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Wild Women Of The West: Nellie Cashman

The usual gunfire in the near distance was nothing to be concerned about...

December 13, 2017

Night had fallen over Tombstone, Arizona, and every restless and rowdy character in the vicinity of the southwestern town had poured into the saloons and gambling dens to while away the hours until dawn arrived. The doorways of the numerous taverns that lined Allen Street were illuminated with smoky kerosene torches. Signs that hung over the entrances to the rowdy buildings sported such names as the Occidental, the Oriental, and the Bird Cage Opera House; they swayed back and forth in the dusty wind. Music, laughter, the sound of a gambler rejoicing in a win, and the occasional pistols firing spilled out of the dance halls into the street and drifted into the starlit sky.

Nellie Cashman, a dark-eyed Irish beauty with ebony curls fashioned into a bun, fixed a determined gaze toward the town’s main thoroughfare. She stepped out of her restaurant, the Russ House at Fifth and Toughnut Street, and strolled across the boardwalk to a hitching post.

The usual gunfire in the near distance was nothing to be concerned about. “Just another drunken cowboy feeling fearless,” she told herself out loud. A disheveled, bearded prospector wearing tattered clothes and a faded flop hat exited the eatery and walked over to Nellie. “You ain’t worried about those shots are you?” he asked. “Not unless they get closer to my place,” she said half smiling. The elderly miner gave his belly a satisfied pat and breathed in the desert air. “You know,” he began, “all Tombstone needs to be the garden spot of the world is more good people like yourself and water.” Nellie listened for the echo of more gunfire, but none came. “Well, stranger,” she finally replied. “I reckon that’s all Hades needs too.”

The prospector gathered up his things and thanked her for the fine meal. “The Russ House is open to everyone, even if you don’t have any money,” she assured him. “Come back any time.” The miner tipped his hat, waved goodbye, and disappeared into the night, pulling his pack mule behind him. He wasn’t the first destitute frontiersman who had benefited from Nellie’s kindness and he wouldn’t be the last.

Nellie moved to the wild burg of Tombstone in 1880 for the same reason hundreds of other ambitious fortune seekers did: to mine for gold. She had been searching for the glittery substance for years prior to her stay in the town yet to be made famous by the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Convinced that she would one day hit the mother lode, Nellie followed stampedes from Montana to Arizona. When she wasn’t prospecting she operated boardinghouses and restaurants. “Looking for nuggets is like hunting for a whisper in a big wind,” she reminded friends and family. “You have to have an occupation to fall back on while you’re searching for a strike.”

Nellie’s businesses offered miners a clean place to call home and appetizing meals. Her hotels were always crowded, and if a man had no money, Nellie would provide board and lodging until he made a stake; she would even loan him the money to find that stake. In 1908, the Alaska Fairbanks Daily News described the tenacious, benevolent woman as “hard as flint, with endurance on the trail equal to that of any man, but with an inexhaustible fund of good humor and a cheery word and a helping hand for anyone in need.”

Ellen Cashman was born in Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland in 1850. For most of Nellie’s upbringing her native country had languished in a state of depression. Food and jobs were hard to come by. Her father passed away at an early age trying to provide for his family, which consisted of his wife Frances and daughters Nellie and Fanny. At the age of seventeen and with hopes of securing a better future, Nellie made the trip across the ocean to America with her widowed mother and her sister. The trio landed in Boston on May 12, 1867. Both Nellie and Frances quickly found work at the popular hotels around the harbor. Nellie was employed as a bellhop (a job ordinarily occupied by a young man, but the Civil War had left few men to do such work) at an establishment where General Ulysses S. Grant frequently stayed. During one of his visits he met the hard-working girl and offered advice about her future pursuits. “He was easy to talk to,” Nellie recalled to a newspaper reporter in early 1900, “like everyone I ever knew. When I told him I wanted to do things, because I had to if I wanted to live, he said, “Why don’t you go West, young woman? The West needs people like you.”

Nellie took the future president’s words to heart and in late 1869, she and her sister and mother boarded a train bound for San Francisco, a city overrun with people from all walks of life. In the twenty years since gold had been discovered at Captain Sutter’s Mill, less than 120 miles from the bustling city, San Francisco had grown from a scruffy camp of tents and log cabins to a booming metropolis that featured three-story stone buildings, ornately built theatres, and stores and shops of every kind. Nellie was excited about the possibilities inherent in the City by the Bay and set about securing a job at once.

