Badass Woman with a Heart of Gold
Mary Fields was born a plantation slave in Hickman County, Tennessee, sometime in 1832 in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne and his wife Josephine who had five children. At this time in history, slaves made up 25% of the population of Tennessee and they were the unwilling backbone of the state’s agricultural production. Tennessee was home to many of the largest slave holding plantations. This included, then, President Andrew Jackson’s Heritage Plantation in Nashville where 150 black men, women and children were kept on his 1,000 acres, as slaves. By all accounts, the Dunnes were a devout Catholic family, generally kind and caring people.
Mary formed an unlikely friendship with one of their daughters, Sarah Dunne. They were as different as night and day. Sarah had a fair complexion, blond hair, blue eyes and was a descendant of a wealthy Irish family. Mary, on the other hand, was a dark skinned slave, with black hair and dark eyes. Sarah was frail and delicate while Mary was strong and sturdy. Sarah was refined and patient and Mary was rough and quick tempered. Mary was offered the same opportunities for education as Sarah. She learned to read and write as Sarah did, a rarity at the time. Unusual though it was, Mary and Sarah, or Dolly as she was called, were about the same age and had formed a deep and lasting friendship. Mary’s mother was the House Slave and the owners’ favorite cook. Mary was always in the house with her mother rather than in the field which is why she and Sarah were able to get to know each other.
Mary’s father was a Field Slave and they were not allowed in the Main House, much less to court a House Slave. When Mary’s mother became pregnant, her father was beaten and sold to another plantation as punishment for getting Mary’s mother pregnant. Regardless of how benevolent the master was, rules were rules. In 1865, when slavery was outlawed, Mary stayed close to the family who had owned her because of her deep friendship with Dolly.
In 1881 Dolly became an Ursuline nun and moved to a little town, Cascade, that is in the far western corner of Montana between Helena and Great Falls. Her task was to set up a school for women and girls of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe. Mary moved to Mississippi, where she worked for a while as a chambermaid on the steamboat, the Robert E. Lee. She was actually on board during the famous boat race with the Natchez in 1870. She was a great storyteller and enjoyed relating her experience of watching the men toss anything they could find - barrels of resin, sides of ham and bacon, furniture - into the boiler while other men sat on the relief valves to boost the steam pressure and, consequently, their speed. “It was so hot up in the cabins that the passengers were forced to take to the decks,” she said, according to an article in the local Cascade Courier in 1914. “It was expected that the boilers would burst.” She was fearless though, and simply viewed it as a great adventure. Mary and Dolly stayed in touch, writing long letters to one another during this time. Mary had actually joined Dolly at the Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio for a while, but when Dolly was assigned to the outpost in Montana, Mary traveled around exploring for a while longer.
Then in 1885 Dolly, then known as Mother Amadeus, became quite ill and sent a letter asking Mary to come to Cascade. Her illness was serious and she wanted the comfort and nursing of her dear friend and childhood companion. Mary nursed Mother Amadeus with great love and care until she regained her health. She saw things that needed doing at the convent and school and she just jumped right in and began to make repairs to the ramshackle establishment. Soon, a team of men was organized and they labored alongside Mary. She cut wood and hauled supplies from the rail station back to the mission, grew vegetables and raised and cared for as many 400 chickens. She was greatly valued and was soon made forewoman at St. Peter’s Mission. Mary dug holes, and helped with the construction of the new schoolhouse and a chapel with little more than her bare hands, a pocket full of nails, and a carpenter’s level. She alone handled the stage and team of horses that drew the wagon bringing visitors or critical supplies to the convent.
Mary had a real talent with horses and insisted on working with them regardless of the weather. One dark and stormy night, on her way home, a pack of wolves spooked the horses and the wagon was overturned. She stood guard, gun at the ready, using the wagon as cover all through the night to protect the food and other vital supplies for the convent. The nuns depended on these supplies to survive and her Dolly must be protected. When the sun came up the next morning she tracked down the horses, muscled the wagon back upright, put supplies back in place and headed for the convent. All was saved except a keg of molasses that had cracked on impact. The Bishop made her pay for that molasses out of her own pocket. She was well suited for the rural west, since being a slave had conditioned her to a life of hard work.
Mary was about 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. If her size didn’t cause her to draw attention, her style certainly did! She wore comfortable trousers under her skirt and apron for warmth, a wool cap, and sturdy boots. Her apron was very handy for hiding her gun, a five-shot Smith & Wesson .38, strapped around her waist, and she was not afraid to use it. All in all, she was a formidable figure. It was said that she was only a match for any two men in Montana. She had a standing bet that she could knock a man out with one punch, and she never lost a dime to anyone foolish enough to take her up on that bet. Some of the Natives called her “White Crow” because “she acts like a white woman but has black skin.” The locals clearly did not know what to make of her. She was the first black woman to settle in this part of the country.
