The storied Mary Fields invites us to reflect on the construction of memory. One wonders about the actual woman, who she was, how she made her way in Montana, and why her life story took on such exaggerated proportions. Some facts of her life are known without exaggeration. Mary Fields was born into slavery somewhere in the American South
during the early 1830s. After the Civil War, Fields moved to Toledo, Ohio, where she took a job as groundskeeper for an Ursuline convent. She migrated West late in life, at fifty-odd years old, in 1885. In Montana, Fields worked for an Ursuline mission near Great Falls, established by nuns from a Toledo convent. In 1895, she left the mission to live in the nearby town of Cascade. From 1895 until 1903, Fields drove the mail wagon between Cascade and the mission. By 1904, the now elderly woman had quit the mail wagon and supported herself by working as a laundress, janitor, and babysitter. Mary Fields died in 1914.4 Such are the bare outlines of Fields’ life. Scratch the surface, and word about her becomes contradictory and full of distortion.