M a r y F i e l d s
No one really knows exactly where or how she got started, but when she arrived on the scene in Montana, Mary Fields was one tough woman and she left her mark on the Wild West as no other would -- or could. Among the gunslingers, marshals and mavericks who dominate the stories and movies about that era, “Stagecoach Mary” stands out not only because she was female and black, but also because she could fight and shoot with the best of them and still be a loving caregiver to those who needed her.
Born into slavery in Tennessee, she moved first to Mississippi then north to Ohio where she found work with the nuns at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo. When a small group of them traveled to Montana to start schools for Native American children, she joined them as builder, crew supervisor and protector.
Mary was tall and broad and dressed as a man except for the apron and skirt she wore over her trousers. In addition to her own labors, she supervised the men hired to help at the schools and this often resulted in fights with those who were neither willing nor accustomed to taking orders from a woman.
“They say ‘Black Mary’ could whip any two men in the territory. She wore a .38 Smith and Wesson strapped under her apron and they
swear she couldn’t miss a thing within 50 paces,” according to an article in the October 1959 Ebony magazine. The article was written by no less a history buff than actor Gary Cooper, who starred in numerous westerns and remembered Mary from his childhood in Montana. See full article here.
Mary was forced to leave the Ursulines after townspeople complained to the bishop about Mary’s fights, cigar-smoking and hard drinking. Now it was the nuns’ turn to help Mary by finding her a place to live and giving her the means to open a restaurant. Years later, when the restaurant went broke, Mary took in laundry and, according to Cooper, was beloved by townspeople until her death in 1914.