Born a slave in Tennessee on May 15, 1832, Mary Fields grew up an orphan, never married and had any children. But she was admired and respected for holding her own and living her own way in a world where the odds were stacked against her. While African Americans and women of any race enjoyed little freedom anywhere in the world, Mary Fields enjoyed more freedom than most white men.
At the end of the Civil War, the 6-foot tall and 200 pounds Fields headed to Montana in search of opportunity and was hired to do heavy work for the nuns at a Catholic convent in Cascade. Fields carried a pair of six-shooters and a 10 gauge and loved the children of Cascade County. The tough, short-tempered woman 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. She was also the only woman of reputable character in Cascade allowed to drink in the local bar as ordered by the mayor. But this tough woman also had a caring side to her.
Mary Fields helped build the St. Peter’s mission school and supported the local baseball team as its No. 1 fan, preparing buttonhole bouquets of flowers for each player from her own garden, with larger bouquets reserved for home-run hitters. After opening her own cafe with the help of the nuns, she closed shortly thereafter because she fed the hungry who were unable to pay (although rumors suggested her cooking was horrible).
After Bishop Brondell, the first Catholic bishop in Montana, received complaints about her behavior (the fights, the drinking and smoking), he told the convent that Mary Fields must leave. The nuns helped secure a mail route for her and Fields became the second woman in the country to manage a mail route. They even supplied her with a wagon and a team of horses for the route. Mary became a legend known as “Stagecoach Mary” for her unfailing reliability as she never missed a day on the job.
Fields retired from stagecoach driving at the age of 70 and opened a laundry business. The people of the town thought so highly of her that on her birthday they would close the local school in her honor. She would then buy candy and treats for the children. Fields was also treated to free meals at the New Cascade Hotel for the rest of her life when it was leased in 1910. Two years later, when her home (and laundry business) burned down, the citizens built her a new one.
Sensing that the end was near in 1914, Fields took some blankets and went into the tall weeds near her home. Some children playing nearby found her lying there, and she was taken to the hospital where she died a few days later. She was buried in a small cemetery alongside the road between Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission that she had traveled so many times during her life. Her grave is marked with a simple cross.
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