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Nellie Cashman

Nellie Cashman

Although known for her charity, Nellie Cashman was a dedicated and knowledgeable miner who searched the west for the "Big Bonanza."

Nellie was born in Midleton, in Ireland's County Cork, to Patrick Cashman and Frances "Fanny" Cronin in 1845. When she was about five years old, Nellie, her younger sister Fanny, and their now-widowed mother arrived in the United States, refugees from Ireland's potato famine. After 13 or 14 years in Boston, the Cashmans headed west in the late 1860s, settling in the vibrant community of San Francisco, where Irishmen were numerous and influential.

In 1872, Nellie and her elderly mother traveled to the new silver-mining district of Pioche, Nevada, opening a boarding house about ten miles from the camp. At Pioche, they found a wild environment, with thousands of boisterous miners and millmen--most of them Irish--living in a situation where filth, gun fights, and altercations between owners and employees were commonplace. The throbbing life of this mining and milling center must have appealed to Nellie; in the coming decades, she would consistently move to similar communities.

In the winter of 1874-75, Nellie's reputation as an "angel of mercy," for which she is best known today, was born. While on a trip to Victoria, Nellie heard that a severe winter storm had hammered her fellow miners in the Cassiar diggings and that no one could get through. She immediately purchased supplies and sleds, hired six men, sailed to Fort Wrangell, Alaska, and headed inland through heavy snows. Her success at reaching the miners with the needed medicines and food became the talk of the West, as hundreds of miners considered her their savior.

She was a small, slender woman, just a shade over five feet. Her eyes and hair were jet black and her skin was like the petals of a white rose. She spoke with a decided Irish lilt, was a devout Catholic, and followed the mining boomtowns from Tombstone to Alaska.

Arriving in Tombstones she took a partner, Jennie Swift, and the two ladies opened a fruit and provision store.

The tiny Irish lass also purchased the Russ House, located at the corner of Fifth and Toughnut Streets, and converted it into a hotel and restaurant. It became known as Nellie Cashman's Hotel in 1882.

Nellie invested wisely and in time became the owner of a grocery store and a saloon in addition to her other holdings. She hired a man to run the saloon and would not go near it.

Frances died a few years later and Nellie raised and educated her three nieces and two nephews.

Although she made a great deal of money, it always went to help people who were sick or down on their luck.

Frequently her hotel hotel was converted into a free hospital with Nellie serving as a nurse. Many of her fund raising drives received large sums of money from the saloons and the red light district.

In 1879, Nellie headed south and opened a restaurant in the new railroad center of Tucson, Arizona Territory. Within a year, however, she moved on to a new silver camp at Tombstone. Although she is linked to the legendary Arizona town from 1880 to 1887, Nellie left for brief periods to prospect and mine or run hotels in Baja California; New Mexico; and several mining areas within Arizona.

Nellie's career in Tombstone is the most familiar phase of her life; she was one of the fabled town's leading personalities during its glory years of 1880 to 1883. However, because she was in and out of town many times, owned or managed six different enterprises, worked many gold and silver claims, and bought and sold claims regularly, Nellie's financial success during her years in Tombstone is difficult to gauge.

Nellie's charitable activities there, however, are easier to assess. She helped to establish the town's first hospital and its first Roman Catholic church. And, following the 1881 death of her brother-in-law, Tom Cunningham, she took care of her sister Fanny and their five children. When Fanny herself died of tuberculosis three years later, Nellie became the sole spiritual and financial support of her nieces and nephews.

In 1883, when news of a gold strike in Baja California spread over the West, Nellie organized a prospecting expedition that consisted of Milt Joyce, owner of the Oriental Saloon; Mark Smith, an active young lawyer who would later become a U.S. Senator; and 19 other hopefuls. They took a train south to the Sonoran port of Guaymas in Mexico, sailed across the Gulf of California, then tracked inland to the deserts of Baja California, around Mission Santa Gertrudis.

