by, Jo Carol Hebert
In 1619, a Dutch ship brought the first enslaved Africans to the American colonies to be sold to the highest ‘bidder’. This ‘transatlantic slave trade’ forced captives onto ships off the West Coast of Africa and delivered them as ‘cargo’ across the ocean.
The voyage lasted 4-6 weeks. Chained and crammed into sweltering, airless quarters below deck, deprived of the most basic of human needs, many did not survive. By 1860, there were four million slaves in the country, providing a source of free labor on farms, in households, and industrial enterprises in the North. The economy of the Southern agricultural states was dependent on a much larger slave workforce to cultivate the vast fields of tobacco and cotton.
Early Years of Mary Fields: Rough Start
Mary Fields was born on a plantation in Hickman County, Tennessee in 1832, a slave child of slave parents. Her birth was recorded by her ‘owners’ in a business ledger as a number (#). Most likely, her father was a field slave and her mother was a house slave. Her formative childhood years were lived out exposed to the hardships, dangers, fears, and inhumanity of being treated as a ‘piece of property’. Andrew Jackson was the 7th president of the United States.
Free, At Last!
Thirty-three years later (1861-1865) a brutal Civil War between opposing northern and southern states over slavery and state’s rights was fought and ended in victory for the the North. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, issued an Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 – a ‘gesture’ that declared all persons held as slaves were to be free. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1854 legally abolished slavery.
Free to Be Me
Mary Fields left the plantation and unknowingly entered history. Although she was literate (could read and write), she left no records. But, in the course of her eighty-two years of life, she reinvented herself from a number to a name. Her life represents the essence of women who helped settle the American Western frontier. Her story particularly sheds light on the fact that women of color have always been strong threads in the fabric of our society.
Embracing her newfound freedom and armed with the survival experiences of slavery,
Mary had the peculiar ‘luck’ of courageous people that put her in the right place at the right time. Mary was fortunate to land a servant’s job on a steamboat on the mighty Mississippi River. In 1870, (the era of steam-driven boats) she was on board the Robert E. Lee when that vessel engaged the Natchez in the most famous steamboat race in history. Speeding along at 15 miles per hour, the Robert E. Lee broke the Natchez record from New Orleans, Louisiana to St. Louis, Missouri.
A natural storyteller for the local folks, Mary is quoted, recalling how the Robert E. Lee won when “the crewmen tossed barrels of resin and sides of ham and bacon to lighten the boat. It was expected that the boilers would burst!”
Eventually, she landed in Toledo, Ohio, where she reunited with a childhood friend and mentor, the Mother Superior Amadeus, of the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart religious order. In 1885, she followed her good friend westward into Montana territory when word came to her that Mother Amadeus was ill with pneumonia.
Mary Fields stayed on to work at the new St. Peter’s Mission for Native American girls near Cascade, Montana. The Native Americans of the mission called her “White Crow”, because ‘she acted like a white woman, but had black skin.”
She became a vital part of the mission, skilled in handling the stagecoach and wagon teams of horses hauling supplies. One bitter cold winter night, on a supply run, her wagon overturned, spilling the precious supplies of food for the convent. Fields stayed all night and fended off wolves that were drawn by the smell of food. The next morning, the children had their breakfast, right on time.
Nothing was too hard or too impossible for Mary. She would cook, clean, baby-sit, repair buildings, tend the chickens, hunt game birds, and maintain the gardens. She became the ‘foreman’ of the mission’s workers, earning $9.00/week, which disgruntled the men who only earned $7.00/week.
Trouble in the Convent
Mary had not survived this far based on beauty, talents, higher learning, or ladylike charm to commend her. At over 6’ tall and 200 lbs, she quickly gained a ‘not-so-convent-like’ reputation for having a quick temper and the “personality of a grizzly bear”. The nuns would say, “Don’t ever walk on Mary’s lawn after she just cut it!”
Although fiercely protective of the nuns and children, Mary had an inclination towards associating with acquaintances that were ‘rough around the edges’. She was known for never backing down from a fight, (a standard weapon of the wild, wild west was the revolver tucked under her apron). Word of Mary’s unchurch-like behaviors got to the church leaders. Despite Mother Amadeus’ pleas, Mary was relieved of her duties at the convent. But she recommended Mary for a job nearby in Cascade, Montana, that was to earn Mary Fields her historical reputation.
Stagecoach Mary, First Black Female Postal Carrier
In the lawlessness of the American Frontier, it was the very rough and fearless nature of her character that gained respect and kept her alive. She earned the job by hitching up six horses to a stagecoach faster than any other applicant. And she was in her 60’s! She got her own smaller ‘buckboard’ wagon, a few horses, and a mule named Moses. For the next eight years, Mary ran the 30-mile round trip mail route from Cascade to St. Peter’s Mission.
Dogged determination, utter fearlessness, relentless loyalty (and sometimes her ‘pet eagle’) took her through the impossible obstacles of the frontier. Freezing weather, rough terrain, bandits, and wild animals were normal, everyday conditions of the job. When the snow was too deep for the horses, she would strap the mail on her back and plow through her route on snowshoes. At the end, she could boast, “I never lost a horse or a piece of mail”.
First Black Voter in Cascade
In the course of her barging through life on her own terms, Mary registered to vote in Cascade County in 1912, becoming the first black person to break that barrier.
Latter Years of Mary Fields: Loved and Honored
Two years later, Mary Fields was defeated by ‘liver failure’ and died in Great Falls, a short distance from Cascade. Her final years were spent reaping the rewards of a grateful local community that saw the ‘heart of gold’ she hid beneath her rough exterior. After retirement from the mail route, she tried a restaurant, but failed because she gave away food for free. She opened a laundry in her home that burned down, but the townsfolk rebuilt her residence. She supported the local baseball team by giving ‘homerunners’ bouquets of flowers from her garden (and hollering at the umpire for every call against ‘her’ team). And, each year, on her birthday, the schools let out for a celebration.
Great Falls Tribune, March 17, 1904
“Yesterday was the 74th birthday of Miss Mary Fields, a well known personage of Cascade, and at this advanced age, she is hale and hearty.
She is widely known for her years of driving the state between here and St. Peter’s Mission, and ’tis said that the way she can pull the strings over a ‘coach of four’ is not poor.
Mary was the recipient yesterday of a number of presents as a token of friendship.”
Legacy of Mary Fields
When she was laid to rest, the town funded the funeral and showed up to the last man. Mary Fields had early fulfilled the later dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, when he said:
“I have a dream that one day…people will judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
What do you think about Mary Fields?
If you want to know more, here are some books in your library:
Fearless Mary, Albert Whitman and Company/2019; Tami Charles; illustrated by Claire Almon; (ages 5-7).
The Story of Stagecoach Mary, Silver Press/1994; Robert Miller; illustrated by Cheryl Hanna, (ages 5-8).Deliverance Mary Fields, Huzzah Publishing/2016; Miantae Metcalf McConnell, (adult).