February 25, 2020

The Legend of "Stagecoach" Mary: The First Black Woman to Carry U.S. Direct Mail

Meira McFarquhar
Meira McFarquhar

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To celebrate Black History Month this year, Sendoso honors a pioneer in American history, Mary Fields. Better known as “Stagecoach” Mary, Fields was the first black woman employed to carry U.S. direct mail and left an incredible legacy behind for breaking barriers, challenging the status quo, and shattering stereotypes.

Little is known about the true origins of the woman who would come to be known as “Stagecoach” Mary. What we do know however, is that the brave former slave led a thrilling, daring, and incredible life, filled with accomplishments few deemed possible for a woman during her time, let alone an African American woman.

Origin Story

Mary Fields was believed to be born in 1832—80 years after direct mail had been established in the U.S. Her exact date of birth remains a mystery, and there are no known records of what her life may have been like during her years as a slave.

Her story comes more into focus shortly after the Civil War when Fields received her freedom. Like many recently freed slaves, Fields migrated north to escape the extremely harsh realities of life in the American South. She sought out to make a new life for herself in a rapidly changing country.

And that she did.

Her trajectory led her up the Mississippi River where Fields became a multi-talented working woman holding jobs as a chambermaid aboard the Robert E. Lee steamboat, a laundress, and a servant. She eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio working as a housekeeper for the Ursuline Convent, where her friend Mother Amadeus was a nun. It’s presumed that Mother Amadeus’s family may have owned Fields when she was a child which would explain their close bond and Fields’ employment at the convent.

In 1884, Mother Amadeus left Ohio to found St. Peter’s Mission in Cascade, Montana. Fields followed her shortly after. For the next decade, Fields worked at the convent tending to their garden, raising chickens, and transporting supplies from nearby towns. But despite working at a convent, there was nothing conventional about her.

Fields stood at a staggering height of 6 feet, swore, carried a gun, and was known to have “the temperament of a grizzly bear.” Although Fields may have adapted to her life at the convent, the convent never fully adapted to her feisty, quick-tempered manner and her unconventional ways. One nun said, “God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it.” Fields’ behavior often got her into trouble, and after a disagreement with a local cowboy escalated to an almost fatal shootout, Mary was fired from her position.

She wasn’t out of work for long though. In 1895, her true calling had finally come. At almost 63 years old, Fields acquired a contract by the U.S. Postal Service to become a star route courier and deliver the United States direct mail. Her route would take her approximately fifteen miles each day. Soon after she started, she quickly earned her lasting nickname “Stagecoach” Mary for her dependability, speed, and relentless determination to deliver mail on time, every time.

A Postal Pioneer

While in today’s times delivering direct mail may not be considered among the most perilous of professions, in the late 1800s it was certainly no easy feat. Mere decades after the invention of the postage stamp, and a century before the invention of tracking numbers or solutions for sending direct mail at scale, Americans relied on these star route couriers to ensure the safe delivery of mail from senders to recipients.

In the “Wild West,” these couriers not only battled the natural elements, but were vulnerable to stagecoach robberies since they often carried valuable goods, and were prone to violent encounters with Native American tribes wary of strangers traveling through their territories.

Fields’ dangers were magnified as an African American woman. African American postal workers were especially susceptible to attacks. In 1904, the Humphrey, Arkansas post office was blown up in the middle of the night simply because some people in town objected to an African American postmaster.

There was also the arduous task of driving the actual stagecoach that Fields became known for. A typical empty western mail coach could weigh up to 2,400 pounds, and Fields was responsible for controlling hers alone, along with successfully steering horses through the tricky terrain along her daily route.

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Despite all of these obstacles, she rose to the occasion and dutifully delivered direct mail for eight long years.

Her work was not done in vain, either. Because of her reliability, she helped facilitate connections between remote homes, miners’ cabins, and other outposts that depended on these crucial message exchanges to process land claims, resulting in the development of what is now central Montana.

“Stagecoach” Mary’s Lasting Legacy

It wasn’t only her impeccable delivery rate that made Mary into the sensation she became. Fields was a trailblazer in many other ways besides her occupation. In addition to her large stature and fiery temper, Fields crossed traditional gender boundaries as well.

She never married or produced children, she smoked cigars, drank hard liquor, often wore pants instead of dresses, and she was a big supporter of the local baseball team. She even gave flowers from her garden to players who hit home runs.

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Such behavior from a woman during her time was unheard of. Fortunately, she lived an authentic life, and all her quirks, coupled with her atypical career choice, made her a staple in her community. By the time of her death at the age of 82, Mary went on to become a notable figure in Montana history where her grave still stands today.

Tales of her unique journey and her unusual behavior spread fast. Thus, the legend was born. It wasn’t long before fanciful stories made their way throughout the West about a gun-slinging, no-nonsense Black woman who could fight, drink, and would stop at nothing—whether it be angry tribes, thieves, or even wolves—until every piece of her mail reached its final destination. Like a true Wild West hero, her story has been adapted many times for film and television, like in the 1996 movie The Cherokee Kid, and the Hallmark Channel’s 2012 release Hannah’s Law.

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Whether or not all of her rumored exploits are true is up for debate, but what is certain is that “Stagecoach” Mary made a tremendous mark in Western history.

Actor Gary Cooper, who once met Fields in Montana when he was a child, said it best: “Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw breath or a .38.”

To learn more about other extraordinary Black trailblazers in American history, click here. Sendoso is proud to follow in the footsteps of courageous individuals like Mary Fields, who single-handedly redefined what was considered possible in the direct mail industry. Here’s how we’re creating more human connections, one send at a time.

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