Actress brings Wild West character to life

She drank whiskey from a flask, clenched cigars in her teeth and put an emphatic bullet in more than one man who thought to challenge her toughness — decades before women could even vote.

No surprise, then, that many an online image of Stagecoach Mary Fields pictures her armed with a 10-gauge shotgun and a scowl that proved she was unafraid to pull the trigger.

She was the nation’s first black contract route mail carrier in Montana in 1885 — when she already had reached her 60s.

“You had to be tough just to be a woman in those times and survive, and especially to survive during the opening of the American West,” said Joanna Winston.

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The 31-year-old Winston, an actor-interpreter from The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, will on Saturday bring to life the story of Fields.

The free presentation with songs and audience interaction will unfold in the Red Room of the Bartholomew County Public Library, 536 Fifth St. in Columbus.

Fields, who was born in Tennessee in 1832, eventually became a slave and then gained her freedom.

“But there weren’t too many African-Americans who made it very far West,” said Winston, a former storyteller at Indianapolis’ Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

Fields moved letters and packages the same way she moved her will — with considerable force and determination, battling horrible weather and sometimes equally horrible wild animals. When the mountain snow would pile high, Fields exited her stagecoach and donned snowshoes to deliver. If insecure men and ugly prejudice couldn’t stop her, do you really think rain, sleet or snow could stand in her way?

Several websites of the old West report that the Great Falls Examiner newspaper once referred to Fields as having “broken more noses than any other person in Montana.” And if she were the scorekeeper, who possibly would be foolish enough to argue?

Makes some wonder why Fields never wound up in her own rock ‘em, sock ‘em Western, especially since she sounds as if she boasted a swagger greater than John Wayne.

“When you think of stories that make it to the big screen, Hollywood often goes for larger-than-life characters,” Winston said. “And who those characters might be doesn’t always line up with who has done amazing, real work.”

Wasn’t Fields larger than life?

“Well, her stories are still being told,” Winston said with a laugh. “She left an amazing legacy.”

But it’s a confusing legacy for many when they spot her photo. That may explain why so few people know her and her story.

“A lot of people see her picture, and they just think it’s (abolitionist) Harriet Tubman, because they know only a couple of black females from that point in history,” she said.

Though Fields became known for her pluck and determination, she also fostered a real compassion for others. She cared for young native American girls at a Montana convent mission for several years when the Mother Superior fell ill. And when she opened a restaurant, she felt so much for the struggling that she served everyone, whether they had the money to pay or not.

Mary Clare Speckner, the local library’s community services coordinator who refers to Fields as “quite a character,” mentioned that she would like to see such a program perhaps inspire girls to be strong and determined.

“But I also hope people come away with a better appreciation for the varied roles of so many black people and women in our history,” Speckner said.

Winston said she believes Fields’ story can impart courage to all.

“Oh, I certainly hope so,” she said. “Stagecoach Mary was the bravest of the brave.”

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What: Actress-interpreter Joanna Winston presenting the story of Stagecoach Mary Fields, the first black contract mail carrier in the country in 1885 in the Montana Territory. Program is part of Black History Month.

When: 2 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Red Room of the Bartholomew County Public Library, 536 Fifth St. in Columbus.

Admission: Free.

Information: 812-379-1266 or