Articles, observations, and fictions by Sam Girdich: history & philosophy buff, pop culture fan, aging martial artist, husband/parent, and proud owner of a pleasantly odd mind. Co-creator of the graphic arts project Strongarm Labs with illustrator and storyteller Mark Gonyea.
Friday, May 20, 2016
The World is but a Stage(coach) for Mary
On April 16, 2016 the US Treasury announced Harriet Tubman
would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. You may have caught
a news blip about it or saw a meme or two flitter across your social media
steam. Originally, the Treasury was considering a redesign and persona change
on the $10 bill, but it turns out Alexander Hamilton is still popular. (Suck
it, Aaron Burr.) Andrew Jackson on the other hand, well, not so much.
Or Aaron Burr? You decide.
Back to Harriet.
As news of the resign spread over the Interwebs, so did
images of Harriet. Including this one, which made into to my own social media
feeds and immediately caught my eye.
You see, this is not Harriet Tubman.
Meet Mary Fields, or as she was became known during her
life, Stagecoach Mary. Mary has been enjoying a bit of a popularity spike these
last few years. I suspect that’s why her photo accidentally made it into the
mix of a much more widely known historical figure. For example, most of the
online articles I found detailing her life were written within the last few
years. I take this as a good thing. It means more people are learning about
this interesting and very tough woman. And it doesn’t hurt that AMC’s post-Civil
War western Hell on Wheels featured
Mary in their final season, as portrayed by Amber
Chardae Robinson. I’ll give you a bit of her life story so you’ll understand
what I mean.
I read several conflicting
versions of her life so please don’t take my summary as etched in stone, or
etched in blog as the case may be. Most of my keyboard research found slight
variations of the same generic narrative. Search “Stagecoach Mary” on your
engine of choice and you’ll see what I mean. At the end of the piece I’ll list a
few sites that had quite a lot to say about her that the others did not. Much
of that I did not include because I have no way of knowing if their information
Mary, like Harriet, was born into
slavery. Most sites put her DOB as the year 1832. What is generally agreed upon
is that after the Civil War Mary moved to Toledo, Ohio and began working in a
Catholic convent of the Ursuline order. Here Mary befriended Mother Mary
Amadeus (what a great name) who was the head or Mother Superior of the convent.
They can see in dark. No joke.
Here’s where things get a bit
interesting. Most sites state Mary was employed by Edmund Dunne in Mississippi
in the early 1880’s. Mother Amadeus was Edmund’s sister. When Mrs. Dunne died
of pneumonia, Mary brought their five children to Toledo, Ohio to live with
Mother Amadeus and the two became friends. I found this story on many sites.
However, some hinted at a much earlier, much less comfortable connection
between Mary and the Dunne’s. According to some sites Mary and Mother Amadeus
(a white woman) were childhood friends. That would have meant from when Mary
was a slave. In fact, according to Ursuline archives, Mary met Mother Amadeus
when the Warner family who owned her (I hate typing sentences like that, but
history is what history is.) married into the Dunne’s[i].
The girls then may have stayed in contact even after slavery was ended. We have
no primary resource from either party that I could find so I can’t say if the two
met before 1883. That’s the problem with oral history. Not very reliable.
What is known with fair certainty
is that both women were fond of each other for years to come. By 1884 Mother
Amadeus had been sent to the Cascade, Montana area to help establish missionary
schools when she became ill from pneumonia. Mother Amadeus sent word to Mary of
her condition and Mary rushed to her side. Mary settled in the area and was employed
at the mission for almost ten years. At six feet tall and 200 lbs., Mary was a
force to be reckoned with. Anecdotes abound around her cigar smoking, gun
carrying, wolf killing, fist fighting, whiskey enjoying ways, but just as many exist
around her remarkable work ethic. She was said to be highly organized, well
respected by most of the local men and laborers, versed in resource management,
a decent carpenter, fond of wearing pants, routinely traveled a 100+ mile route
for supplies, and more than willing to do whatever was needed to get the job
done. Still, not everyone liked her.
Her decade of service came to an end after a worker became
angry at a woman giving him orders (And in some accounts being paid less than
her. Poor baby.). He got in Mary’s face and made threats. Bad move. It was commonly
know that Mary carried a pistol and was a good shot. The man fled after a
well-placed bullet whizzed past his face. When the Bishop heard the tale of
gunplay at his mission, he demanded Mary be dismissed despite none of the
locals finding fault with her action. Nevertheless, she was let go. She did not
go far, however, as Mother Amadeus helped her open a restaurant in Cascade. It
only lasted about eight to ten months, according to most tellings, because Mary
never refused service for lack of money. At approximately 60 years of age, Mary
suddenly needed a job. Enter the US Postal Service.
By most accounts, the job requirements were 1. Reliability
2. Trustworthiness 3. The ability to hitch a team of horses faster than any of
the other applicants. She beat all the men who vied for the job and wrote her
name in the history books as the first African American woman to work for the
US Postal Service. It was here she earned her nickname Stagecoach over about
eight years of stellar service. It was said when the snow was too deep she
carried the mail over her shoulder and used snowshoes. It was definitely known
was that when Montana passed a law forbidding women in saloons, the mayor
granted her an exception.[ii]
By the time she was about 70 (she never knew her real birthdate)
age was catching up to even her tough frame. It was 1903 and her lifelong
friend Mother Amadeus had been sent to Alaska to continue her missionary work.
She opened a laundry for a time, babysat, and reportedly became a huge fan of
the local baseball team. She passed away in 1914 to the sadness of the
community and her many friends.
Stagecoach Mary. The name is custom made for admission into
the mythology of the West. Her story is dashed with nearly superhuman feats -depending
on who your choice of sources- coupled with very real, very human loyalty and
generosity to those around her. Forget the guns, booze, and the ability to
out-work, and out-fight anyone in the territory. Mary Fields was born into a
horrible, evil situation and rose to become a living legend by being herself. That’s why I remember
her. Perhaps as you read more about her and the stories surrounding her you’ll
find a different reason to remember her. A reason that speaks to you. It really
doesn’t matter which one, as long as she
is remembered and her lessons are passed on.
Be seeing you,
P.S. Here are some of the sites I mentioned earlier. Enjoy.