In the mid 1800s, some women began finding jobs as contract, or “star” route carriers. The women who took on the responsibilities of the star routes needed to be independent and fend for themselves. Their stories have made legends and folklore, even within their lifetime. And not without good reason! This handful of women traveled long distances, protected the mail.
Polly Martin, possibly the first female star route carrier,1 described one troubling incident she dealt with during her career carrying the mail from 1860 to 1876.
“It was a pretty cold night and dark as a pocket, but I was going along all right, when I overtook a gang of about five or six men, standing by the side of the road. One of them called out and asked which of the roads led to Hebronville. I pointed out the road to him and went right on. I had this same little horse with me that I am driving now; he is 27 or 26 years old. One of the men stepped into the middle of the road and I had a whip in my had made of three branches of apple-tree braded. It was stout and tough. I struck the horse on the flank, and just then the man gave a spring and grabbed the back strap of the reins. I struck the horse again, and he sprang forward, dragging the man along. He clung to the harness and the reins and tried to pull them out of my hand, all the time trying to get into the wagon. He got one foot on the step and went hopping along the other, I pounded him in the face with the stick until the blood ran down, and every time the stick struck him it struck the horse too; so he kept along at a brisk trot, and I kept pounding the fellow’s face. By and by his foot caught in the wheel and he fell on his back, and the wheels ran over his legs… He had tackled the wrong customer that time.”2
Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” or “Black Mary,” started carrying the mail in 1895. As a six-foot-tall Black woman who carried a revolver and a rifle, Mary was not out of place in a western saloon, and enjoyed smoking cigars. Stories from Mary’s colorful life include a legend that recalls her fending off a pack of wolves through one long night. Mary was also popular for her community commitment. When she wasn’t drinking, fighting, delivering the mail, or performing manual labor, Mary gave food to the poor and bought treats for the town children.