Cashman - Pioneering the Mining Camps of
the Old West
Nellie Cashman, was one of the
Old West's original
female entrepreneurs, as well as a prospector, and an "angel of mercy.”
Wandering the frontier mining camps of the west, seeking her fortune,
she was soon known throughout for her charity, courage, and determination.
Ellen "Nellie” Cashman was born in Queenstown, County
Cork, Ireland to Patrick Cashman and Frances "Fanny" Cronin in 1845. Her
father died when she was a very young child when Nellie was just five
years old, she and her sister, Fanny immigrated with their mother to the
United States during the potato famine.
They first settled in Boston before moving to
Washington, D.C. There, Nellie got her first job working as a lift
operator in a hotel where she often overheard
politics. On one
occasion, she even met General Ulysses S. Grant, who urged her to go west.
Evidently, taking Grant’s advice, the family made
their way to San Francisco in 1865 (or 1869). Fannie soon married and
began to raise a family. However, an adventurous Nellie, enamored with the
gold rush stories of the west, soon hired out as a cook in various
mining camps, including Virginia City and Pioche.
After carefully saving
her money, she opened the Miner’s Boarding House at Panaca Flat,
1872. She was said to have always been a great friend to the miners, often
feeding them and providing lodging if they had no money.
Later Cashman would be described as "Pretty as a
Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails." And
that she was. These few
Nevada mining camps would be just some of the
first that Cashman would spend time in, always starting a business, doing
a little prospecting on the side, and looking after the miners.
In 1874, when gold was discovered in the Cassair
Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, Nellie joined up with a group of
Nevada miners headed northward. At Telegraph Creek, she set up another
boarding house for miners. Again, she looked after the miners, providing
help when they needed it and looking after them when they were ill. A
devout Catholic, Nellie began collecting money for Sisters of St. Anne in
Victoria to build a hospital. Appreciative of her care, they were quick to
Sometime later, Cashman traveled to Victoria to
deliver $500 dollars in donations, which would help the nuns in building
St. Joseph’s Hospital. While there, she heard that 26 miners had been
stranded in a snowstorm back in the Cassiar Mountains. Wasting no time,
she organized a rescue expedition with six men, and a number of pack
animals carrying 1,500 pounds of supplies and took off with the expedition
to find the stranded men. Conditions in these mountains were so hazardous
at the time, that even the Canadian Army had refused to mount a rescue.
When they heard about Cashman’s expedition, the commander sent his troops
to find her and return her and the men back to safety. However, when they
did find her, she refused to return without the stranded miners.
After 77 days, sometimes treading through as much as
ten feet of snow, she finally found the men, who turned out to number more
than 75 rather than the rumored 26. Suffering from severe scurvy, she
loaded them up with Vitamin C in their diets and nursed them back to
When the Cassiar strike played out, Nellie headed for
the silver fields of
Arizona in 1879.
First settling in Tucson in 1879, she opened the Delmonico Restaurant, the first business in town to
be owned by a woman. Though she often gave her food away free to the
hungry, her restaurant was a success. But her time in Tucson would be
short lived, as in 1880, she sold the restaurant and moved on to the new silver
rush and booming town of
Upon her arrival, she first ran a boot and shoe store
briefly before opening the Russ House Restaurant. According to one popular
legend, when a client complained about Nellie’s cooking,
Doc Holliday was
Holliday drew his side arm and asked the customer to repeat
what he had said, the embarrassed customer replied, "Best I ever ate.”
She continued her work for the Catholic faith,
raising money to build the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tombstone and
worked as a nurse. Before enough money was raised to build the church, she
convinced the owners of the Crystal Palace Saloon to allow Sunday church
services to be held there. Also raising money for the Salvation Army, the
Red Cross, the Miner's Hospital, and any miner who might have fallen on
hard times, she soon was called an "Angel of Mercy.”
When her brother-in-law died in 1881, Nellie invited
her sister, Fannie, who by then had five children, to join her in
In December, 1883, five killers committed a robbery
in Bisbee, leaving behind four people dead. Known as the
Bisbee Massacre, the law was quickly on
their tale. Captured and taken to trial in Tombstone, the men were scheduled to hang on March 8, 1884. The town soon
took on a carnival like atmosphere and free tickets were issued for the
event. But, when Sheriff Ward ran out of them, an enterprising business
man built bleachers around the gallows and began selling yet more tickets.
Nellie objected adamantly to the circus that
was surrounding the event. Outraged at the citizens’ behavior and feeling
that no death should be "celebrated,” she soon befriended the five
convicts, visiting them often and providing them with spiritual guidance.
She pleaded with Sheriff Ward to place a curfew on the town during the
time that the hangings were to take place. Ward conceded and the vast
majority of interested onlookers were not allowed to watch the "event.
After they were executed, the men were buried in
Boot Hill cemetery. Cashman also found out that there was
a plan to rob the bodies from their graves for a medical school study.
This, too, outraged her and she hired two prospectors to guard the graves
for ten days, which were left undisturbed and remain at
Boot Hill today.
year, when a group of miners attempted to lynch mine owner E.B. Gage
during a labor dispute, Nellie drove
her buggy into the mob and rescued Gage, spiriting him away to Benson,
After returning from an unsuccessful gold expedition
California, her widowed sister Fannie died of tuberculosis,
leaving Nellie to raise her five children. In 1886,
Nellie sold the Russ
House and left Tombstone with the children in tow. Traveling to several
Arizona, including Nogales,
Jerome, Prescott, Yuma and Harqua Hala, she again set up restaurants and worked part time at
prospecting. Later, she wandered other mining camps in
New Mexico. Under her care, all five children became successful,
productive citizens, despite their constant wandering.
Dawson City, Yukon, 1899, photo by Eric A. Hegg.
This image available for photographic prints and downloads
When the Klondike Gold Rush began,
the Yukon in 1898. In Dawson City, she set up yet another restaurant and
mercantile, again helping the miners whenever they were in need. In 1904,
she went to Fairbanks where she opened a grocery store. All the while, she
was collecting claims in the region which she worked on when she could.
finally settled down in
Victoria, British Columbia in 1923. Two years later, in January, 1925,
she died of pneumonia in the very same hospital she had helped to
build – St. Josephs.
Because of her giving spirit, when she died she was
known throughout the West and her eulogy was published in papers as far
away as New York.
The diminutive woman, who often dressed as a man and
never married, had made her mark as one of the first women entrepreneurs
in the west, as well as a miner, and an "Angel of Mercy.” Throughout the
various mining camps, she had variously been called the Frontier Angel,
Saint of the Sourdoughs, Miner's Angel, Angel of the Cassair, and The
Angel of Tombstone.
On March 15, 2006,
Cashman was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.
of America, updated April, 2017.
The Town Too Tough to Die
Tombstone Photo Gallery
Women of the American
Nellie Cashman's house in 1937, photo
by Frederick D. Nichols.
This image available for
photographic prints and downloads