A great woman and the honor of representing her

As we begin this Women’s History Month, honoring the outstanding achievements of females in our society, I feel compelled to introduce you to a person whom I only got to know a few months ago.

And when I say I got to “know” her, I mean that I only learned of this amazing woman when I was asked to represent her the day she was being honored last year.

She was being inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame, which recognizes those who have made significant contributions to the Western heritage.

Since 1996, bronze markers fashioned after a frontier marshal’s badge have been placed in walkways in the city’s Stockyards National Historic District, telling the stories of people like Charles Goodnight, Quanah Parker, Bill Pickett, Frederic Remington, Juan Seguin, Bob Wills, Zane Grey, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Last year’s honorees, inducted during a ceremony on a bright October Saturday morning, included the Comanche “Code Talkers” who distinguished themselves in World War II; Joe Dulle, one of the early investors in redevelopment of the Stockyards; and Ben Tahmahkera, the great-great-grandson of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche nation.

Most of those being saluted were there to accept the honor for themselves or had relatives who received the recognition on their behalf.

Then there was the woman known as “Stagecoach Mary,” born a slave in Tennessee around 1832 and orphaned by age 14.

She would become the first African-American and the second woman ever hired to deliver mail. She was hired at age 60 by Wells Fargo, which at the time had the mail delivery contract.

This strong, gun-totin’, cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking, swearing woman was the person whom historian Doug Harman asked me to represent at the ceremony, because she had no known family.

She never married and had no children.

The more I learned of the incredible story of Mary Fields, the more honored I was to be there for her as a crowd of tourists and well-wishers gathered that day in the Stockyards.

“I am not related by blood to Stagecoach Mary,” I told the audience. “But I rise to proclaim today that I am kin to her, I am connected to her, I am related to her in many ways, for I am indeed part of her family.”

According to historical accounts, Mary was best friends with her slave master’s daughter, Dolly, who was born within two weeks of the slave girl.

She learned to read and write, and after her father was sold, her mother gave her the last name of “Fields” because that’s the area of the plantation where her father worked.

Dolly eventually went to a convent in Ohio and became Sister Amadeus with the Ursuline Sisters. When she became ill, she sent for Mary to join her.

Mary, then about age 30, went to her and worked with the Ursuline Sisters for years, following Dolly to a mission in Montana to establish schools for Native Americans.

The Indians, who loved her and were in awe of her, called Mary “White Crow” because they said she “acts like a white woman, but has black skin like a crow,” Harman explained at the induction ceremony.

Standing 6 feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, she got the nickname Stagecoach Mary because she was said to switch out a team of six horses faster than any man.

The skill must have served her well when she went to work for Wells Fargo. Using horses and her mule, Moses, she was known as one of the most dependable mail carriers ever, despite the harsh Montana winters. When snow was too deep for the horses, she walked in snowshoes, carrying the mail on her back.

After retiring from mail delivery, Mary started a laundry when she was in her 70s.

She died in Cascade, Mont., in 1914.

As Harman said, “She broke all the barriers of race, gender and age.”

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

Twitter: @BobRaySanders