Nellie Cashman

Mining Camp Angel of the Frontier West

In the Preface to his 1995 book titled Nellie Cashman and the North American Mining Frontier (Westernlore Press, Tucson, Arizona), author Don Chaput, western historian and curator emeritus of the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, encapsulates Nellie Cashman’s life in these few words:

Most authors who have considered Nellie’s career have emphasized the women’s angles, such as her help in establishing hospitals and churches and her caring for miners in trouble. The image of Nellie with a cup of soup for a sick miner” may be accurate but woefully incomplete. Nellie was a person of the frontier, hardened by five decades of toil, speculation, troubles and triumphs in the toughest mining camps of North America. The fact that she was decent and caring should not obscure Nellie’s lifelong goals: she was in the hills, mountains, deserts, and frozen ground in order to find precious metals, which she could then give away to those in need.

Ellen Cashman was born in Midleton, County Cork, in the southwest corner of Ireland, in 1845. When her father died a few years later she and her younger sister, Frances, were brought to the United States by their mother to escape the poverty of the Great Potato Famine. The small family lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for the first 15 years in America, migrating to San Francisco, California, by ship, in 1865. In 1870 her sister Frances—called Fanny—married another young Irish immigrant, Thomas J. Cunningham, who was employed in the bootmaking industry. 

In the summer of 1872 Ellen—called Nellie—and her mother, Frances, opened a boarding house in the silver mining boomtown of Pioche, Nevada, named for the San Francisco financier F. L. A. Pioche. A year later an ad for their business in the Pioche Daily Record named Miss N. Cashman as proprietess and offered “good board at low rates” and noted “The Table will be supplied with the best to be had in the Market.” By fall however, with the mining camp showing signs of dissipation, Nellie and her mother sold the Cashman Boarding House and returned to San Francisco, where her sister Fanny lived. At some point in the winter or spring of 1874 Nellie had a studio photograph taken by Edouart & Cobb, photographers. It remains the only known photo of Nellie in her youth, age twenty-nine at the time. 

That spring Nellie joined a small party of miners boarding a ship for newfound goldfields in the Cassiar region of British Columbia. They took a steamer up the Inside Passage to the military post of Fort Wrangell, Alaska, and from there Nellie explains: From Fort Wrangell up the Stickeen River to Buck’s Bar, it is called 160 miles; from Buck’s Bar across the country to the mines it is 80, and some say 100 miles. There are no provisions nor supplies at the mines yet, nor will there be till after the river opens…. As near as I can find out, there are 500 or 600 men already in there, and on the way. The only supplies they can get are what they take with them on handsleds.

Nellie reached the remote Dease Lake mining camp, comprised mostly of a tents housing a few stores and saloons, in the early summer of 1874. A few log structures were soon raised, including a boarding house and saloon on Dease Creek run by Nellie Cashman. She spent the summer maintaining her business, grubstaking miners, and trying her own hand at mining the placer gold, and she left the diggings that fall with “a comfortable pile.”  

 Nellie had reached Victoria, British Columbia, Victoria, where she intended to winter in the milder climate of the coast, when news arrived of hundreds of miners back in the Cassiar Mountains who were trapped by heavy snowfalls, with no provisions and rampant scurvy setting in. Nellie hired several men, purchased 1,500 pounds of supplies, and booked a steamer back to Fort Wrangell. For more than two months they trudged through deep snow, surviving storms, avalanches, and extreme temperatures, and her effort was reported in the Daily British Colonist, February 5, 1875:

Her extraordinary freak of attempting to reach the diggings in midwinter and in the face of dangers and obstacles which appalled even the stout-hearted Fannin and thrice drove him back to Wrangell for shelter is attributed by her friends to insanity. So impressed with this idea was the Commander at Fort Wrangell that he sent out a guard of soldiers to bring her back. The guard found her encamped on the ice of Stickeen cooking her evening meal by the heat of a wood fire and humming a lively air. So happy, contented and comfortable did she appear that the ‘boys in blue’ sat down and took tea at her invitation, and returned with her.

Nellie had earned her first nickname, ‘Angel of the Cassiar,’ and she spent the next two years at the Dease Lake diggings, running her boarding house and adding up the profits, which accumulated to such that at one point she sent her aged mother $500 in gold. But the Cassiar goldfield soon played out and Nellie returned to San Francisco in the summer of 1876. 

