Delivering the mail in the Wild West was no easy feat. With bandits and criminals about, mail carriers often needed to be armed and alert as they made their way across the United States, packages and parcels in tow.
Only the fastest, bravest and fiercest were hired as contractors by the Postal Service to carry the mail on star routes, and in 1895, the first African American woman was hired for such a job.
Her nickname was Stagecoach Mary and she was a foul-tempered, hard-drinking woman who took guff from no one.
Born a slave in Tennessee, Mary Fields lived her formative years under the control of white men. Yet, that would change in 1865, after slavery was outlawed and she was set free.
After spending some time working in Florida, she ended up working at a convent in Montana, where they hired her to work as a forewoman.
Mary wasn’t averse to hard physical labor nor was she averse to hard drinking. With a penchant for enjoying whiskey, firing guns and getting into fistfights, the nuns were none too pleased with Mary’s behavior.
Of course, their concern wasn’t simply over Mary’s foul temper, but also her insistence to have better pay.
For a black woman to make demands for higher compensation was quite shocking at the time. Between her ornery attitude and her getting into fights with the sisters, Mary didn’t quite belong at the convent.
Things came to a head when Mary Fields actually drew guns at a male janitor with whom she had been in an argument with. He also drew his firearms and the two were in a standoff for a brief time. While no one was shot, the nuns were well past the point of tolerating Mary and they promptly kicked her out of the convent.
Now free from her previous job, Mary was free to wander about in Cascade, Montana, doing odd jobs and enjoy a carefree lifestyle. Drinking, shooting and getting into fights earned her quite the fierce reputation, and that reputation eventually landed her a job as a Star Route mail carrier.
Before there was a formalized postal service workforce, the government often chose to select independent contractors to deliver to specific routes. These routes were known as star routes because of the three stars promised by the bidder: celerity, certainty, and security.
These three qualities were necessary for a functional delivery service. Whoever had the ability to promise speed, security, and certainty of the mail arriving would be able to put in a bid for the contract. After receiving a star route contract, the bidder would then be able to either perform the work themselves or contract it out to delivery workers they hired.
Heavily armed and ready to throw down at a moment’s notice, there was little she was afraid of. Bandits and thieves didn’t stand a chance against her and she rode her route with barely any trouble.
Meeting trains, collecting mail and riding over rough terrain to make sure people received their letters and packages, she gained the nickname “Stagecoach Mary” because of her dedication to her job.
In the winter, if the snow was too deep for a wagon to be able to cross, she would carry the mail in her arms and make her way across frozen land, wearing snowshoes to make the journey.
For as violent and crass as she was, Mary Fields was seriously dedicated to her job and came to be greatly loved by the Cascade community. Her fierceness, bravery and no-nonsense attitude gave her the drive and determination to ensure that the mail was delivered, regardless of rain, sleet or snow.