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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Nellie Cashman and Her Long Reach by Patti Sherry-Crews

"When I saw something that needed doing, I did it."--Ellen "Nellie" Cashman

Nellie Cashman: The Angel of  Cassiar, The Saint of Sourdoughs, The Angel of Tombstone, The Miner's Angel, and Champion Woman Musher of the Yukon

Whoa, Nellie!
Described as "Pretty as a Victorian cameo, and when necessary, tougher than two penny nails," this five foot tall force to be reckoned with was a legend in her own time.

If you look up Nellie Cashman, the word following her name is restaurateur. And though she certainly did open boarding houses and eating establishments, she did much more. Her real legacy was her philanthropy, which included building schools, hospitals, and churches in frontier towns from the Mexican border to Alaska--wherever she temporarily put down her roots. In addition to entrepreneurial pursuits, which included a boot store and a general stores, Nellie became a successful prospector herself. She made and gave away several fortunes in her life time. Did I mention she was also friends with the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday?

Her story begins in 1845, Ireland at the start of the Great Famine, or an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). This was the year Ellen "Nellie" Cashman was born to a poor Catholic family near Cobh, Co. Cork. When Nellie was five her family emigrated to America as a matter of survival. Somewhere along the way she lost her father (bit of a mystery there. History doesn't tell us what happened to him), leaving her mother to raise Nellie and her sister, Fannie, by herself within the Irish community in Boston. 

Both girls took jobs as soon as they were old enough, and it was while working as a bellhop that Nellie was reportedly* advised by none other than Ulysses S. Grant to go west where there would be better opportunities.

The three Cashman women set off for San Francisco. This was during the Gold Rush, and the opportunity the ladies grasped was the miners need for creature comforts. They went from boom-town, to boom-town, opening boarding houses and restaurants. These were not places for the faint of heart and where many of the only other women were prostitutes.

Nellie continued successfully on her own, opening boarding houses, restaurants, and retail ventures all over the west. Though, not forgetting her family's own struggles, she wouldn't let a miner go hungry even if he couldn't pay for his meal. She befriended the homeless, prostitutes, outlaws, and other people on the fringe of polite society. Her restaurant, Delmonico's, was the first business in Tucson. Later she would raise money to open St. Mary's Hospital and a church.

She always had her ears cocked to gather information, and so was often among the first to go to the next big strike, pulling up stakes and moving on. It's said that just by sweeping the floors of her restaurants, she collected about $100 in gold dust a day. Over time, she learned the skills needed to be a prospector, at one time owning up to 11 mines.

Nellie Cashman covered a lot of ground and was active wherever she went. I'm going to concentrate on two of the more significant events in her life: her years in Canada and Tombstone, Arizona.

The Angel of Cassiar:

In 1871, Nellie, being the sole woman, joined a team of prospectors who headed for British Columbia. She continued, in her way, working and raising funds for charitable institutions, in particular her favorite, the Sisters of Saint Ann. She was on her way to deliver $500 to the sisters when she heard that nearly 100 miners had been trapped in a winter storm and were suffering from scurvy.

She organized a rescue team and they began the perilous journey. Wearing snowshoes they pulled sleds through sometimes 10 feet of snow, to deliver provisions, including limes to combat the scurvy. The Canadian army, deeming this effort too dangerous, set out to stop the party. When they caught up to them, Nellie explained over tea that she had no intention of calling off her rescue mission. Though she accepted that she might die in the attempt, she couldn't leave the miners to perish. The army let her proceed.

Seventy seven days after setting out, the rescuers reached the miners. They nursed them back to health and returned the men to safety, saving as many as 75 men and earning her the title of "The Angel of Cassiar."

The Angel of Tombstone:

In 1880, Nellie set up shop in Tombstone, AZ about the same time as the Earp brothers. She would stay in this town on and off for the next six years, becoming one of the prominent citizens during her time there, even contributing articles to the Arizona Daily Star.

Nellie's house on the corner of Toughnut (appropriately named) and Six St.

Here she was joined by her newly widowed sister, Fanny, and her five children. Concerned that her family had no church to go to, she persuaded Wyatt Earp to close his Oriental Saloon on Sundays so she could hold church services there. She was able to collect enough in donations to open Tombstone's first Catholic church. Besides establishing the church she also was able to raise funds to open the first public school in Tombstone.

She would solicit money from anyone for her charity projects saying, “Whether the money comes from an upstanding citizen, or a member of the outlaw faction makes no difference to me. The money doesn’t know the difference either. What matters is what it is used for, and I see to it that in one way or another, it helps humanity.”

She continued her charity work and took up nursing at the local hospital in addition to opening a restaurant and boarding house. When one customer complained about the food, Doc Holliday pulled out his pistol and said something along the lines of, "Do you want to repeat that, son?" To which the man said, "Best I ever ate."

Nellie's Restaurant Exists to this Day

Unfortunately, Fanny died of tuberculous. Nellie took on her orphaned nieces and nephews as her own.

In 1883 there was an event known as the Bisbee Massacre where four innocent people, included a pregnant woman were shot and killed during a robbery attempt. The town was incensed and wanted revenge, and in fact the leader of the gang was lynched by an angry mob. The four remaining participants were thrown in jail. 