Nellie and her sister were well received by the city’s predominately male population. Offers of marriage were received on a daily basis. Fanny accepted a proposal from a fellow Irish immigrant, Thomas Cunningham, and the two quickly married. Nellie believed her destiny was in the gold fields and set off to find her fortune.

During her stay in San Francisco, Nellie had heard rumors of a rich strike in Virginia City, Nevada, called the Comstock; she decided to venture to the location. In addition to gold, the hills around the mining camp were lined with silver. More than thirty thousand people resided in Virginia City and its surrounding communities. The boisterous town’s saloons and brothels were busy twenty-four hours a day. Cooks were at a premium, and good cooks could make a profitable living. Nellie took full advantage of that fact and opened a short-order restaurant.

When she wasn’t preparing simple meals for the hungry miners she was doing her own prospecting. She had a natural gift for digging and panning and managed to collect a substantial amount of gold. As a shrewd businesswoman, she invested her findings in restaurants and boardinghouses in other Nevada mining camps. Nellie also used her financial gain to help others. In her own words, “My goal was to make a lot of money and help anyone who needed it.”

Like most ambitious miners, Nellie was willing to relocate to any area where gold was in abundance. She would linger in a given mining camp long enough to see the initial strike decline and then move on. In 1873, after three years of prospecting in Comstock and Pioche, Nevada, Nellie went looking for the heavy yellow rock in British Columbia. Making her home near the town of Victoria, she panned for gold in the Stikine River. Her presence in the remote area earned her the distinction of being the first white woman to live and work in the harsh, seldom-traveled wilderness.

Nellie labored diligently alongside male prospectors in mountainous creek beds and streams that flowed into the Stikine River. She was outspoken and direct and her fellow miners respected her. She would not tolerate any improprieties and was not afraid to standup to any man who dared cross the line. She never asked to be treated differently from any other miner. She constructed her own sluice and rocker boxes to sift the sand away from the gold, chopped her own wood, and hauled water back and forth to her camp. When asked by an Arizona Daily Star reporter in a 1923 interview if she had ever been tempted to use her “feminine wilds” to make life easier, she responded with an emphatic no. “Some women…think they should be given special favors because of their sex. Well, all I can say is that those special favors spell doom to a woman and her business…. I’ve paid my bills and played the game like a man.”

Cashman’s efforts in the Cassair District proved to be rewarding. She retrieved enough gold to fund the purchase of a boardinghouse in Victoria. As usual, the combination hotel and dining hall was always available to customers who did not have the means to pay for food and lodging. Those who could afford her hospitality were asked to contribute what they could to help the Sisters of St. Anne build a hospital. By the winter of 1876, she had raised more than $500. The funds were given to the nuns and construction on St. Joseph’s Hospital began the following spring.

Nellie’s devotion to the mining party she migrated to British Columbia with was strong. Trappers and lone prospectors passing through her establishment kept her up to date on the health and welfare of the group during her absence from the gold field. When she received news that the men were suffering from scurvy, she loaded supplies and prescribed remedies onto a pack mule and trekked into the mountains. Six woodsmen and trappers accompanied her.

“It took seventy-seven days to reach camp as the winter was very severe,” Nellie recalled in a newspaper interview. “At (Fort) Wrangle the United States customs officers tried to dissuade me from taking what they termed ‘my mad trip’ and, in fact, when we had been several days up the river on our journey they sent up a number of men to induce me to turn back.” Nellie’s heroic efforts saved the lives of more than seventy ailing miners and earned her the nickname the “Angel of the Cassiar.”

In 1879, Nellie returned to the States and was immediately drawn to a fledgling boomtown in the southern Arizona territory. Tucson became a vibrant desert community the minute the Southern Pacific Railroad finished laying tracks through the desert landscape. Nellie believed that a restaurant would be a logical and profitable business to start in the growing pueblo, and shortly after she arrived she turned the idea into a reality. When she opened the doors of her eatery, the Delmonico Restaurant, she became the first single white businesswoman in the area. In an ad placed in the Arizona Citizen newspaper, Nellie promised patrons “the best meals in the city,” and the popularity of the establishment was proof that her cooking lived up to the bold claims.

The quest for gold and silver lured Nellie away from Tucson within months of the Delmonico’s grand opening. News that prospector, Ed Schiefflin had discovered silver in a mining camp called Tombstone sent her running to the location. She used the money from the sale of the restaurant in Tucson to invest in a pair of chophouses and a mercantile that sold groceries, ladies’ fineries, boots, and shoes.

