry service in Cascade. A laundry business, however, was not enough
to keep Mary busy and she spent much time caring for her garden.
An avid baseball fan, she often
presented the town’s team with bouquets of flowers from her garden.
The town so loved and respected
Mary that on her birthday they even closed the schools to celebrate the
occasion. She was well over 80 years old when the townspeople laid her to rest
at the foot of the mountain trail that led to Saint Peter’s Mission.
“Stagecoach Mary” Fields
broke all boundaries of race, gender and age.
She was a true pioneer.
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