But this was a "gold rush" that should never have occurred. The finds were pitifully small, and the Cashman party, like all the others lured by the prospect of riches, failed to find gold. Instead, they were almost killed by the extreme heat and the lack of water before giving up and returning to Arizona. What was noteworthy about this expedition was the willingness of the 21 Tombstoners--all frontier veterans--to put themselves under Nellie's leadership.

In 1884, five convicted hold-up men, two of whom were Irish, were scheduled to be hanged in Tombstone. Nellie believed the authorities were making the executions too much of a public spectacle. According to popular accounts, she coerced a group of miners into tearing down bleachers intended for the many "ticket holders" expected to be on hand for the necktie party. The miscreants were hanged on schedule, but with a little less hoopla than had been anticipated.

Late in the summer of that same year, miners involved in a bitter labor dispute reportedly tried to lynch E.B. Gage, superintendent of the Grand Central Mining Company. Legend has it that Nellie, seeking to head off violence, took a buggy to Gage's home and spirited him away. Nellie's alleged role in this incident has become part of Tombstone lore despite evidence that Gage was out of town and that the man involved in keeping the lid on things was Charles Leach, the Grand Central foreman.

This and other misinformation about Nellie came in large degree from her nephew, Mike Cunningham, who became a prominent banker in Cochise County and who was a great admirer of "Aunt Nellie." Other unsubstantiated "facts" can be traced to John Clum, the ex-mayor of Tombstone who wrote an account of Nellie in 1931 for the Arizona Historical Review. It was Clum's account that gave cohesive form to the notion of Nellie as "The Miner's Angel."

Unfortunately, much of what Clum wrote was hearsay or exaggeration. He left town in 1882 and knew practically nothing first-hand of the events about which he later wrote. When Clum saw Nellie in Dawson some years later, she was again soliciting funds for the church. This second encounter reinforced his image of her as a philanthropist.

By the time she arrived in the Klondike in 1898, Nellie had worked gold in British Columbia and Arizona, and had owned and worked silver mines in Arizona and New Mexico. In the Klondike, she worked her claims and, for a constant source of funds, operated restaurants.

Late in 1924, Nellie realized that she had severe health problems. Gradually, she worked her way down to Fairbanks, Juneau, and then Seattle. Finally, she requested to be sent to St. Joseph's Hospital in Victoria--the very hospital she had helped fund almost forty years earlier. She was there for several weeks under the care of the Sisters of St. Ann and Doctor W. T. Barrett, who had also been her physician in Dawson. Nellie died on January 4, 1925, of "unresolved pneumonia."

Over the years, Nellie's career had made good copy because she was a female seemingly succeeding in a male environment. Inevitably, some of the newspaper notices she received cited her good works; she was, after all, a prime mover in building hospitals and churches in Pioche, Nevada; Victoria, British Columbia; Tombstone, Arizona; Dawson, Yukon Territory; and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Now, because she had been so well known, newspapers across North America printed obituaries. In the East, the New York Times published a few paragraphs that emphasized her reputation as a "champion woman musher" and noted her service as a nurse to needy miners. On the West Coast, newspapers in Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco also pointed out her many travels, her use of dog sleds, and other apparently "non-female" activities. Even the Engineering and Mining Journal-Press succumbed to the same type of assessment, noting that she "was held in high regard by a very wide circle of acquaintances," but failed to give her credit as a miner.

Nellie started off in her first mining camp knowing absolutely nothing about mining or geology. In each successive locale, she absorbed herself in gaining knowledge of terrain, geology, equipment, and people. Then, her apprenticeship served, she spent the last 25 years of her life ably prospecting and mining.

Nellie's great consideration for her fellow man, which led to her lending a helping hand and funds when needed or coercing her frontier neighbors into contributing to churches and hospitals, has obscured her long, fascinating, and mostly successful mining career. But Nellie Cashman was indeed a true pioneer, who could face any challenge that the elements or man placed in her path.

Don Chaput. Nellie Cashman's Search for Silver and Gold. American History. March 1998.


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