Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Meet Mary Feilds: A Black gun-totin’ female in the American wild west


A Black gun-totin’ female in the American wild west. She was six feet tall; heavy; tough; short-tempered; two-fisted; powerful; and packed a pair of six-shooters and an eight or ten-gauge shotgun. A legend in her own time, she was also known as STAGECOACH MARY.
Born a slave in Tennessee during the administration of Andrew Jackson — a feisty sort with whom she shared driving ambition, audacity, and a penchant for physical altercation on a regular basis. She smoked rather bad homemade cigars. 
After the Civil War loosened things up, as a free woman in 1884, having made her way to Cascade County (west central Montana) in search of improved sustenance and adventure, she took a job with the Ursuline nuns at St. Peter Mission. Mary was hired to do ‘heavy work’ and haul freight and supplies to keep the nuns’ operation functional and well fed. She chopped wood, did stone work and rough carpentry, dug certain necessary holes, and when reserves were low she did one of her customary supply runs to the train stop, or even to Great Falls, or the city of Helena when special needs arose.

On such a night run (it wasn’t all that far, but it was cooler at night), Mary’s wagon was attacked by wolves. The terrified horses bolted uncontrollably and overturned the wagon, thereby unceremoniously dumping Mary and all her supplies onto the dark prairie.
The more doubtful part of the story says that Mary kept the wolves at bay for the entire night with her revolvers and rifle. How she could see them in pitch black is not explained, however, she did survive and eventually, when dawn broke, got the freight delivered. Mary’s pay was docked for the molasses that leaked from a keg that was cracked on a rock in the overturn.
Being heavily armed at all times, and ready for a fist-fight at the drop of a hat, Mary was prepared for such inconveniences. "Pugnacious" is not really an adequate word to describe her demeanor.
Since she did not pay particular attention to fashion, and otherwise failed to look and act the part of a woman in the Victorian age (albeit on the frontier), certain ruffian men would occasionally attempt to trample on her rights and hard won privileges. Woe to all of them.
She broke more noses than any other person in central Montana; so claims the Great Falls Examiner, the only newspaper available in Cascade at the time.
Once a ‘hired hand’ at the mission confronted Mary with the complaint that she earned $2 a month more than he was ($9 vs. $7), and wondered why she was worth so much money being only an ‘uppity colored woman.’ (His name, phonetically, was Yu Lum Duck.) To make matters worse, he made the same complaint and general description in public at one of the local saloons (where Mary was a regular customer), and followed that up with a (more polite) version directly to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger.
This was more than enough to boil Mary’s blood, and at the very next opportunity the two engaged in a shoot-out behind the nunnery, next to the sheep shed. (Actually, it turned into a shoot-out, because Mary went to simply shoot the man as he cleaned out the latrine — figuring to dump his body in there — she missed. He shot back and the fracas was on.)
Bullets flew in every direction until the six-guns were empty, and blood was spilt. Neither actually hit the other by direct fire, but one bullet shot by Mary bounced off the stone wall of the nunnery and hit the forlorn man in the left buttock, completely ruining his new $1.85 trousers. Another bullet passed through the bishop’s laundry drying on the clothes line, drawers and two white shirts he had shipped from Boston only the week before.
 That was enough for the bishop; he fired Mary, and gave the injured man a raise.
Out of work, Mary took a stab at the restaurant business in Cascade. Unfortunately, Mary’s cooking was rather basic, and the restaurant closed in short order. She was looking for work yet again.
In 1895, Mary landed a job as the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States. Because she had always been so independent and determined, this work was perfect for her, and she quickly developed a reputation for delivering letters and parcels no matter what the weather, nor how rugged the terrain. She and her mule, Moses, plunged through anything, from bitterly raw blizzards to wilting heat, reaching remote miner’s cabins and other outposts with important mail which helped to accommodate the land claim process, as well as other matters needing expeditious communication. These efforts on her part helped to advance the development of a considerable portion of central Montana, a contribution for which she is given little credit.
Known by then as Stagecoach Mary (for her ability to deliver on a regular schedule), she continued in this capacity until she reached well into her sixties, but it wore her down. She retired from the mail delivery business, though she still needed a source of income. So, at the age of seventy, she opened a laundry service in Cascade.
Figuring by now she deserved a chance to relax, she didn’t do a lot of laundry, and spent a considerable portion of her time in the local saloon drinking whiskey and smoking her foul cigars with the sundry assortment of sweating and dusty men who were attracted to the place. While she claimed to be a crack shot, her aim toward the cuspidor was rather general, to the occasional chagrin of any nearby fellow patrons — never mind, she did laundry.
One lout failed to pay his bill to her (he ordered extra starch in the cuffs and collar). Hearing him out in the street, she left the saloon and knocked him flat with one blow - at the age of 72. She told her wobbly drinking companions that the satisfaction she got from that act was worth more than the bill owed, so the score was settled. As luck would have it, the tooth she knocked out was giving him trouble anyway, so there was no reprisal. Actually, he was grateful.
In 1914 she died of a failure of her liver. Neighbors buried her in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross which may still exist today.
In spite of her drinking, and cigar smoking, and occasional fisticuffs, townsfolk were hard pressed to believe that this mellow old woman of 80 was the hard shooting and short-tempered female character of earlier years they had heard so much about. But they were wrong, she was.
Mary Fields died of liver failure in 1914 at age 90