People are sometimes surprised to find out that I never studied writing formally. Instead, I majored in history – both for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Why? Because history is nothing but stories. And you know the saying: truth is stranger than fiction.
So it is that while researching mountain men for one of my freelance projects I came upon the story of an amazing woman in the Old West: Stagecoach Mary. This 6 foot tall, 200-lb woman picked up and moved into Montana at the age of 52 years. There, she first worked for the Jesuits and next for a convent, where she chopped wood, dug holes, tended as many as 400 chickens, and grew vegetables for the nuns. Though she was devoted to the nuns and their Indian students at the mission, she was well known to have “the temperament of a grizzly bear.” She smoked, swore, and engaged in rounds of fisticuffs with her fellow hired hands. These behaviors got her banned from the mission in 1884 despite the protestations of the nuns.
Yes, indeed, Stagecoach Mary could kick ass and take names with the best of them. She smoked homemade cigars and was once attacked by wolves while alone on the prairie. I guess you know who got the bad end of that deal. After the nun debacle she tried to run a couple of restaurants, but because she kept giving meals to the down and out, she couldn’t make a go of it. In 1895, at the age of 63, she got a job delivering mail for the post office. As a job interview she and a dozen young cowboys had to hitch a team of six horses to a stagecoach as quickly as possible. She won to become the second woman – and the first black person – to manage a mail route. For eight years she carried mail back and forth to Montana pioneers. With the help of her mule, Moses, she braved icy blizzards and heat waves in the remote land.
Stagecoach Mary, also known as Black Mary, was christened Mary Fields when she was born into slavery in 1832, in Hickman County, Tennessee. After the Civil War guaranteed her freedom, she worked for a time as a chambermaid on a steamboat named the Robert E. Lee. She witnessed the steamer’s race against Steamboat Bill’s Natchez in 1870. During the race, the men tossed anything they could get their hands on into the boiler – from barrels of resin to slabs of ham and bacon. Other men sat on the relief valves in order to increase the steam pressure.
At 71, she gave up her postal route to run a laundry – and famously punched out a customer who hadn’t paid up the $2 he owed her. Reportedly, she spent more time drinking whiskey and smoking cigars than washing clothes. So she took up babysitting the local kids. One of those local kids was actor Gary Cooper, who visited her hometown of Cascade, Montana from nearby Dearborn. He wrote a story about her for Ebony magazine in 1959.
The only black resident of Cascade, she had plenty of friends in the townfolk. One was Kirk Huntley, who, when he sold his hotel in 1910, stipulated that she was to be offered all the meals she wanted free of charge. Her house burned down in 1912 and the town pitched in to build her a new one. She was also a baseball fan who sponsored the Cascade baseball team and made sure that each player had buttonhole bouquets of flowers from her garden.
At the age of 82 she grew ill, and stole away to die in the tall grass near her home. But children who she had babysat found her and she was spirited off to the hospital in Great Falls, where she died a few days later, in 1914.