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Nellie Cashman - Pioneering the Mining Camps of the Old West

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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 Civil War 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 Nevada mining camps, including Virginia City and Pioche.



Nellie Cashman

Nellie Cashman was one of the first female entrepreneurs of the Old West. This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!




After carefully saving her money, she opened the Miner’s Boarding House at Panaca Flat, Nevada in 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 200 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 help.

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 health.


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 Tombstone.


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 present. When 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 Tombstone.


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.




Continued Next Page



Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880's

Tombstone in its boomtown days, photo by Carleton E. Watkins.

This image available for photographic prints & downloads HERE!


Nellie Cashman House in 1937

Nellie Cashman's house in 1937, photo by Frederick D. Nichols.

This image available for photographic prints and  downloads HERE!

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