Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Nellie Cashman: The Miner’s Angel

by | January 7, 2013 | 4 comments

Ellen_CashmanIndependent, resilient, determined, and savvy are all words that can describe this late 19th century woman who made her own way in the American West against tremendous odds.

Nellie (Ellen) Cashman (O’Kissane before being anglicized) was born in 1845 in County Cork, Ireland and, like many poor Irish Catholics at the time, emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts sometime between 1850 and the early 1860’s. As an adolescent, Nellie worked hard as a bellhop in one of Boston’s hotels. So hard, it is said she caught the eye of patron Ulysses S. Grant who urged her to head west because, “The West needs people like you.” (American Cowboy Magazine, June-July 2008, p. 124)

Nellie obviously agreed with his advice because in the late 1860’s the Cashman family (Nellie, her sister Frances, and her mother) boarded a ship and set sail for San Francisco, California where Frances soon married a boot maker, Tom Cunningham. Adventuresome Nellie, however, had bigger dreams, dreams of independence. Hearing of a need for cooks, she hired out as a cook in the mining camps of Nevada. By 1872 she had saved enough money from her labors to open up the Miner’s Boarding House at Panaca Flat, Nevada, near the mining camp of Pioche, Lincoln County, Nevada, one of the more lucrative strikes but also one of the roughest camps of its day.

Nellie and her mother earned a reputation for good cooking and honest dealing in an area that hosted seventy-two saloons and thirty-two brothels. By 1873 the silver mines were getting played out and 1874 found Nellie on her way to the next big mining boom, the remote Cassiar district in British Columbia as there had been new discoveries near Dease Lake north of Telegraph Creek. “At Dease Lake, Nellie opened a combination saloon and boarding house, dealt in mining claims, and grubstaked miners, a pattern held by Nellie in later camps.” (Alaska mining Hall of Fame) A venture capitalist was born.

Over the next thirty years or so, Nellie Cashman found her fortune and her independence in the mining towns of the United States and Canada, mainly by opening up stores, boarding houses and restaurants to service the mining population. Her travels took her from Nevada and British Columbia to Alaska, Montana, Idaho, and Arizona. Besides being a smart business woman selling goods, she often invested in mining ventures. In her 1925 obituary, the New York Times noted: “ In the early ‘80’s she grubstaked several of the State’s [Arizona’s] present millionaires, on the gamble they would find a strike in the Tombstone, Arizona gold field. Later she used the money returned by those men to finance a trip to Alaska where she outfitted and ‘mushed’ into the interior—again seeking gold.”

Nellie opened up several restaurants in Arizona including Delmonico’s in Tucson and the Nellie Cashman restaurant in Tombstone during the time the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday resided in the town. In fact, it is reported that Doc Holiday defended, at the point of a gun, her cooking from an insulting and inebriated patron. If you visit Tombstone, you can still eat at Nellie Cashman’s restaurant which operates in the original adobe structure from the 1880’s.

Despite her many successful business ventures in and around mining towns in the lower 48, she was a restless spirit and made several excursions into the frigid regions of Alaska. In 1898, in her fifties, she arrived by herself in Skagway, Alaska and then made her way to the boomtown of Dawson, Yukon Territory to establish another Delmonico’s.

Used to being the only respectable woman in these types of camps, she was surprised by the impressive number of women who were as driven and determined as she was to strike it rich. She ultimately acquired a claim in the Bonanza, No 19 mine and eventually the claim was sold for $100,000. No wonder she had mining fever.

Nellie roamed around the lower 48 for a while thereafter but again gold was discovered in the Klondike region. The New York Times (February 28, 1904) reported:

 After swinging around the circle for 10,000 miles Nellie Cashman, a woman Klondiker with as much energy and enterprise as any of the men who ever went over the trail, surprised Dawson by her arrival there two weeks ago. Since leaving the Klondike in the early Fall she had toured the big cities of the East, opened a restaurant in St. Louis, heard about the new strike in the Alsek country, and then took the fever and stampeded for the North.

 Arriving at the White Horse, Miss Cashman started for the Alsek district and did not stop until she reached the last creek. She bought claims on the richest creeks and did enough prospecting to convince her that they are rich. Returning to White Horse, she took the Dawson trail without delay. One day she walked twenty-one miles alone in a temperature of 61 below zero. Her chin was frozen a little, but otherwise she suffered no ill effects. Interviewed at Dawson, Miss Cashman declared that the dry, bracing frigidity of the Arctic Circle was more attractive to her than the sunshine of Dixie land.

 Nellie Cashman was almost sixty years old at the time.

This would not be the last time she went into the Klondike. In 1907 she packed a sled and embarked on a trip to the Koyukuk in Alaska near the southern foothills of what is now known as Brooks Mountain Range looking for placer gold buried more than a 100 feet under frozen tundra. Nellie did well in this remote district for many years, mushing her dogs hundreds of miles to go into and out of the area when she wanted to visit her family and friends, mostly in Arizona. She made news when in December 1923, at the age of 78, she completed a seventeen day, 350 mile trip from Nolan Creek to Nenana, Alaska.

Besides being an intrepid miner, retailer, and restaurateur, Nellie also raised her five nieces and nephews after her sister Fanny passed away. She often ministered to miners, playing the role of nurse. She was known to give away dinners to those whose luck had run out. She gave generously to her church as well as the Salvation Army and helped to fund the building of schools and hospitals throughout the west. It was in one of those hospitals, St. Ann’s in Victoria, British Columbia, that Nellie passed away at the age of eighty, having lived a full and vibrant life that made history.

Nellie Cashman Day is still celebrated in Tombstone, Arizona on the eve of Women’s Equality Day to commemorate “heroic and liberated women of the 1880s”. Nellie was honored by the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2006. She was also immortalized on a 29 cent stamp issued by the United States Postal Service on October 18,1994. Nellie embodied the American dream. She did not let being a woman, an immigrant, or poor define her. And in the days when there were still new territories to conquer, when people could get a fresh start, she headed west and fulfilled her dreams of an independent life. Nellie Cashman did it her way.

Reading about women like Nellie always inspires me. And always has me asking the same question–would I have been so adventuresome? Especially in her later years. The Alaskan cold, I think, would have gotten me. I would have probably stayed in Arizona. What about you?

Anne Carrole writes historical and contemporary romance with a western flair. Her latest release is Falling for a Cowboy, available now at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/falling-for-a-cowboy-anne-carrole/1113633504?ean=2940015885866 . Connect with Anne at www.annecarrole.com or at www.facebook.com/lovewesternromances


  1. Ella Quinn

    Wonderful article. Thank you.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks so much for stopping by Ella and glad you enjoyed it. I love finding women who were there in the wild days of the West.

  2. Nancy

    Any woman who can walk 21 miles when the temp is 61 below zero deserves a day of her own! What an inspiring, and awe-inspiring, woman.

    Thanks for such a good article.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks for stopping by Nancy. That walk was amazing. I only hope the newspaper was exaggerating the temperature because I find that pretty incredible!



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