This Daring Black Pioneer Protected Wild West Stagecoaches
Would-be mail thieves didn’t stand a chance against Stagecoach Mary. The hard-drinking, quick-shooting mail carrier sported two guns and men’s clothing.
Because of scant records and the temptation to create Wild West legends out of ordinary people, many facts about Field’s life are still fuzzy. What is clear is that her real-life persona was extraordinary enough to draw plenty of attention on its own. Mary Fields didn’t need to be a myth to stand out from the crowd—but she didn’t seem to mind her outsized reputation.
Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary (1832-1914) – Born as a slave in Tennessee, Fields was one of the first women entrepreneurs, stagecoach drivers, pioneers of the American West. Orphaned as a child, she grew up with Ursuline nuns but received no formal education. With the nuns she traveled west but never known for her quiet temperament, she left the convent when she was still in her teens. Living by her wits and strength, she became known, as a hard drinker, a notorious brawler, a cigar smoker and one of the wildest women of her time.
The pistol-packing muscular, six-foot-tall woman drew attention wherever she went and was constantly reinventing herself as a successful entrepreneur. Over the years, she ran several restaurants in a number of towns in Montana, Wyoming, and southern Canada.
Never married, she found her ideal job in 1895 when she became a U.S. mail coach driver for the Cascade County region of central Montana. She and her mule Moses never missed a day, and it was in this capacity that she earned her nickname of “Stagecoach,” for her unfailing reliability. Interesting Fact: When she retired in Cascade, Montana, spending most of her time gardening, she was befriended by Gary Cooper; the actor who, as a child, grew up with her as a neighbor near Helena Montana.
In 1914 she died of liver failure. Neighbors buried her in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross. Given the limitations society placed on her by her skin color and gender, Fields stands out as a woman who was far ahead of her times during those adventurous days of the Old West.
Mary’s story is known and has been featured in many media offerings:
In the documentary South by Northwest, “Homesteaders” (1976), Fields is played by Esther Rolle. In the TV movie The Cherokee Kid (1996), Fields is played by Dawn Lewis. In the TV movie Hannah’s Law (2012), she is played by Kimberly Elise. In the short Western, They Die By Dawn (2013), Fields is played by Erykah Badu.
I have vague remembrance of her character in the Cherokee Kid, co-starring Sinbad, Gregory Hines and James Coburn. I assumed at the time she was fictional. The 1976 documentary should be refreshed for today’s audiences. Regardless, I appreciate having her story brought to my attention and will go back to watch the others. Will keep you posted. And let me know if you remember her in any of the mentioned media.
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