Two years later, in October, 1878, Nellie was among the ‘recent arrivals’ listed in the Arizona Weekly Star in Tucson, Arizona. She had come to Tucson to open a restaurant, Delmonico’s, advertising ‘The Best Meals in the City,’ and the first business in town to be owned by a woman. Although she often gave food to the hungry at no charge, her restaurant was soon a success. Two years later, in 1880, she sold Delmonico’s and moved to the new silver boomtown of Tombstone, 75 miles southeast of Tucson. Her arrival was announced in the Tombstone Nugget, April 1, 1880: 

Miss Nellie Cashman, of the famous Delmonico restaurant, in Tucson, has opened a gent’s furnishings good store in Tombstone, on Allen Street, adjoining Ward’s market. She will keep a large supply of furnishing goods, both for the ladies and gentlemen, including boots and shoes, and as Nellie was never outdone in any business she has undertaken, her success in our midst is double sure.

Nellie opened or financed several businesses in Tombstone, and she was instrumental in planning and funding a hospital and a church to the new town. She opened a hotel in the nearby copper town of Bisbee, Arizona, and when her brother-in-law Tom Cunningham died in 1881, Nellie’s sister Fanny moved her five young children to Tombstone. Leasing a building, they opened the Delmonico Lodging House in October, 1881, with Mrs. T. J. Cunningham as proprietor, and not long after they added the American Hotel to their holdings. 

By 1883 Fanny was wracked with tuberculosis, her health was failing, and she died in July, 1884. Nellie, now responsible for her young nieces and nephews, placed the five Cunningham children in Catholic boarding schools; she would maintain close communications with them over the years and visit whenever she could. Nellie would spend her time seeking out new eldorados from Baja California to New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming, Mexico,  and reportedly, but not substantiated, a side trip to inspect the diamond mines of South Africa. Whatever her travels, her successful business ventures were myriad, and her Cunningham nieces and nephews were becoming valued business partners. 

In 1897, while proprietor of the Cashman Hotel in Yuma (Ariz.), Nellie heard of the great Klondike gold discoveries in Canada’s Yukon territory. By November of that year Nellie was making plans to join the stampede north, as evidenced by a Tucson news item which ran in several Arizona newspapers in November, 1897:

Miss Nellie Cashman, one of the most favorably known women in Arizona, arrived from Yuma yesterday. Miss Nellie is preparing to organize a company for gold mining in Alaska, where she has visited three times. Her many friends in Arizona will wish her success, for during her twenty years residence in the Territory she has made several fortunes, all of which have gone for charity.

Planning and organizing that winter, Nellie left Seattle on March 13, 1898, bound for for Wrangell, Alaska. She had originally planned to go via the familiar Cassiar district, but conditions along the trail were reported to be bad, and Nellie chose to take the notorious Chilkoot Trail route out of Dyea, just north of Skagway.

A 1994 commemorative U. S. postage stamp, based on the only known photograph of a young Nellie Cashman taken in San Francisco in 1874, just before she left for the gold fields.

Nellie was about fifty-four years of age by then, arriving alone in Skagway on the 20th of March. By mid-April, 1898, Nellie arrived in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. Unlike many of the stampeders who were new to Dawson, Nellie knew her way around a boom town, and she quickly established another 'Delmonicos' restaurant in Dawson City, assisted by her nephew Tom, and kept her eyes open for available mining claims. Ultimately she acquired No. 19 below Discovery, a good claim on Bonanza Creek, and she mined it successfully. She also found time to pursue charitable work, as explained in Don Chaput’s book:

Nellie’s time in Dawson had been not only profitable, but also very satisfying because of the success she had in working with St. Mary’s Church and Hospital. The hospital boasted of being ‘the best equipped north of Seattle.’ In the Archives of the Sisters of St. Anne in Victoria is a comprehensive account of the founding and building of the Dawson church and hospital. Among the beinfaiteurs de la Maison [benefactors of the order]are priests, judges, physicians, members of parliament, and one female stampeder: N. Cashman. 

Nellie had been the only woman in most of the western mining camps up to that point, but in Dawson City there were hundreds of women, and a few were just as tough and driven as she was. Nellie showed a litigious streak when she took a couple of these women to court. As an Irish woman of her time, Nellie was not overly fond of the English and their manner of administering the Klondike gold camp. When others proudly displayed the Union Jack, Nellie quietly showed the Stars and Stripes, and waited for an excuse to cross the border into United States territory.

 Nellie’s opportunity came in 1902 when Italian prospector Felix Pedro found gold in the hills northeast of Fairbanks. The ground was rich and by 1904 serious mining was underway, so Nellie left Dawson City. On her arrival at Fairbanks, she immediately opened a grocery store and a miner’s supply house and began looking for promising ground to stake. She undertook fundraising for the new Episcopalian St. Matthews Hospital, and again Don Chaput’s book clarifies:

In Nellie’s correspondence, documents, and interviews, Fairbanks does not loom very large, even though some accounts place her there from 1904 through 1907. The only noteworthy activities were the great financial success of her first year there as a merchant, and the pleasure she had from heading the fund drives for St. Matthews Hospital. The reason for her lack of interest in Fairbanks was because her thoughts and plans were already elsewhere. She had heard rumors and received some first-hand reports of placer gold far to the north, hundreds of miles above Fairbanks, above the Arctic Circle. 

