Thursday, July 6, 2023

Stagecoach Mary: America's First African-American Postal Carrier

Public Domain
I can barely parallel park my car, so I am always impressed when I find out about other women who drive tractor-trailers, bulldozers, and other large vehicles. Then I stumbled on the story of Mary Fields who became a postal carrier at the age of sixty in the wilds of Montana and was even more amazed. Can you imagine controlling four horses to pull a two-thousand-pound swaying vehicle with little suspension over rocky and often barely perceptible roads?

Yeah, I would have found another job.

Not Mary Fields. She was born into slavery sometime during 1832, perhaps 1833. Not much is known about her growing-up years, although most scholars seem to agree that she was owned by the Warren family in West Virginia prior to Civil War. After being freed in 1865, Mary worked her way up the Mississippi River working on steamboats. She ultimately ended up in Toledo, Ohio where she was employed at Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart. Again, records are sketchy so it is unknown why she left the convent, but she headed west.

Mary once again found work at a religious order when she landed at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade,
Courtesy Ursuline Nuns
of Youngstown
Montana. Accounts differ as to how she ended up there, but the mission was also run by Ursuline nuns, and the Mother Superior, Mary Amadeus was related by marriage to the family that had enslaved Mary Fields, so perhaps there was a connection from earlier in her life. She cultivated the garden, hunted game, and coordinated the delivery of supplies, but refused wages which allowed her to come and go as she pleased.

She “cussed a blue streak” as my grandfather would say, wore pants, and frequented the saloons which were interestingly overlooked by the nuns. However, things came to a head when she got into an argument with one of the male janitors at the mission, and the two pulled their guns. Neither fired, but the incident was the last straw for the area bishop who insisted that Mary’s employment be terminated.

Trying (and failing) at a number of things, including running a restaurant, Mary secured a contract to be a Star Route Carrier for the US Post Office Department (precursor to the US Postal Service). Some sources indicated she was awarded the contract through the assistance of the nuns; another claims she got the position because she hitched a “6-up team” faster than anyone else.

Courtesy Ursuline Sisters Archives, Great Falls
Mary’s thirty-four-mile round trip route ran between St. Peter’s Mission and Cascade. She carried multiple weapons including a .38 Smith & Wesson and a rifle to keep herself safe from bandits and wildlife. She also endured harsh winter weather, sometimes snowshoeing rather than leading the horses.

Unsurprisingly, she built a reputation for being fearless during her eight years of working the route. After retiring, she ran a laundry business and babysat for families in Cascade. Well-known and respected, she was granted an exemption by the mayor allowing her in saloons after a law passed prohibiting women from entering such places of business. Schools were also closed each year on her birthday, and she became the mascot for the town’s baseball team.

Here's a short video about the life and times of this intrepid woman:


Linda Shenton Matchett writes about ordinary people who did extraordinary things in days gone by. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, she was born a stone’s throw from Fort McHenry (of Star-Spangled Banner fame) and has lived in historical places all her life. She is a volunteer docent and archivist at the Wright Museum of WWII and a former trustee for her local public library. She now lives in central New Hampshire where she explores the history of this great state and immerses herself in the imaginary worlds created by other authors.

Beryl’s Bounty Hunter – Coming soon!

Can a thief and a lawman find happiness?

Orphaned as a child, Beryl Atherton has lived on the streets of London as long as she can remember. Reduced to stealing for survival, she is arrested. During her incarceration one of her cellmates shows her a newspaper ad for an American mail-order bride agency. But all is not as it seems, and moments after landing in Boston, she must run for her life. Will things be no different for her in the New World?

Working as a bounty hunter since The War Between the States, Lucas Wolf just needs a few more cases before he can hang up his gun, purchase a ranch out West, and apply for a mail-order bride from the Westward Home & Hearts Mail-Order Bride Agency. While staking out the docks in Boston, he sees a woman fleeing from the man he’s been tailing. Saving her risks his job. Not saving her risks his heart.


  1. Thank you for posting about this strong and resourceful woman!

  2. It was fascinating to learn about her life.