One of the great pleasures of researching a book like Buffalo Soldier is coming across the real-life stories of extraordinary people. They don’t get much more extraordinary than Mary Fields.
This powerhouse of a woman - six feet tall, cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, gun toting, hot tempered –was the first African-American woman to work for the US Postal Service.
Born a slave in Tennessee in around 1832, Mary was freed after the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. In a world turned upside down by war her problem then was what to do, where to go, how to live?
Not a great deal is known about how she fared in the years immediately following the American Civil War but by 1870 she’d found work emptying chamber pots on a Mississippi steamboat. It may have been there that she met Judge Edmund Dunne whose family later took her on as a servant.
When Dunne’s wife died, Mary was given the task of taking his five children to Ohio to be cared for by their aunt – an Ursuline nun called Sister Amadeus.
For the next few years Mary Fields stayed with the Ursuline Sisters tending the gardens and grounds.
Sister Amadeus and Mary became close friends but in 1884 the nun was promoted to Mother Superior and selected to go to Montana to set up a mission and boarding school for Native American children.
Conditions in Montana then were primitive and in 1885 Mother Amadeus contracted pneumonia. When the news reached Mary Fields she set out at once to nurse her friend back to health.
For the next eight years Mary helped with the building of the mission 19 miles from the town of Cascade. Besides the construction work she also did the laundry, tended the gardens, looked after the chickens and drove the wagon that brought food and supplies to the mission.
Mary’s temper often got her into altercations and after a duel with a hired hand word of her unorthodox behavior reached the Bishop. He declared a mission school was no place for a shoot out and insisted she leave.
With the help of Mother Amadeus Mary moved to Cascade and set up a restaurant. But Mary’s heart was a big as her temper was hot. She’d feed anyone who was hungry – whether or not they could afford to pay. She went bust.
But at sixty four Mary could harness a team of horses quicker than any man and so she got a job as a driver for the US mail. Sitting on top of the stagecoach, a jug of whisky at her feet, a pistol in her apron pocket, a shotgun by her side, wreathed in clouds of cigar smoke she must have made an impressive sight.
For eight years she carried the mail on a 19 mile route, never missing a day’s work.
In 1903 Mother Amadeus left Montana to carry out missionary work in Alaska. By then Mary was too old to accompany her, and indeed too old to continue carrying the mail. She stopped driving the stagecoach when she was around 70 but continued to work, running a laundry service from her home.
By then she’d become something of a local legend. The Cascade Hotel provided meals for her free of charge. When her home was burned down in 1912 the townspeople rallied round to rebuild it for her. Stagecoach Mary was the only woman permitted to drink in the town’s saloons.
When her health began to fail the fiercely independent Mary left her house and lay down in a field on a freezing night, waiting for death. She was found and taken to the hospital where, on December 5th 1914, she died.
The whole town mourned her. The service was held in the Pastime Theatre and was one of the largest Cascade had ever seen.
In 1959 Hollywood legend Gary Cooper – who’d met her as a child – wrote of her, “Born a slave… Mary lived to become of the freest souls ever to draw breath, or a .38.”