Stagecoach Mary Fields

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.  fields5

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.


Canada Bill Jones

15337523_378062759202479_2359426429647573000_nBorn in a Romnichal tent in Yorkshire, Jones learned classic scams young. At twenty, he migrated to Canada in search of fresh marks. He honed his three card monte travelling Canada as a thrower with Dick Cady. Three-card Monte sometimes known as find the lady and three-card trick is a confidence game in which the victim, or mark, is tricked into betting a sum of money, on theassumption that they can find the “money card” among three face-down playing cards.

When Jones wanted bigger game, he left Cady and headed south to the Mississippi riverboats. There he joined up with George Devol, Holly Chappell and Tom Brown, working gambling boats. When the foursome broke up, Devol and Jones kept at it until the American Civil War.

Jones was a good hustler but a terrible gambler. Devol once stumbled across Bill losing his shirt in a clearly rigged poker game. George tried to convince Bill to quit the game, arguing he couldn’t possible win. Bill famously retorted “I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town”

They eventually fell out when Jones caught Devol trying to cheat him. Devol claimed Jones cheated him first, and Devol simply repaid himself at the first opportunity. Devol also said that Jones was tow-haired, blue-eyed, never had a hair on his face or weighed more than 130 pounds, often complained of pains in his head, and “could turn monte with the best of them.”

After the war, Dutch Charlie was Jones’ next partner, this time in Kansas City. When they won $200,000 there, they decided to move on to working the Omaha, Nebraska to Kansas City trains. When the Union Pacific Railway management started clamping down on three-card-monte players, he wrote the general superintendent of the railway, offering $10,000 a year to secure an exclusive franchise, but was rebuffed. Other accounts variously claimed that Canada Bill offered the officers of the Union Pacific $1000 a month or $30,000 a year if they would let him play monte on their trains – and he would only play preachers. Jones moved on to Chicago, in 1874 teaming up with Jimmy Porter and “Colonel” Charlie Starr. There he opened and worked four gambling joints, all crooked.

He won and lost $150,000 in a year, consistently falling for short card cons. Moving on to Cleveland with Porter, he continued to lose to professionals there as fast as he won from his marks. He passed away at the age of 40 from consumption in the Charity Hospital at Reading, Pennsylvania. The mayor was reimbursed for the funeral by the gamblers of Chicago.

John Quinn wrote in Fools of Fortune that

“… as the coffin was being lowered into the grave one of his friends offered to bet $1,000 to $500 that `Bill was not in the box.’ The offer found no takers, for the reason, as one of his acquaintances said, ‘that he had known Bill to squeeze through tighter holes than that.”


Pearl de Vere- The Soiled Dove of Cripple Creek

This is thought to be Pearl de Vere, but it is not known for sure. Photo Credit-
This is thought to be Pearl de Vere, but it is not known for sure. Photo Credit-

No one quite knows when or where Pearl de Vere was born.  It is thought to have been around 1862 in Chicago, Illinois and raised around Evansville, Indiana.  She was definitely not born “Pearl de Vere”.  She arrived in Denver when she was 14 or 15 and was known as Mrs. Isabel Martin, although no one ever saw a Mr. Martin.  Young Isabel began working in Denver as a prostitute or “soiled dove” as they were called in Western euphemism.  Apparently, she did well in Denver, but in 1893 the Silver Panic hit and business began to dry up.  It was time to move.

Cripple Creek was the newest boomtown in Colorado and was where Isabel decided to open her new business.  She was 31, strong willed, beautiful and had a head for business.  She changed her name to Pearl de Vere and bought a place on Myers Avenue in the heart of the “red light” district.  Her girls were lovely and were well taken care of- receiving regular medical examinations and excellent pay.  Her business was an overnight success, and her clientele included the most prosperous gentlemen of Cripple Creek.  Not just any average miner could come into Pearl’s.  There was an application process, and once it was determined the gentleman had enough money he was allowed to come in.  If it was his first visit, then he was taken to a view room where he could watch the girls disrobe and make his selection.  Evenings generally began in the parlor with the gentleman dancing, listening to music or playing cards with the lady of his choice.  Then as the evening wore on, they adjourned upstairs.

Pearl was well known in town and was seen daily driving in an open carriage pulled by fine black horses.  She was always dressed to the nines and women envied her and men desired her.  However, there was a backlash.  The “good” ladies of town were scandalized at Pearl’s outings and that her employees dared to shop on Bennett Avenue alongside everyone else.  Special hours for Pearl and her ladies to shop were set so that these “good” ladies didn’t have to brush their skirts against those of “soiled doves”.  A monthly fine of six dollars was levied on all working girls as well as a sixteen dollar fine for the madams.  However, this did nothing to diminish business.

Pearl did try to live the quiet life, marrying mill owner C.B. Flynn in 1895.  She continued to run the brothel, but a fire ran through the camp destroying both her business and her husband’s mill.  Ruined by the fire, Flynn took a job smelting iron and steel in Monterrey, Mexico, but his wife did not accompany him.  Pearl stayed in Cripple Creek and rebuilt her business into what become known as “The Old Homestead”.  It was a two-story brick building furnished with the latest in technology including a telephone, an intercom system and two indoor bathrooms.  The interior was lavishly decorated with hardwood furniture, rare carpets and electric light chandeliers.  Extravagant parties became the norm at the Old Homestead, with imported tropical flowers and orchestras brought in from Denver.  French champagne and fine food prepared by a world class chef was a matter of course.  A night at the Old Homestead would run on average about $250.  To compare, the average miner brought in $3 a day as a salary.

