It had been my intention to make this chapter about one of the remarkable lawmen who served in the Cherokee Strip, under Judge Parker. But I have decided to take a break and spin the tale of another remarkable individual of the same time frame – but in a different location.
One of the persons I am using for reference material for “Stagecoach Mary” felt it necessary to post a disclaimer on his material. I feel this is as good a place as any to post mine. When you are relating the historical and some times hysterical facts of a legend, it is necessary to remember you are only able to relate the stories as handed down through time. And often the only facts before you have been flavored with the sprinkling of embellishment of some long gone author. That said here goes…
Mary Fields was born a slave in Tennessee, after the Civil War and freed her of her bondage, the free woman decided to strike off on her own hook. A fiery, feisty sort, she shared a driving ambition with audacity, and a penchant for physical altercation on a regular basis. She also had a love of smoking rather large foul smelling cigars.
Mary was six foot tall; heavy : tough as nails; short tempered; two fisted; powerful and is said to have toted a pair of six-shooters and an eight or ten-gauge shotgun (for those of you who do not know that is bigger than the 12 gauge the police carry today). How in the heck has this legend in her own time faded from today’s wild west history?
In 1884 she made her way toward Cascade County (west-central Montana) in search of opportunity. Seeking to improve her sustenance and adventure. While awaiting for the fore mentioned opportunity to present itself she accepted employment with the Ursuline Nuns at the mission in Cascade, Montana. The job was not much of a step up the ladder of success. The St. Peter Mission, was a very simple facility, located in the remote wilderness frontier, devoted to the conversion of the heathen savages and other disgusting customers who wandered along. remote as it was it was rather well funded.
Mary was hired to do the heavy work, she chopped wood, did some stone work and rough carpentry. She dug the the necessary holes (the ones for the out houses). And when the missions reserves started to run low, Mary made the supply runs to the train stop, or as far as Great Falls or the city of Helena when special needs needed to be filled.
So here is one of those stories I referred to in the disclaimer. Although every account I reviewed told it about the same.. On one night run, (the distance was not that great but it was cooler at night.). Mary’s wagon was attacked by a pack of wolves. The horses bolted and Mary could not regain control, the wagon overturned, the team escaped. Mary and the supplies were unceremoniously dumped on the dark prairie.
The story continues with Mary holding the wolves at bay the rest of the night with her rifle and revolvers. All this occurred in the pitch darkness of the prairie night. Anyway some how she survived the night and with the coming of day light was able to eventually deliver the goods to the relieved nun’s who had spent $30 on the whole mess. They were not so relieved with Mary’s safety that they did not deduct they price of a keg of molasses that leaked from a keg that had hit a rock from her salary.
Mary’s pugnacious nature kept her prepared for any inconveniences from wolves to drunken cowboys. Going heavily armed at all times and ready with her rock hard fists, ready for a fist fight at the drop of a hat, most gave Mary a wide berth. Mary did not pay heed to the Victorian standard for women at that time, her fashion statement rather presented her in an unfavorable light. Heaven help the ruffian men who tried to trample her hard earned rights. Oh woe to them!
The GREAT FALLS EXAMINER claimed that she broke more noses in central Montana than any other person. The Examiner was the only paper in circulation in the Cascades at the time.
One hired hand at the mission confronted them with a complaint on the fact that Mary, a mere woman, was making $2 a month more than he ($9 vs. $7) , and just what made her think she was worth more than him? His name reportedly was Yu Lum Duck, he complained to the Bishop, and more publicly in a saloon in a rougher version. What made the uppity colored woman think she was better than him?
Now Mary was a regular customer in this saloon, and word soon was carried to her ears. Mary’s blood began to stew and boil. Shortly after Mary saw him cleaning one of the latrines behind the mission. Mary intended tosimply shoot him, she missed. The affair became a general shootout with neither hitting the other. Bullets flew everywhere. After the fracas was over both parties split – neither had scored a direct hit. But one of Mary’s bullets glanced off a rock and hit the forlorn Yu Lum Duck in the left buttock – completely ruining his new $1.85 trousers. But worse than that, one of Mary’s bullets had passed through the Bishop’s laundry hanging behind the mission, putting holes in his drawers and two white shirts.
The Bishop demanded that Mary be fired and the complaining man was given her job and the $2 raise with it.
Out of work Mary tried the restaurant business. Her cooking was so terrible, that no one would eat it. Soon she was looking for work again.
In 1895 she landed a job carrying the U. S. Mail. This work suited her fine as she had always been independent and determined. She quickly earned a reputation for delivering the mail in all kinds of conditions regardless of the weather. She and her old mule plugged along through bitter raw blizzards, roasting heat and drenching rain. She and old Moses (the mule) delivered mail to remote miner’s cabins and other outposts – delivering mail, land claim forms and parcels that kept communication open to the outside world. She is credited with helping advance the development of a large portion of central Montana, a contribution that is not recognized today.
This is where she became known as Stagecoach Mary, not by association with a stage line but because she was so dependable of keeping a regular schedule. Mary kept up this activity until well into her sixties. But the ravages of time wore her down, and she retired from the mail delivery business. She needed an income so at the age of seventy she went to the laundry business in Cascade.
Figuring that she deserved to relax she did not do much laundry. Rather, she spent much of her time in the local saloon, drinking whiskey, and smoking her foul but beloved cigars. She entertained the assortment of sweaty and dusty men with stories of her exploits and claimed to be a crack shot, but her aim at the cuspidor was none to good and she often missed to the disgust of the nearby patron who was in the way. But what the hell, she did laundry didn’t she? One lout refused to pay his full laundry bill ( he had ordered extra starch in his cuff and collar), Mary heard him out in the street. She left the saloon and confronted him with a solid blow to the jaw. She knocked him flat at the age of seventy-two with the one blow and knocked out a tooth. Mary later said that the satisfaction she got from hitting him was worth the amount he owed her. The recipent of the blow afterwards expressed gratitude to Mary for knocking out his tooth, it had been troubling him for some time.
Mary died of liver failure in 1914. She was buried with a simple wooden cross in Hillside Cemetery in Cascade.
People who knew this mellow(?) cigar smoking, whiskey drinking old lady were hard pressed to believe she was the gun packing, short-tempered female of old they had heard so much about.
That this historical Old Gal lived is documented pretty well, she like so many has been lost in the dust of time. It is good to brush the dust off some of these old tales and air them out again.
Well tiime to ramble on out of here.