A friend of mine posted a story on her Facebook about “Stagecoach” Mary, said to be the “first African-American and second woman mail carrier in the U.S.” I love reading stories about women’s history, those who defied the odds, but the story of Mary Fields alongside the photo of what looked like a sad and broken woman dressed in typical slave clothing was difficult to buy.
A few years ago, I uncovered that the story of Sacagawea that paineds her as an empowered young mother who guided Lewis and Clark was actually a fictionalized written by a woman in the mid-nineteenth century who wanted to build her up in history and give the U.S. a heroine. The true story is much less noble and extremely heartbreaking. [spoiler: she was not a guide; she was kidnapped from her tribe, sold to a French trapper who already had one wife and it was the trapper who was Lewis and Clark’s guide.]
Mary’s story could be told in her photo. From the beginning, I just couldn’t reconcile the heartbreak in her face with the story posted, nor did it fit with the way women or African-Americans were treated during the time that she lived:
“Mary Fields began her life as a slave in Tennessee in 1832, the exact date is unknown. Mary’s mother Susanna was the personal servant to the plantation owner’s wife, Mrs. Dunne. The plantation wife also had a daughter who was born within two weeks of Mary, and named Dolly. Mrs. Dunne allowed the children to play together. Over the years Mary was taught to read and write and the two girls became best friends. At sixteen, Dolly was sent to boarding school in Ohio and Mary was left all alone.
That’s a nice tale, but Mary’s father worked in the fields on the Dunne farm. He was sold after Mary was born according to legend. And make no mistake, suggesting that Mary was treated with respect in the Dunne household is a legend that has been sold over and over. The story of Mary becoming best friends with Dolly sounds nice to some, but she was property, worked in the fields (how she got her last name) and worked as a slave for the Dunnes.
“After Mary’s mother passed away, Mary became the head of the household at the young age of fourteen.” Her mother is dead and they pull her in to work her fingers raw. This was not a promotion.
Mary’s story picks up after the Civil War when she is asked to care for her “dear friend” Dolly who is a nun. I don’t see a direct link from Dolly Dunne to Sister Amadeus so I’m not sure of the connection. She does, however, end up working at a convent in Ohio with the Ursuline Sisters. When the sisters went to set up a mission in Montana, Mary , by then about 60 years-old, accompanies them.
Stories of her “explosive temper” abound. That “temper” showed itself when she was working on St. Peter’s Mission and one of the male workers didn’t feel she knew her place so he hit her, then pulled his gun to kill her. She pulled hers and shot him. (not sure if he was killed). “Beloved” Mary was fired by the Bishop for the gun incident. It was then that Mary “applied” to be a postal worker. (She’s 60.)
FACT: Mary never worked for the U.S. Postal Service – “Despite slowly broadening opportunities in the Post Office Department, women were still subjected to strong disapproval and discrimination within the system.”
FACT: The U.S. Postal Service refers to Mary as “postal folklore.”
Look at the account of “Stagecoach” Mary’s legendary abilities:
“Mary proved herself the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses and was hired.” [translation: Mary hitched the horses every morning].
“Mary drove the mail stagecoach along the trails that linked Cascade to the remote homesteads. Thieves and wolves roamed the countryside, always ready to pounce on prey.” [translation: Mary rode along, maybe, to ensure safety of the workers.]
“In the winter, heavy snowfalls plunged the trails under drifts. On several occasions, Mary’s horses could not cross the drifts. Determined to do her job, she left the horses behind and walked alone to deliver the mail. Once she walked 10 miles back to the depot.” [Translation: She was expected to get the mail delivered, and at 60, she carried heavy mail 10 miles in the snow!]
She continued to deliver mail until she was 70 or at least walk the difficult roads in the snow blankets with heavy mail bags. She opened a laundry business and catered to the local baseball team. Even in this photo posted on CascadeMontana.com, Mary appears far from the “over six foot-tall woman” depicted in legend. The body language doesn’t speak of a beloved member of the community either (sorry Cascade). Mary is off to the side, inserted and smiling, but not within the team circle. She died in 1914, so the photo was probably taken sometime around 1910.
She is buried at Highland Cemetery at St. Peter’s Mission marked only with a cross. If you ever go there, leave a red carnation. It is the symbol of admiration and its meaning is:
“My heart aches for you.”
Rest in Peace Mary Fields. May your eyes be smiling in Heaven.