While watching an episode of Hell on Wheels, a flamboyant character named Mary Fields was introduced. If you are unfamiliar with Hell on Wheels, it is a series originally produced by AMC. Hell on Wheels was the name of a half-assed town—mostly whorehouses, dance halls, and gambling establishments—that followed Union Pacific workers across the wilds of the West as they constructed the first Transcontinental Railroad. The series is a mix of fact and fiction that charts the railroad construction though the 1860s. In the Hell on Wheels series, Mary Fields is a hard-drinking, scrappy, black woman who drives a stagecoach.
Turns out, Mary Fields was a person of historical significance. Though not exactly as portrayed on the television series.
The exact year Mary Fields was born is something of a guess by historians. The best estimate is that she was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1832. Freed at the end of the Civil War, Mary remained close to the family that once owned her. She was particularly close to Dolly Dunn, the daughter of this family. When Dolly moved to Ohio and then, in 1884, to Cascade, Montana, Mary followed her. She thrived in the West.
Definitely not a fragile specimen, Mary Fields stood six feet tall and weighed something near 200 pounds. She wore a pair of trousers under her dresses. She often wore an apron—which both kept her warm and concealed the gun she almost always carried. Mary also smoked bad cigars, and drank plenty of whiskey. She spoke her mind and was not afraid to punch a man in the face. A newspaper in Great Falls, Montana once noted that she was responsible for more broken noses in Central Montana than any other person.
Upon arrival in Montana, Mary took a job at a mission for young Native American girls. Her friend Dolly worked there and likely got her the job. Mary chopped wood, did carpentry and stone masonry work, and performed any other manner of odd job required to keep the mission functioning. She also made regular supply runs to the nearest train station and sometimes to Great Falls or Helena with a horse-drawn wagon.
Mary was fired from the mission after she and another hired hand engaged in a gun fight over a dispute about wages—she was making more than him. Reportedly, one of the bullets Mary fired put holes in the bishop’s laundry hanging out to dry on a line. Fortunately, both parties lived after the shootout.
In 1895, Mary took the job that made her a figure of historical importance. She started carrying letters and parcels for the U. S. Mail. She was the first black woman to carry mail in the country and only the second woman to do so. Her route in Central Montana was rugged and subject to extreme weather. Mary took great pride in delivering letters and parcels no matter the difficulties. People in Montana were so impressed, they nicknamed her “Stagecoach Mary,” a name that recognized her ability to keep a regular schedule no matter the circumstances. Native Americans called her “White Crow” because she acted like a white woman but was black.
Mary carried mail for ten years. Following that she “retired” to Cascade and opened a laundry. The people of Cascade dearly loved Mary. She was a regular fixture at baseball games and a regular at the local tavern. The famed western artist Charlie Russell, who also lived in Cascade for a while, drew a pen-and-ink drawing of Mary called A Quiet Day in Cascade, which depicts Mary spilling eggs from a basket while being upended by a hog.
Mary Fields died and was buried in Cascade, Montana, in 1914.
Sources: AMC, americacomesalive.com, blackcowboys.com