Mary Fields was a badass. Pure and simple. She was the toughest woman in Montana Territory, and was said to be a match for any two men. At six foot two inches and two hundred pounds, she towered over most men at that time. She had a standing bet she could knock out a man with one punch, and never lost a dime on anyone stupid enough to take her up on that bet. After about the third or fourth time, no one took her up on her offer. In a time when African Americans and women of any race faced significant obstacles, Mary had the sand to live her life on her own terms.
Born a slave in 1832 in Tennessee, she grew up an orphan and was freed in 1865. Mary traveled around, and then she moved to Mississippi and worked as a chambermaid on the steamboat Robert E. Lee. She was on board during the boat’s famous race against the Natchez in 1870. Later, she would fondly tell the tale that during the race the crew tossed everything they could get their hands on into the boiler to burn. This included barrels of resin and sides of ham and bacon. Then they sat on the relief valves to boost the steam pressure. Mary was quoted in an article in the Cascade Courier in 1914, “It was so hot up in the cabins that the passengers were forced to take to the decks. It was expected that the boilers would burst.”
After that adventure, Mary worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne, and met his sister Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. This started a life long friendship. Mother Mary Amadeus was sent to take a new position at St. Peter’s Convent near Cascade, Montana. This was a small town that grew up on the Montana Central railroad between Helena and Great Falls. Basically the middle of nowhere. The convent ran a school for girls in the Blackfoot Tribe. The pioneer life did not agree with Mother Mary Amadeus and she fell severely ill with pneumonia. Mary found out her friend was ill, and headed west to help.
Arriving in 1885, she nursed Mother Mary Amadeus back to health and eventually stayed on working for the convent. She did manual labor such as laundry, choppi
ng wood, digging holes and building a the schoolhouse and chapel. She was extremely protective of the garden and chickens she tended around the convent, and swore at or even headbutted people for trespassing. One of the nuns was quoted as saying, “May God help anyone who walks on the lawn after Mary has cut it”. She also proudly recounted her battle with a skunk who was after the price chickens to Fr. Landesmith, the chaplain visiting from Fort Keough, and displayed the skunk’s hide as a trophy.
Along with working at the convent, Mary handled the stage that brought visitors from Helena to the town. This was a journey of about 120 miles that she made to bring supplies to the convent in all weathers. There is a story of a pack of wolves that spooked her horses one night, and Mary stood guard over the food all through the night until she got help. Wolves were only one danger she faced on these trips. The land was lawless with bands of marauding natives, bandits and wild animals. Even the weather could be a problem as on one trip, the snow was drifted so high the horses could not get through.
The nuns depended on her care for many things, but her high spirited no nonsense ways were not loved by everyone. The Bishop summarily fired her from the convent
after getting complaints, probably from some of those guys she knocked out at the bar. She was too free with her swearing, her political opinions and she drank and smoke too much. Huh. Sounds like we would have been friends….anyway…. There was also the small matter of a couple of fist fights, and an argument with a rancher that was settled with Mary hitting him in the forehead with a rock. The last straw was probably when the Convent handyman got upset Mary made more money than he did. He began complaining to anyone that would listen that he as a white man should not be making less money than a black woman. Even though she did twice as much work as he did. Real nice. Mary didn’t cotton to that as my daddy used to say, and challenged this whiner to a duel. No one is sure exactly what happened, but the whiner ended up with a bullet in his buttocks and Mary didn’t have scratch on her. So Mary was out of a job. With the help of her friend, Mother Mary Amadeus, Mary was able to secure the mail route between Cascade and St. Peter’s. It is from this job she got her nickname “Stagecoach”. She and her mule named Moses, pet eagle and shotgun got the job done for ten years.
She kept this job until her dear friend Mother Mary Amadeus was sent further afield to Alaska to start another mission. Mary stayed in Cascade, and settled down to town life. She was a favorite among the children, who got a holiday from school and candy and treats on her birthday. She also watch the younger children for $1.50 an hour, then blow whatever she made on treats for them. One of the kids she baby sat grew up to be Gary Cooper, who described her as “one of the freest souls to ever draw a breath or a .38.”
Mary also took in laundry, and if you didn’t pay your bill you get a punch in the face. Then she opened a restaurant, which served everyone whether they could pay or not. As nice as that is, it’s not a great way to run a business and it went under after ten months. She adopted the Cascade baseball team, making them boutonnieres from the flowers in her garden and gave large bouquets to the home run hitters. If you spoke ill of the baseball team, you got a punch in the mouth. When Mary’s home burned down in 1912, everyone got together to build her a new one.
As she got older, Mary’s health began to fail. She didn’t want to be a burden and tried to sneak away and die in the field near her house. She was found by four kids whom she had babysat, and was taken to Columbus Hospital in Great Falls. She died at the age of 82 and her grave is marked with a simple cross in the graveyard along the road between Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission. Hail and Farewell.