Mary Fields (1832-1914)

Born a slave in Tennessee, this girl came west with Ursuline nuns after being freed. Not known for her quiet temperament, she left the convent in her teens and became, in time, a restaurant owner in several towns in Montana, Wyoming and Alberta and Saskatachewan, Canada, a cigar-smoking madame, the second woman to drive a U.S. Mail coach (earning the appellation Shotgun Mary), a notorious brawler, and one of the most notorious women of her time. The muscular, six-foot tall woman drew attention wherever she ventured as she constantly re-invented herself as an entrepreneur and a once-seen-never-to-be forgotten individual.

Little is known of Fields’s life aside from the businesses she established and her reputation as a woman who would “do whatever it took” to succeed in the cold barrens of the northern high country. Retiring to a placid life of gardening in Cascade, Montana, she was befriended by Gary Cooper, the actor who, as a child, grew up with her as a neighbor. Cooper spoke and wrote fondly of her. Given the limitations society placed upon her by virtue of skin color and sex, she stands out as both a unique individual and a woman who was far ahead of her times in setting new standards for strong women in tough times.


John W. Ravage, Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997, 2002);. Marcella Thum, Hippocrene U.S.A Guide to Black America  (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1992).