When Nellie wasn’t working at her store or overseeing the operations at her eateries, she was searching the hills around Tombstone for silver ore. Her initial finds were modest but satisfying. As she had done in every place she had made her home, she was involved in charitable work. She was generous to the indigent, hospitals, and the arts, and she helped raise money for a schoolhouse and the building of a church. When she become too busy with community activities to mine herself, she grubstaked mining expeditions, asking for a modest percentage of the find as repayment.

Nellie’s kindness and desire to help people extended beyond so-called “polite society” and included assisting prostitutes and prisoners. She provided for any “soiled dove” who lacked food, clothing, and the means to return home to their families. She also made regular visits to death row inmates interned at the Tombstone jail.

The men awaiting execution were alone and fearful of the vengeful residents in the area. Angry citizens had warned the desperados that after they were hung their bodies would be exhumed and dissected. Nellie buoyed the spirits of repentant men by speaking with them about faith in God and promising that their graves would not be disturbed.

The spectacle of public hangings disgusted Nellie. She abhorred the fact that tickets were issued to attend such events and she made her opinions known to local officials. She proved how unafraid she was of interjecting herself in situations she believed were wrong too: When a group of miners wanted to lynch mine owner E.B. Gage, she drove her horse-drawn buggy into the center of the conflict and rescued Gage from the violent crowd.

In the midst of her financial and business triumphs in Tombstone, Nellie experienced personal tragedy. Her beloved sister Fannie and brother-in-law died of tuberculosis, leaving behind five children. Nellie took the orphans in and raised them as her own. All the children achieved success in their lives; her nephew, Michael Cunningham, who as a seven-year-old boy witnessed the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881, became president of a bank in Bisbee, Arizona.

No matter how busy Nellie was at the time with the children or the restaurant, she never lost sight of her vision to be a miner. When she learned there was gold to be had in southern California and northern Mexico, she organized an expedition of twenty-one mining experts to accompany her to the region. The prospectors arrived in Guaymas, Mexico on May 24, 1883. Their search led them to the desolate area called Golo Valley. Legend maintains that Nellie happened onto a rich vein of gold in the mountains surrounding the arid basin she called Cashman’s Mine, but a priest persuaded her to keep the discovery a secret out of fear that the simple way of life of the indigenous people would be jeopardized and possibly destroyed by a gold rush.

In fact, Nellie and the other miners nearly lost their lives on foot in the hot, sandy desert valley. They had underestimated the amount of provisions necessary to make the journey, and the heat and lack of water was nearly the death of them. It was Nellie’s tenacious nature that saved the party. As the healthiest member of the group, she set out on her own to find help. She returned a day later with guides, burros, and goatskins filled with water. The expedition was subsequently cancelled and they made their way back to Tombstone.

In 1886, Nellie sold the Russ House and mercantile, gathered her family together, and for a brief time wandered the mining camps of Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico. Realizing the vagabond way of life was not the best for her nieces and nephews, she placed them in various Catholic boarding schools in the west. Although the children were not physically with her as they had been, she maintained a close relationship with each one of them and never failed to encourage them in their pursuits or let them know how devoted she was to their happiness and well being.

For ten years Nellie bounced around from mining community to mining community. She owned boardinghouses in Kingston, New Mexico; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; and Globe, Arizona. During her stay in Globe, she paged through a July 21, 1897 edition of a Phoenix newspaper and read an article about an enormous strike in Alaska. She quickly began making arrangements to explore the Klondike region. An article in the Arizona Daily Citizen on September 15, 1897 announced her intentions to leave the southwest.

Nellie calculated that a fully equipped expedition to the Yukon would cost $5,000. She hoped to assemble a six-man team of like-minded miners and trackers to go along with her. All attempts to raise the funds for the trip or attract interested parties to accompany her failed, but it did not stop Nellie from making the journey. On February 15, 1898, she reached Skagway, Alaska. She was determined to travel the perilous Chilkoot Pass to the gold fields.

Dressed in an outfit befitting a Klondike miner and hauling ample supplies for the exploration, the feisty prospector set out to find her bonanza. A newspaper reporter with the British Colonist interviewed the fifty-three-year-old woman prior to her departure from the civilized area for the wild countryside. “The first white woman to penetrate the Cassair country and who twenty-one years ago visited Alaska in a quest for gold arrived in the city last night from ’Frisco,” the February 1898 article read. “She is out now for a big stake, nothing more or less than the mother lode of the far-framed Klondike region. Miss Cashman is a lithe, active looking woman with jet black hair, and possessed all the vivacity and enthusiasm of a young girl.”

