It all started with a stop in an airport bookstore.
While browsing the shop, Montana-based author Miantae Metcalf McConnell stumbled upon a book featuring a short article about a woman named Mary Fields.
Fields, McConnell learned, was an emancipated slave who not only survived, but thrived in the Montana wilderness after she journeyed there to nurse her friend, Mother Mary Amadeus, back to health in 1885.
McConnell was enthralled and knew that there had to be even more to Fields’ story, so she began poring over any document she could find.
She learned that Fields, 53 years old when she arrived in Montana, began working as a freighter, built a hennery and worked for eight years as a mail carrier.
With the help of her research, USPS was able to recognize Fields as the first female mail carrier in the United States.
“The more I researched, the more captivated I was,” McConnell said. “And then I became so devoted to her story because she was so remarkable, so intelligent and so good-hearted. To be able to survive in those times, those situations, she had to be very intelligent, very strategic, such a giving person and such an incredibly hard worker. It’s unbelievable what she did. I just wanted her story to be known.”
In 2016, McConnell released “Deliverance Mary Fields, First African American Woman Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States: A Montana History.”
The book was a 2016 finalist for the U.K.-based Wishing Shelf Book Awards and was shortlisted for the 2016 Chanticleer Book Reviews Laramie Award.
Earlier this month, McConnell received yet another bit of praise after “Deliverance Mary Fields” was featured in the February issue of O magazine.
“Adventure abounds in this little-known tale,” reviewer Hamilton Cain wrote.
McConnell talked with The Spokesman-Review about “Deliverance Mary Fields” and getting praise from Oprah.
Q: Can you tell me about the research you did?
A: I went to many of the national archives in the country and searched through there. I spent a lot of time searching through the Ursuline and Jesuit records. Those were very helpful because there were letters and journals that mentioned her… Census records, both the state records and county records… I read thousands of pages of the newspapers in Montana, which was very valuable not only for documentation but for accuracy in the story at large.
It was very important to me to add their voices and add dialogue and write it in a novel format so people would become more engaged and get more familiar with the place and the time and the attitudes. That’s how the book also became more extended because of all of the Montana history that was happening coinciding with her life history that was so action-packed with political change and women’s suffrage.
Q: Did Hamilton Cain mention how he came to be aware of the book?
A: No, he didn’t … They probably get millions of books sent to them so I wasn’t expecting that to happen. I filed it in the file that I title “Long Shots.” I can’t believe it actually happened. It’s wonderful.
Q: What sort of reactions have you received about being in the magazine?
A: Everybody’s ecstatic, and I’ve gotten such great response and encouragement. Sales are certainly doing really well … I’m just trying to keep up at this point and trying to make good decisions and move forward and do whatever I can to be worthy of her recommendation, make sure that the quality is good …
I’ve been working on a second book that is an adjunct to this… that is truly all of the facts and will include a lot of these documents so you can go through that and see the same progression as I did …
Q: I imagine it was like a treasure hunt.
A: It’s exactly a treasure hunt…
Also what I enjoyed a lot about this was the connection, the network of women in that time period, especially women that were going outside the norm. Mary Fields, Mary Amadeus, they were doing what only men were allowed to do and so they put themselves out there because they believed in what they were doing and they were dedicated to what they were doing … But it was at a great risk.
The other thing about this book is that almost all of those names of the people in the Cascade Birdtail area are all of the real names and people that actually lived in that time period …
I was very fortunate to speak to the last living person who knew Mary Fields, who at that time was a little boy. She was his babysitter. This is Earl Monroe and if you read the story, Earl Monroe has a pretty big part in it. I asked him things that I wanted to know specifically and he gave me information that also validated what I had in the story, so that was wonderful to speak with someone who really did know her.
Q: Why do so few people know about Mary?
A: Simply because it was a regional legend. Montana is a huge state and when you go back 100 years ago, we didn’t communicate like we do now. The world is a small place but if you were in one section of Montana, what you knew and your world and who was important in that area was very different from even 50 miles away. Somehow it didn’t grow outside of that, because even though articles were written about her, it basically repeated the few facts that people ended up recalling … It just took somebody to want to know the whole story … I felt like I discovered gold by discovering this extraordinary woman that I wanted people to know about.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: She wasn’t a stagecoach driver. She drove a horse and wagon and when she couldn’t get through in winter, she sometimes walked, but she never drove a stagecoach. I just want to eliminate that (misconception).
I think one of the very consistent things was if you talk to people that are native from that area today, they never knew her, it’s a family story, they speak of her with love and affection… The fact that she was still loved two or three generations later speaks very well of her as a human being. She was someone who contributed to the community, someone who contributed to our country…
I’m always so happy to find people that are young that are interested in history because I think that’s such a loss when that doesn’t happen, when they’re not put in contact with stories from the past. They’re not boring, they’re fascinating. I’ve been really happy that this book has also had a lot of young people reading it. I hope for more of that because there’s so much more to learn from understanding different time periods.