On June 4, 1897, the party was on at the Old Homestead.  This one was in honor of a millionaire admirer from the ironically named Poverty Gulch.  The champagne flowed like water and guests feasted on Russian caviar.  Pearl was resplendent in a shell pink chiffon gown from Paris trimmed with seed pearls and sequins.  Some sources say that the admirer from Poverty Gulch bought her the gown, and that the two argued that night.  Whether or not that was true, Pearl had too much to drink, and retired to her room.  Unable to sleep, she took some morphine.  This was not unusual for the time as most opioids were sold over the counter.  During the night, one of the girls checked on Pearl and found her sprawled on the bed and was unable to wake her.  The doctor was called, but nothing could be done.  Pearl died early on the morning of June 5, 1897.  Her death was recorded as an accidental overdose, but one newspaper insinuated it was suicide.  Most historians dispute this as Pearl was at the height of her wealth and fame.

Pearl de Vere's grave is still decorated with flowers Photo Credit- Kathy Weiser, September, 2009.
Pearl de Vere’s grave is still decorated with flowers Photo Credit- Kathy Weiser, September, 2009.

Pearl’s family was notified in Indiana and her sister made the trip west.  She was shocked to find Pearl with dyed red hair and that she was a madam.  She had led her family to believe she was a dressmaker.  Pearl’s sister refused responsibility for the body and left in a huff.  Unfortunately, Pearl’s wealth had gone into those fabulous parties and there was now nothing left to bury her with.  Some even suggested they auction off the $800 ballgown she died in.  However, an anonymous donor gave $1000 for the funeral and requested she be buried in the ball gown.   Her funeral was a momentous occasion, with the coffin being led by the Elk’s band playing the Death March and escorted by four mounted policemen.  Carriages filled with her girls as well as the prosperous business men who had been her clientele followed.  The lavender casket was lowered into her grave covered with red and white roses.

The original wooden slab marker is now on display in the Cripple Creek District Museum and has been replaced by a heart shaped white marble stone.  People now place gifts and flowers on her grave for help with love matters.


Sources available on request

The Pig War

pigwarmapOregon was contested territory.  The United States and Britain laid claim to the land.  In 1836, the US and Britain sign a treaty to settle the long running border dispute, which put the border at the 49th parallel.  Things got a bit trickier as the 49th parallel divided islands southwest of Vancouver.  The Treaty stated the border as “the middle of the channel separating the continent from Vancouver’s Island.”  This left San Juan Island in dispute and citizens from both countries settled there.

Things were peaceful until a pig wandered into the potato field of American farmer, Lynman Cutlar.  The pig was feasting on Cutlar’s potato crop and in a fit of pique, he shot and killed the pig.  The problem?  The pig was the prize winning pig of Charles Griffin, a British employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  The two met and tried to resolve the dispute peaceably, with Cultar offering to bay $10 for the loss of the pig.  However, Griffin refused and the two ended up in an argument.  Witnesses said the exchange went as follows:

Cultar: “…but it was eating my potatoes!”
Griffin: “Rubbish. It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig”.

Griffin turned in Cultar to the British authorities, who threatened to arrest him.  Cultar and the other American citizens on the island were outraged and drew up a petition for protection and sent it to General William S. Harney, the commander of the Department of Oregon.  General Harney was a known Anglophobe, and did not waste time mustering troops to come to the aid of the American islanders.  He sent a 66-man company of the US 9th infantry to San Juan on July 27th 1859.

Things escalated when the governor of British Columbia, James Douglas, sent three warships to the island as a show of force.  So there was the American military dug in with cannon pointed at three British warships with guns pointed back at them.  Governor Douglas commanded Admiral Robert L. Baynes to fire on the Americans.  However, the Admiral refused famously saying, he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig”

By this time, word had trickled back to both Washington and London and no one wanted to go to war over a pig.  They hastily decided that no more than 100 men from each country could be on the island until the formal border was decided.  San Juan Island remained in limbo until 1972, when it was decided the island should be under American control.  It is now a national park, however, the British flag flies there as a token of friendship between the nation.  As far as I know, no additional pigs were harmed in this story.


Sources available on request

The Johnson County Wars

Nate Champion Photo Credit-
Nate Champion Photo Credit-

In the late 19th century, westward expansion was on everyone’s mind.  The western plains were the last unclaimed land in America, and people flocked there to make their fortune.  Johnson county, Wyoming was a lush grassland with pristine streams and perfect for cattle herds.  The country was paying top dollar for beef, and eastern conglomerates came in and grazed their herds on the open range and made a lot of money doing it.  All through the 1870s, these men lived the good life and Frank Wollcott was chief among them.  He has been described as “often wrong but seldom in doubt”.  From his base at the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, he owned newspapers, fancy homes and politicians.  But their business plan was based on free access to all the land and the Homestead Act put that in jeopardy.  The Homestead Act promised public domain land to small farmers if they could last for five years and make improvements and farm.  The small farmers put up fences and broke up the open range and took water rights.  The homesteaders were in the way of Wollcott’s profits and Johnson county, Wyoming was ground zero for this fight.