The new goldfields were in the remote Koyukuk country. The Alaska Mining Hall of Fame biography of Nellie Cashman describes her journey:

It was time for Nellie to move on to one more mining camp. In 1907, Nellie Cashman, then sixty years old, packed her sled and embarked to the Koyukuk in the southern foothills of what is now known as the Brooks Mountain Range. The heart of the Koyukuk district is about 600 miles upriver from the mouth of the Koyukuk River, a south-flowing tributary of the mighty Yukon River. It is still remote, although now dissected by the Dalton Highway. During Cashman's time, the district was reached by shallow draft steamboats for 450 miles to Allakaket, smaller boats to Bettles Trading Post, and up the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk for about eighty more miles to Wiseman and Nolan Creek.

The Alaska Mining Hall of Fame authoritively describes the Koyukuk as: Then and now, a miner's district, and Nellie by this time in her life was an experienced miner. The miners in the district were by and large old and conservative. They seemed to thrive on whiskey, which appeared not to interfere with their mining. These were the kind of men that Cashman had lived with for forty years and she fit.

In his biography of Nellie, Don Chaput quotes from an interview with her which appeared in the Fairbanks Daily Times, July 22, 1908, in which she said: I have mushed with men, slept out in the open, siwashed it with them and been with them constantly, and I have never once been offered an insult. You won’t find that class of men among the sourdoughs of Alaska. A woman is as safe among them at any and all times as at her own fireside. I can truthfully say that there was never a bigger-hearted or more broad-minded class of men than the genuine sourdoughs of Alaska.

The National Park Service profiles Nellie Cashman on both their Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park websites, noting about her: “Settling near Wiseman, she acquired at least 11 different claims on Nolan Creek, paying others to work the gold-laden gravel. After over 30 years prospecting and mining throughout the West, Nellie Cashman found fulfillment in the Koyukuk Country, near what would later become Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.” 

From the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame: Nellie did well in those years and made a habit of leaving the district in the winter to visit family and friends, including her favorite nephew Mike Cunningham, who was a successful banker in Bisbee, Arizona. Nellie was still capable of mushing her dogs hundreds of miles on her trips in and out of the district. The Associated Press documented one dog mushing trip that she made from Nolan to Anchorage in 1922. When she completed a 17-day 350 mile trip from Nolan Creek to Nenana in December, 1923, newspapers all over Alaska again carried the travels of the seventy-eight year old intrepid miner by the name of Nellie Cashman.

The Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve website gives more insight on Nellie:

Always up for some self-promotion, Nellie relished talking to newspaper reporters and telling them stories of her life in the gold fields of the west. As a “respectable lady” who lived and thrived in “rough and tumble” boomtowns, her life was unusual to many other Americans. She bucked conventions of the day, preferring pants to skirts while mining and prospecting. She told a reporter in Seattle once, referring to the skirts she wore in “civilization,” “These things will go pretty quick when I get back up there. Fine time I’d have with skirts on the trail.”

In the summer of 1924, Nellie realized that her health was slipping rapidly. She stopped briefly at the St. Ann's Mission in the village of Nulato, on the Yukon, then went upriver to Fairbanks, where she was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, from which she was sent to Providence Hospital in Seattle. Recognizing that her time was almost up, Nellie went to St. Ann's Hospital in Victoria, for which she had raised funds in the Cassiar district several decades before. She had conscientiously chosen St. Ann’s as her final stop in life, and Nellie died of ‘unresolved pneumonia’ on January 4, 1925 in the company of the Alaska Sisters of the Order. 

Nellie Cashman, known as the “Angel of the Mining Camps” from Arizona to Alaska, was  widely eulogized by publications such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and countless others. The Engineering and Mining Journal-Press noted her passing as that of a colleague, “held in high regard by a very wide circle of acquaintances.” In 2006 Nellie Cashman was inducted to the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame. 

Countless articles and several books have been written about Nellie’s colorful life, and in 1994 she was selected as one of twenty notable westerners for the United States Postal Service’s Legends of the West series of postage stamps, honoring people associated with the exploration, settlement and development of the American West. She joined Sacajawea and Annie Oakley as the only three women represented.

• National Park Service article on Nellie Cashman

• AK Mining Hall of Fame biography

Canadian Biographies

Legends of America tribute