Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
A phrase I have been using with my students in nearly every class is that “African American history is American history.” It seems I have to constantly remind students of this fact. The reason for this is that the way most of us (Including my students) have been taught US history is from a Eurocentric perspective. In this way, the many stories and events in history that involved groups outside of white males (Native Americans, those of Chinese descent, Japanese, African Americans and women) are often omitted from history books. In light of this fact, it is important that we highlight American stories, figures and even heroes that are outside of the mainstream historical narrative. A remarkable figure in US history that challenges the white washed historical narrative is Mary Fields.
An undated photo of Mary Fields (19th Century).
Mary Field’s Early Life
Mary Fields (1832 –1914), also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary, was an American mail carrier who was the first Black woman to work for the US Postal Service (She did contract work as a star route mail carrier). Born in the antebellum south, Fields was enslaved on a plantation in Hickman County, Tennessee until the age of 33. In 1865 she was emancipated upon the end of the American Civil War. After being free she began working on a Mississippi steamboat called the Robert E. Lee as a chambermaid. While working on the steam boat she met Judge Edmund Dunne and his wife who eventually hired her as a domestic servant. When Mrs. Dunne passed away, the Judge sent Mary and his five children to Toledo, Ohio to live with his Sister Mary Amadeus. Sister Amadeus was the Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent. Amadeus worked in Ohio until 1884 when she was sent by her church to work in the Montana Territory to establish a school for Native American girls of the Blackfeet Nation at St. Peter’s Mission. When she became stricken with pneumonia Mary Fields rushed to the Montana territory and nursed her back to health.
Fields in the Western Frontier
Rather than return back to Ohio, Fields stayed out West at St. Peters. Fields learned many skills as an enslaved woman. Now able to apply those skills to make a living she worked a variety of manual tasks, with her roles at times being deemed “men’s work.” Some of those tasks included hauling freight, tending chickens, doing laundry, general construction, building repair and farming.
Fields’ rough demeanor, short temper, gun toting, heavy drinking and excessive use of profanity caused her to have frequent clashes with the religious commuity within the convent. She even got into a quarrel with a male employee at St. Peter’s Mission that involved firearms. As a result, In 1894, after several complaints from the nuns, the bishop asked her to leave the convent. Fields left St. Peter’s and opened a tavern in Cascade, Montana. However, the business struggled financially and closed in less than a year.
(Mary Fields on Stage Coach, Early Twentieth Century)
Fields as Postal Worker
Fields indeed had a very eventful life, but is most known for her contract work with the US Postal Service. In 1895, at sixty years old, she began working as a Star Route mail Carrier. Fields earned the name “StageCoach Mary” because she used a stagecoach (Donated to her by Sister Mary Amadeus) to deliver mail in the very roughest terrain and most inclement weather in Montana and never missed a route during her tenure. Along her mail route she lived up to her tough reputation, carrying a .38 Smith and Wesson under her apron, along with a rifle. She carried firearms to protect herself from bandits, murders, thieves, and wild animals such as wolves, bears and mountain lions. When snow was too deep for her horses, she was said to have delivered mail on foot using snowshoes, carrying the mail sacks on her shoulders.
Fields Was Well-liked
Because of her hardwork, consistency and dedication, Fields became a respected public figure in Cascade. Each year the town celebrated her birthday by closing its schools. The respect for her was so great that when her home caught fire in 1912 the townspeople rebuilt it. And when she retired from postal work at the age of 71 she continued to babysit many Cascade children and owned and operated a laundry service from her home until her death in 1914.
REFERENCES, LESSON PLANS AND RESOURCES
Mary Fields References
How Mary Fields Became “Stagecoach Mary”
Mary Fields Biography
The Legend of “Stagecoach” Mary: The First Black Woman to Carry U.S. Direct Mail
Meet Stagecoach Mary, the Daring Black Pioneer Who Protected Wild West Stagecoaches- History Channel
Mary Fields American pioneer- Encyclopedia Britannica
Stagecoach Mary Fields- National Postal Musuem (Smithsonian)
Mary Fields- American Battlefield Trust
Lesson Plans and Resources
Lesson Plan – Reading Fearless Mary (Grades 3-5)
Stagecoach Mary Fields Biography: A Reading Warm-Up
10 Fascinating Facts about Stagecoach Mary, Motherly Wild West Pioneer
Fields, Mary – aka Stagecoach Mary Resources
Mary Field Prezi
Black History Stories: Stagecoach Mary | Educational Videos for Students
Don’t mess with “Stagecoach Mary” Fields
True First: Stagecoach Mary Teaser Video
Black Cowboys- Lesson Plan and Teaching Masterial
Social Studies Standards
National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)- Standard 1
Culture: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
Ohio Grade Eight Social Studies Standards
Theme: U.S. Studies from 1492 to 1877: Exploration through Reconstruction
Historical Thinking Skills:
1. Primary and secondary sources are used to examine events from multiple perspectives and to present and defend a position.
11. Westward expansion contributed to economic and industrial development, debates over sectional issues, war with Mexico and the displacement of American Indians.
Civil War and Reconstruction:
12. The Reconstruction period resulted in changes to the U.S. Constitution, an affirmation of federal authority and lingering social and political differences.
Black Cowboys Lesson Plan and Activity- Language Arts and Social Studies
Black Cowboys and Wild Horses Lesson Plan – Language Arts and Social Studies
Black Cowboy- Bill Pickett Lesson Plan
Various Lesson Plans- Spanish and Mexican Roots of Cowboy Culture
Unit Plan- Debunking the Myth of the American West
Lesson Plan: The Cowboy Life
Lesson Plan: The Cowboys
Elementary Unit Plan and Resources: The American Cowboy Life
Elementary Lesson Plan- Nat Love Graphic Novel and Lesson
Books and Articles on African American Cowboys and the American West
Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, and Little-Known Stories from History
The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself
Black Cowboys of Texas
Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, behind the Badge
Bill Pickett: Bulldogger (Biography of a Black Cowboy)
The Black West: A Documentary and Pictoral History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States
Black Cowboy, Wild Horses
Black Cowboys in Oregon
The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys
Willie Kennard: Yankee Hill’s Black Marshal
Love on the Range: The Story of a Cowboy
Nat Love, aka: Deadwood Dick – Greatest Black Cowboy in the Old West
Bill Pickett (ca 1870-1932), African American Cowboy
Stahl, Jesse (c. 1879–1935)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
American Indian culture of the West
Roping as a Way of Life: The Proud History of Texas’ Black Cowboys
Federation of Black Cowboys
Black Cowboys of Texas
Recordings of Black Cowboy Songs
Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.
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