One day when Mary was away doing errands, some of the nuns decided to help out and do some of Mary’s chores while she was gone. They did laundry without any problems, and then they decided to burn a small pile of trash. This is when it turned from a helping hand to a disaster. The fire ignited some loose cartridges that just happened to be laying on the ground, leaving Sister Gertrude slightly wounded over one eye when they went off. They were all most grateful when Mary returned home. The chaplain at nearby Fort Keough, Father Landesmth, visited St. Peter’s in 1887. He was captivated by Mary and her storytelling. She related her battle with a skunk to him. This particular skunk had been invading her chicken coop and had probably killed more than 60 of her baby chicks. Mary was fighting mad. She shot the skunk and dragged it more than a mile to show off her trophy to both the sisters and visiting chaplain. They were duly impressed but also stunned, asking her how in heaven’s name she managed to accomplish this and not get sprayed. She explained that she took great care to make a frontal assault.
When the sisters moved from the primitive log cabins into a new stone building, Mary personally took great care with the few possessions of Mother Amadeus, using a wheelbarrow to haul them. She continued her work at the Mission for almost ten years and probably would have spent the rest of her life there had it been allowed. But it was not to be. One account reports a gun duel in wild west fashion, but few details are available. Tales of fistfights, which inevitably she won, were more readily available. During one trip to a neighboring ranch, she got into a heated debate over some harnesses with the ranch foreman. She used a small rock to emphasize her point of view, leaving a permanent dent in his skull. On another day, one of her “hired hands” lodged a complaint that she was earning $2 a month more than he was and, after all, he was a man! She earned $9 a month and he only $7. Unthinkable! He faced her and asked who she thought she was that she was worth so much money, why she just an uppity colored woman! To make bad matters worse he voiced these same grievances publicly at the saloon where she was a regular, and then he took his grievance directly to the Bishop! This set her blood to boiling.
At the very next opportunity the two of them engaged in a full shoot out behind the nunnery next to the sheep shed. Bullets flew in every direction until both guns were empty. Neither actually hit the other but one of the bullets that Mary’s shot bounced off the stone wall of the convent and hit the despicable man in the left buttock, which completely ruined his new trousers for which he had paid $1.85. As if that wasn’t enough, some of the other bullets that had been fired passed through the laundry drying on the line, generously ventilating the drawers and two white shirts belonging to Bishop Brondell, the first Catholic Bishop in Montana. He had just had them shipped from Boston only the week before. I don’t think it was ever clear what the Bishops clothes were doing on the convent clothes line but that was quite enough for the Bishop. Between his new clothes, the gun battle, and stories that had reached him previously, his patience had been sorely tried and finally ran out. He fired her on the spot and gave the injured man a raise.
Mary traveled to Helena, the state capital, with Mother Amadeus to plead her case, but to no avail. The powers that be had already decided that she must leave St. Peters. Mother Amadeus was devastated yet unable to go against the wishes of her bishop. She did the next best thing though, she secured a mail route for Mary between Cascade Center and the convent. That way she would still be able to see her dear friend and Mary would have employment. Somehow, Mother was able to find her friend a wagon and a mule named Moses for the new job. Mary Fields became only the second woman in the country to manage a mail route and the first African-American. The first known appointment of a woman was Sarah Black in April of 1845. Mary was grateful for the job and worked at it successfully for eight years. Her job “interview” consisted of being asked to hitch a team of six horses, a six-up, to the coach as quickly as possible. Her competition was six hardened, grizzled old cowboys. The 60-year-old Mary blew them all away; she hitched the horses and had time to run over to the saloon, grab a beer, come back and smoke a cigar while waiting for those other guys to finish up. Hired!
This driver broke all the barriers to delivering the mail in the Wild West. It was certainly not a job for the weak or faint of heart. It carried huge risks and required long and arduous days on horseback, sometimes in hostile territories. It was still a relatively untamed and lawless land. There was a saying at the time that “the horse and rider should perish before the mail pouch did.” Successful delivery, it seems, was valued more than life itself. Once again, Mary Fields rose to the occasion. Her 19-mile route was a ride between Cascade and St. Peters, which gave her to the opportunity to return to the people and place she loved, the place from which she was exiled. It was during this time that the lively mail woman became known as “Stagecoach Mary.” One historian noted that when she rode into town she made her presence known to all. One man wrote: “With a jug of whiskey by her foot, a pistol packed under her apron, and a shotgun by her side, she was ready to take on any aggressor. The shotgun she toted was one of the most feared of guns. It could cut a man in two at short range, and Mary wouldn’t hesitate to do so.” She never missed a day of work and she forged bravely ahead regardless of weather. When the snow was too deep for Moses to make it, she strapped on her snowshoes and hauled the heavy sacks on her shoulders. She, too, placed the highest value on delivering that mail. Everyone knew they could count on Mary.
