Mary Fields also known as Stagecoach Mary (c. 1832 – 1914), was the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States, and just the second American woman to work for the United States Postal Service.
Fields stood 6 feet (182 cm) tall and weighed about 200 lbs (90kg), liked to smoke cigars, and was once said to be as “black as a burnt-over prairie (black).” She usually had a pistol strapped under her apron and a jug of whiskey by her side.
Born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee around 1832, Fields was freed when American slavery was outlawed in 1865.
She then worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne’s wife Josephine died in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida, Fields took the family’s five children to their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. In 1884, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana Territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, west of Cascade. Learning that Amadeus was ill, Fields hurried to Montana to nurse her. Amadeus recovered and Fields stayed at St. Peter’s hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, repairing buildings and eventually becoming the forewoman.
The Native Americans called Fields “White Crow” because “she acts like a white woman but has black skin.” Local whites did not know what to make of her. One schoolgirl wrote an essay saying: “she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.” In 1894, after several complaints and an incident with a disgruntled male subordinate that involved gunplay, the bishop ordered her to leave the convent.
Mother Amadeus helped her open a restaurant in nearby Cascade. Fields would serve food to anyone, whether they could pay or not, and the restaurant went broke in about ten months.
In 1895, although approximately 60 years old, Fields was hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She drove the route with horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach.” If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.
Fields was a respected public figure in Cascade, and on her birthday each year the town closed its schools to celebrate. When Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted her an exemption.
Mary Fields died of liver failure in 1914. In 1959, actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony 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.”
In the 1976 TV documentary South by Northwest, “Homesteaders”, Fields was played by Esther Rolle, in the 1996 TV movie The Cherokee Kid, Fields was played by Dawnn Lewis, and in the 2012 TV movie Hannah’s Law she was played by Kimberly Elise.