The Life and Legend of Mary Fields

Mary Fields, driving a buggy. Born a slave in the 1830s, Mary Fields arrived in Montana in the Ursuline Sisters who came to establish an Indian boarding school and mission. Fields remains a legendary frontier character, celebrated for her tough persona and kind heart.

Born a slave in the 1830s, Mary Fields arrived in Montana with the Ursuline Sisters who came to establish an Indian boarding school and mission. Fields remains a legendary frontier character, celebrated for her tough persona and kind heart. Photo courtesy Ursuline Sisters Archives, Great Falls

Born around 1832, possibly in Tennessee, Mary Fields celebrated her birthday on March 15. The details of her life before she came to Montana in 1885 are difficult to trace—complicated by her birth into slavery and the fact that, although she was literate, she left no written record. According to one biographer, Fields’s mother was a house slave and her father was a field slave. After the Civil War, Fields worked as a chambermaid on the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. According to some accounts, she met Judge Edmund Dunne while working on the Robert E. Lee, and eventually became a servant in his household.

In the 1870s, Fields began working at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio, where Dunne’s sister, Mother Mary Amadeus, was the superior. In 1884 Mother Amadeus traveled to Montana to join the Jesuits at St. Peter’s Mission. The next year she wrote to request that the convent send more people to staff the struggling mission and boarding school. Mary Fields traveled upriver with the nuns sent by the order.

Thus Mary Fields began her new life among the sisters in Montana. She worked at the mission for the next ten years, raising chickens, growing vegetables, and freighting supplies from nearby Cascade. She developed a reputation for having “the temperament of a grizzly bear,” but tales also spread about her toughness and devotion to the nuns and students. Continue reading