She had rough edges for sure, and the sisters attempted to smooth some of them by inviting her to practice her Catholic faith and attend services. It didn’t work well as Mary preferred the rougher company of the men who worked at the convent or in town. She worked hard and she played hard. She swore mightily, could and did drink any man under the table, played cards, smoked nasty cigars, fought with her formidable bare hands, loved swapping stories with the men, could argue politics with anyone, and was a crack shot, but had a heart of gold. She couldn’t find this kind of satisfaction in a church. During one of her earlier mail runs to the convent she was hurt badly, when the team of horses she was driving spooked and she lost control. It was not entirely clear why she was driving a team horses and not her steady mule, but she knew if she had her mule, Moses, this never would have happened. Finally arriving at the convent, she was feeling very guilty for having let the horses get away from her. Some of the sisters used this as an opportunity, once again, to encourage her to practice her faith and attend mass with them. She surprised everyone by agreeing to attend the following day. Several of them stayed up most of the night to fashion a beautiful blue challis dress and a long white veil for Mary to wear on this momentous occasion. What a picture that must have been!
Mary loved baseball and adopted the local Cascade team as her own. The team loved her as well and invited her to all their games, home or away. For each game, she prepared little buttonhole flowers from her own garden for each of the players to wear. The larger bouquets were reserved for any man hitting a home run. Anyone speaking ill of that team within her earshot could expect a bouquet of knuckles in his face! Mary also loved children and often babysat within her community. She charged $1.50 per hour and would then turn around and spend most of it buying treats for the children. She met a little boy who was visiting family friends in Cascade. He was from Dearborn, Montana. She asked his name and he said, Gary Cooper. In 1959 he remembered her fondly as he wrote an article for Ebony magazine. The famous cowboy artist, Charlie Russell, lived in Cascade for a short period of time and was captivated by Mary Fields. In 1897 he depicted her in pen and ink in a work called “A Quiet Day in Cascade. It showed her with a basket of eggs, being knocked down by an errant hog and spilling all the eggs. Sometimes Mary took in laundry for the men in town to make a little extra money. By proclamation of the mayor, D.W. “Bill” Munroe, she was the only woman of reputable character in Cascade allowed to drink at the local bar. She enjoyed this privilege greatly and could put away her fair share, but never drank to excess.
One day, she was in town enjoying a cold beer with the “boys” when she saw a man outside who owed her $2. She jumped up and marched determinedly to the door. A hush fell over the bar. She walked right up to that man and with one swift jab to the jaw, laid him on the ground rendering him unconscious, knocking a tooth out in the process. As she returned to the bar, she brushed her hands off and said, “consider that debt paid in full.” She was 72. When he regained consciousness he realized that the tooth he lost had been giving him great trouble anyway so he was most grateful rather than upset. Often the men learned respect for her the hard way. The Great Falls Examiner, the local paper, once declared that Mary “broke more noses than any other person in central Montana” and that any man challenging her was a hard-headed fool. She retired from the U.S. Postal service but she still needed a source of income. She opened a couple of restaurants but soon went broke with both of them because she extended credit or simply didn’t charge anyone in need. Deciding that perhaps the restaurant business was not for her, she opened a laundry service that was more successful. In 1903, her longtime friend and mentor “Dolly,” Mother Amadeus, was sent to Alaska to establish another mission. Mary was devastated. Mother Angelina, who succeeded Mother Amadeus at St. Peter’s, was kind to Her, but it was a small comfort after such a sorrowful separation from her Dolly, and her heart was truly broken.
By now, Mary was well known, loved and respected by all in Cascade and even the surrounding areas. The local hotel always welcomed her and in 1910, when R.B. Glover leased the New Cascade Hotel from Kirk Huntley, there was actually a clause in the lease stipulating that Mary Fields would always, and with no question, be offered meals free of charge for the rest of her life. Her birthday every year was declared a formal holiday. Schools and businesses closed for the day! This 80 plus-year-old woman used to laugh uproariously because they didn’t know the exact date of her birthday, so she just chose two different days and everyone celebrated twice. In 1912 her home burned to the ground. The ashes were hardly cool when the entire town showed up to rebuild for her. Businesses and schools closed and it was all hands to the building site. People from all walks of life gave whatever they could, temporary housing, clothing, food, funds or toil, to help her out. She was respected and well loved for sure.
Mary Field was dauntless, with no fear of man or beast; a legend in her own time. Her funeral was attended by the entire town and people came from far and wide. It is reported to have been the largest funeral in Cascade ever at the time. Telling this story is in no way meant to glorify brawling, violence of any kind, drinking or smoking. Kept in the context of the frontier in the 1800’s, it is rather meant to celebrate the life of a woman who was brave, dedicated, loyal, loving, hard working and strong. She happened to have a few faults, but who among us doesn’t?