Nellie Cashman an Angel, Businesswoman and Miner of the Wild West

Updated on October 7, 2019
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I've lived in Arizona for 68 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books, and travel.

Nellie Cashman and the North American Mining Frontier by Don Chaput

Nellie's Early Years Running Boarding Houses and Restaurants

When I first heard the name Nellie Cashman, it was in connection with Tombstone Arizona during its silver boom days. Nellie was referred to as "The Angel of Tombstone" because of her reputation for kindness to the miners down on their luck. This title was well earned, but Nellie was also a fine businesswoman in the roughest mining camps in Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico, Canada and Alaska. She was a woman always hoping for a mining bonanza in her claims, but during her frequent moves, she not only cared about her various businesses, but she was also dedicated to care of her mother, sister, nieces and nephews and the establishment of churches and hospitals. In many of the early mining towns, she sometimes was the only woman and was known as the only decent woman.(Code for not a prostitute)

Nellie was born in Queenstown, Cork County Ireland in 1845. Shortly after Nellie's father died from unknown causes, and the potato famine was ravaging Ireland, Nellie's mother Fanny immigrated to Boston with her two young daughters. After two years, the Cashman's moved to San Francisco and then on to Pioche, Nevada which was a rough mining boom town know for random violence and 32 brothels. The Cashman's opened a boarding house there, and Nellie began raising funds for a Roman Catholic church by organizing a "Ladies Fair" of fancy baked goods, but when the boom played out, she soon moved again to Panaca Flat. An old advertising bill, shows that Nellie's mother, Fanny, was running one boarding house for miner's, while Nellie was running another Boarding House and restaurant that was famous for making the only ice cream in the area.

Once again as news spread that a gold rush was beginning in the Cassiar District in Northern British Columbia, Nellie moved again and she moved Fanny back to San Francisco. Nellie was by then about thirty and had the only known portrait of herself taken at age thirty.(This portrait is shown above on the cover of the biography of Nellie written by Don Chaput.) Sometime around this age, she began the practice of grub staking miners on their claims, a well known practice of providing miners with food and supplies to work their claims in exchange for their future earnings from that claim. She gained her first measure of fame when she heard about miners trapped without supplies for the winter and she organized a party of men and sleds with 1,500 pounds supplies and saved 75 miners. She continued to grubstake claims and run a hotel, and it was reported that she was able to send Fanny $500 in gold for her care in San Francisco.


Original Bar Crystal Palace Saloon, Allen Street Tombstone Arizona Territory

Source

Nellie's Life in the Arizona Territory

Rumors reached Nellie of silver and copper mining in the Arizona Territory, so Nellie traveled to Tucson in 1879 and opened the Delmonico Restaurant in Church Plaza. She boasted that she offered the best meals in the city. Ed Schieffelin had discovered a silver strike which became the Toughnut Mine in an area that was soon to be named Tombstone. A mill, a smelter and tent houses soon appeared and the town began growing. Hotels, restaurants, saloons, and brothels, appeared almost daily. Nellie had someone manage her Delmonico restaurant in Tucson, but she decided to open a grocery named Cash Store and a dry goods store named the Nevada Boot and Shoe store in Tombstone on Allen Street . In spite of the well publicized gun fight at the OK Corral, Tombstone was full of the latest conveniences and luxuries of the day. Nellie felt at home there, since many of the miners were Irish. She was friends with John Clum editor of the Tombstone Epitaph and Tombstone's mayor, and he was quick to promote Nellie's fund-raising ideas for the church and hospital.

The tiny red headed Nellie was known to enter Tombstone's saloons and ask for donations. Her reasoning with the miners was if they had money for Faro and Poker then they surely had money for the proposed hospital and church. Before long, Nellie had opened the Arcade Restaurant and another boarding house. Nellie's sister Francis had married and settled in San Francisco and by the time Nellie arrived in Tombstone, Francis had five children. When Francis found herself a widow, she left her children in Fanny's care and joined Nellie in Tombstone to help run the Boarding House and restaurant, until she became sick with Tuberculosis. Francis returned to San Francisco and died shortly after. Nellie had full responsibility for their mother and her nieces and nephews. She needed more than ever to buy claims that would produce enough income to support the family.

Nellie continued to move around the Arizona Territory to places in Prescott, Jerome, and the Harqua Hala gold mining district near Yuma. She also heard of mining in Mexico and New Mexico and stayed briefly in those locations too.

Packing Up Chilkoot Pass a Test of Endurance

Miners packing supplies up Chilkoot Pass Alaska
Miners packing supplies up Chilkoot Pass Alaska | Source

Nellie's Mining Days in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory

Nellie believed that her best mining prospects would be in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. One of the surprising things about Nellie is that she was able to withstand the intense heat in the Southwest, but she was also able to thrive in the extreme cold of the Yukon Territory in the area near the Arctic Circle. A newspaper carried a story of Nellie's attempts to organize a party of men to try their luck in Dawson, but it never happened. Nellie worked awhile in Victoria, Canada and tried to plan how she would travel the 850 miles to the Yukon. After the first "leg" of the trip, at age 54, Nellie climbed the Chilkoot pass with a sled of the required 900 lbs of supplies to be allowed into the Yukon Territory. Nellie managed to stock a small grocery while working her claims, and once again she began raising funds for a hospital. Eventually, the St. Mary's Hospital was built in Dawson. Nellie's last mining venture was near Nolan Creek where gold was extracted by using boilers to heat the Permafrost and then dig off the top layers. The gold was plentiful but life was hard and many died from drinking to death, suicide due to depression, murder, and mining accidents. While Nellie was making plans to get capitol funding for hydraulic equipment, she fell ill and returned to Fairbanks, where they insisted she return to Victoria. Nellie died at St. Anne's Hospital, in Victoria Canada in 1925.

Maybe she was an angel to all those she helped, but Nellie was also a good businesswoman and a tough woman during the harsh living conditions in the West. When asked why she never married, she told stories about the roughest of men who had treated her well and had been respectful to her, but she had also seen the worst in men and had made the decision never to marry. During an interview with the Arizona Daily Star newspaper in December of 1923 she was quoted as saying, ""Men, why child they are just boys grown up. I've nursed them,embalmed them, scolded them, and acted like a Mother Confessor."

The Gold Rush Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Nellie Cashman

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 mactavers

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      • profile image

        mactavers 

        2 weeks ago

        Thanks Lawrence for your comment. It's so much fun to look at the lives of those pioneer men and women in the West.

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 

        2 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        This was very interesting, a part of the history of the American frontier you seldom hear about.

      • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR

        mactavers 

        6 weeks ago

        Thanks Sharon!

      • profile image

        Sharon Valentine 

        6 weeks ago

        A great write up as always. You have always had a great talent for writing. Can’t wait to read your newest book on Sedona when it is published. Keep me posted!

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia 

        6 weeks ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        This is a great story that will probably be lost if not told as you have done! I am really inspired by the strength, creativity and energy of the 'women of the Old West' like Nellie Cashman and 'Calamity Jane' etc. This would make a good series (or perhaps you have already started that-- I will have to look). Thank you for sharing this!

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