Nellie did manage to assemble a small team of men to accompany her and fully expected to be joined by others wanting to go north along the crude mountainous trail. After nearly a three-week trip, Nellie reached the section of wilderness where she would begin panning for gold in the Dyea River and mining in the Rocky Mountains. She filed four claims and worked them all herself. By September 1898, Nellie had recovered more then $100,000 from a claim she called No. 19 Below.

In October, Cashman took a break from prospecting and invested her fortune in a restaurant in Dawson called the Cassair. Half of the facility was used to serve food and the other half was a grocery store. She transformed a portion of the mercantile into a small meeting place for lonely sourdoughs. The miners could sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and a fine cigar while visiting with one another, all of which Nellie offered for free. Her generosity extended to orphaned children, destitute women, and elderly prospectors. She spent tireless hours raising money for hospitals and the building of churches.

In 1899, Nellie experienced another tragedy. Her mother Frances, who had been residing in San Francisco since she and her daughters had moved west in 1869, died. Frances was 101 years old when she passed away and according to the staff at the Magdalen Asylum where she lived, she always spoke fondly of her “adventurous girl, Nellie.”

Nellie resided in Dawson for seven years and divided her time between the restaurant, the mercantile, and mining claims. In 1905, she moved her business ventures to Fairbanks. A gold strike on the Chena River near the mining town prompted her to relocate. The drive to find the ultimate strike continued to pull Nellie out of the comfort of her grocery store and eatery and back into the frigid Alaskan hinterlands. At the age of fifty-five, she was recognized as the only female mining expert in the territory. Prospectors frequently sought her advice on where to search for a claim and how to best work the claim after it had been located.  Ironically, mining regulations prohibited unmarried women from filing new claims; they could only purchase claims that had already been filed.

Nellie was not resentful about having to work with men to achieve any mining success, nor did she ever worry that a man would take advantage of her. According to a 1923 article in the Arizona Daily Star, Nellie was highly complimentary of her male counterparts. “I have mushed with men, slept out in the open, washed with them and been with them constantly, and I have never been offered an insult…. A woman is safe among miners as at her own fireside. If a woman complains of her treatment from any of the boys, she has only herself to blame…. I can truthfully say that there was never a bigger hearted class of men than the genuine sourdoughs of Alaska.”

From 1907 to 1923, Nellie devoted herself almost entirely to striking it rich. Traveling across the Alaskan territory from the upper Middle Koyukuk River to a camp called Cold Foot, sixty miles from the Artic Circle, she was convinced she would hit it big. The last gold stampede Nellie participated in was at Nolan’s Creek at the base of the Brooks Range Mountains. While poking around the jagged bluffs she found a vein of gold that lined the rock under the earth. Getting to the heart of the find required a team of workers, heavy equipment, and even heavier financial backing.

Hoping to attract investors, Nellie formed a corporation called the Midnight Sun Mining Company and immediately began selling stock in the business. She had little difficulty acquiring the initial backing to begin ferreting out the gold. After mining commenced she made frequent trips back to the States to solicit capital to continue operations.

Nellie’s fund-raising visits to New York and Washington, D.C. always generated newspaper or magazine articles about her character and vocation. “I’ve suffered trial and hardships in the frozen plains of Alaska and in the deserts of Arizona,” she told a reporter for the Cordova Alaska Times in 1917. “I’ve been alone all my life, but I have been happy and healthy. That’s why all our fooled by my age. And that is why I’m not afraid like most women to tell you that I’m sixty-seven and that I’m mighty apt to make a million or two before I leave this romantic business of mining.”

No amount of coaxing could entice Nellie to remain with her family after her ventures stateside. She insisted she had to get back to her business in the Alaskan territory, maintaining that she was a “long way from the cushion rocker stage.” In 1924, she proved her point when she led a dog-sled team 750 miles over the country’s frozen terrain. The feat earned her the title of Champion Woman Musher.

Eight months after the persistent miner accomplished the seventeen-day mushing trip, she came down with a cold that advanced into double pneumonia. The pioneer miner with the benevolent spirit died on January 4, 1925, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria and was laid to rest next to her sister at Ross Bay Cemetery.

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