Enter into this fray, Nate Champion.  With a name straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel, and full of nerve and “sand” as they said in the Old West, Champion left Texas with a herd of 200 cattle and headed for Wyoming to make his fortune.  He made his way to Johnson county and took a homestead with a wave of other settlers.  This did not make the cattle barons under Wollcott happy.  Although the homesteaders were there legally, Wollcott hired thugs to tear up fences and terrorize the homesteaders.  Some left, but Champion and his neighbors Jim Averill and Ella Watson, better known as Cattle Kate, organized the remaining homesteaders.  Wollcott and the cattle barons fought back with their newspapers calling the homesteaders cattle rustlers.   They named Nate Champion as the “King of the Rustlers” even though there is no evidence he ever stole anything.  It was a name blacking campaign that worked.

In 1886, the winter was especially hard and homesteaders and cattle barons alike lost a majority of their stock.  This made the problems between the homesteaders and the cattle barons more serious.  Wollcott got serious and hired Frank Canton, a Texas outlaw, to put the fear of God into the homesteaders.  Jim Averill and Cattle Kate were the first target.  In the summer of 1889, Canton and his men rode out to their homestead and accused them of cattle rustling.  As frontier justice went, why waste time in court if you knew they were guilty?  The two were hung on their own land.  The crime went unpunished, but the lynching of a woman began to turn public opinion.   

Frank Wolcott Photo Credit-
Frank Wolcott Photo Credit-

Many homesteaders left fearing for their families, however, the ones left banded together under Champion’s leadership.  They changed tactics and formed an association to compete against the baron’s head to head.  The September round up was an important time as all unbranded cattle was rounded up and divided between the ranchers.  The cattle barons forbade the homesteaders from taking part and divided the strays between themselves.  In retaliation, the homesteaders did their own roundup a month early and divided the strays between themselves.  This did not go over well with Frank Wollcott.  They were hit where it hurt, in their wallet.

On November 1, 1891, Wollcott sent men to Champion’s home.  Four armed men snuck up on him while he was asleep.  Champion woke up and remained motionless while the assassins approached his bed guns drawn.  What they didn’t know was Champion had a colt revolver under his pillow.  Unbelievably, Champion was able get out his gun and kill one of them men and wound another in the arm.  The three remaining assassins fled and Champion survived.  Champion didn’t get a good look at the men.  In the investigation that followed, one of the assassination squad members was forced to admit the names of all the members before a witness, John A. Tisdale.  Before Tisdale could testify, he was assassinated as well.  Champion’s assailants walked free.  This just added fuel to the fire.

Wollcott and the cattle barons got together and drew up a “death list” of seventy men and hired twenty three outlaws from all over to take them out.  Again, he gave out that these were rustlers and paid the outlaws $5 a day, all meals and what a witness described as “enough ammunition to kill everyone in Wyoming.”  Like a scene out of a Clint Eastwood movie, a private train pulled into Cheyenne, Wyoming full of gunmen from Texas.  The first name on their hit list?  Nate Champion.

Frank Wollcott and Frank Canton led the men to the KC ranch on the Powder River.  At dawn, they surrounded the bunkhouse.  Nick Ray, a homesteader, stepped out on the the porch and was mowed down.  Champion returned fire and the ensuing firefight lasted for hours.  During the fight, Champion recorded the events in his diary and wrote his last goodbyes even though he was hoping against hope for reinforcements.  What he did do was hold them off long enough to let people know what was going on.  Wollcott lost his temper and orders the men to set fire to the cabin.  Champion knew the game is up, and wrote his final goodbye.  “Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.”  Again, like a scene from a movie, Champion walked out the front door surrounded by flames and smoke, guns in hand and made his final stand.  He was mowed down in a hail of bullets and was shot twenty-eight times in all.  Legend says Wolcott stood over the body to make sure he was dead.

Wollcott and his army headed to another ranch to rest before taking on the next name on their list.  However this time, Wolcott was the besieged.  A posse of at least hundred to two hundred led by the sheriff of Johnson county surrounded the ranch.  When the news of Champion’s death had hit town, people rose up against the “invasion” of gunmen from Texas.  They were angry and lusting for blood.  The plan was to dynamite the fortifications and shoot the men as they ran.  Before they could do this, one of the cattle baron’s supporters got word to the governor, who called the president.  The 6th cavalry rode from Fort McKinney and took Wollcott and his men in custody.

Justice is not served.  Wollcott and his men got off using their substantial money and connections.  All charges were dismissed because a jury could not be seated and witnesses were paid to leave the state.  Wollcott left Johnson county and became a justice of the peace in Omaha.  He died in Denver 1910.  Money is the ultimate superpower.  But because of Nate Champion, there are family farms and ranches in Wyoming and not just the playground of rich men.