When Nellie heard there was going to be a public execution and grandstands were being built for spectators, she was horrified, saying that no death was cause for celebration. She befriended two of the prisoners, visiting them in jail and offering spiritual guidance in their remaining days. The night before the hanging, Nellie got together a crew who went out in the night and tore down the grandstands. Then upon learning that the bodies of the executed men were going to be donated to science, she hired two miners to sit watch at Boot Hill day and night for 10 days to prevent the bodies from being "resurrected". 

Final Years and Legacy:

Nellie left Tombstone in 1886 to move to other parts of the state, taking her sister's children with her as she went looking for the next big strike--continuing to do what needed being done.

You may wonder, as I did, did she ever find love amidst all these men she worked alongside? She was romantically attached to a fellow prospector, Mike Sullivan. Their intentions to marry were even mentioned in the newspaper. But for whatever reason, the couple never made it to the altar.

On the subject of marriage: "I haven't had time for marriage," she told an American reporter. "Men are a nuisance, anyhow, now aren't they? They're just boys grow up."

In 1898 she took off for the Yukon looking for gold. She built a home in the Koyukuk River Basin, Alaska, an isolated community of 200 people of whom only a handful were women. She made the arduous journey back to civilization once a year for provisions. In 1922 the Associated Press documented her journey to Anchorage. Even though she had been tagged as an angel, it was said she was anything but in defense of her property. She could be aggressive and not above bending the law.

Not one to retire quietly, she set a new record with her dog team, covering 750 miles in 17 days. She was in her late 60's or early 70's at the time.

She died of pneumonia in 1925 in one of the hospitals she helped establish more than 50 years earlier.

Legends of the West Series, Postage Stamps

Nellie is gone, but happily she has not been forgotten.
  • In 1994 the United States Post Office gave her a stamp in the series Legends of the West. She is one of three women to get a stamp in this set of twenty along with Annie Oakley and Sacajawea.
  • The Alaska Mining Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously in 2006.
  • In 2007, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
  • A monument was erected to her in 2014 in Co. Cork, Ireland near her hometown. 
  • Every August Nellie Cashman Day is celebrated in Tombstone, AZ.

* I use the term "reportedly" because as she was a legend even in her own time, tall stories started cropping up.
For instance, on the back of the postage stamp is this inscription: "The Angel of Tombstone, Anti-violence peacemaker who ran a boarding house, raised orphans, campaigned against public hanging, and once saved a man from an angry mob."
The story goes that she once drove her buggy into the middle of a mob who were intent on lynching a man. She rescued and then spirited him away to safety. She could have done. But there isn't much evidence that she did, and this might have been made up.


  1. Wow! This woman led a very full life. I'm impressed, and in some ways, I feel echoes of the part that Debbie Reynolds played in the iconic movie, "How the West Was Won." Amazing, amazing woman. I have to share this blog.

  2. Hi, Hebby! Nice to see you and thanks for the comment and the share. One thing that always hits me about some of these characters from the old west is how much ground they covered at a time travel wasn't that easy. And I'm leaving out a lot of her story and other places she'd been like Mexico. Quite an inspiration.

  3. It never ceases to amaze me how some people are able to cram so much into life. Then take a woman in the 1800s/early 1900s working within the confinements of her time, both physical and cultural, and it becomes even more amazing. It took real gut to wear that hat, too!

  4. Haha! The hat, yes! maybe she thought is made her look taller ;-)
    I agree about people who manage to cram in so much and covering so much ground while doing so--and I'm leaving out a bunch of places she's been and things she did. I feel like we should hear more about this fearless lady and her accomplishments. thanks for stopping by!

    1. Patti i live in tombstone. As part of a reinactment group i am trying to replicare a Nellie Cashman hat for a historical costume. Does anyone know what the back of her hat look like. I can only find front photos.

  5. Something about the name "Nellie" and strong, history-making women seems to go hand in hand. Nellie Cashman, Nellie Bly,Nellie McClung, Nellie Tayloe, Nellie Walker, Nellie Gray... to name a few.

    I appreciate that you shared the highlights of Nellie's life story. I read about her years ago and her exploits, personality, and strong character. She is the model/inspiration for a character in a story I've been working on for eons. I needed this reminder that she's waiting for me to return to writing her story. *wink*

    1. I'm thrilled to hear you've read about her and are inspired to write a story with Nellie as inspiration! While I was reading about her I was thinking that here is a story for the Women of Destiny series for SOMEONE to use for inspiration. You write that story, Kaye, haha!
      A friend recently sent me an article about how women writers don't get nearly the attention as men. My response was women all across the board don't get the coverage! I've read a considerable amount about Tombstone in that day and I've been there, and Nellie share earned her place in history but you don't hear about her compared to Earp brothers, etc. Thanks for stopping by~

  6. Love learning stuff like this - makes me admire our ancestors so much - and wonder, how on earth did they manage to do all that? I think I'd have been pretty happy maybe accomplishing 1/10th of what she did. Wow, how our lives have all changed with each generation.

    1. I know, right? If I managed to open one hospital, I'd talk about that for the rest of my life and call it a day, LOL. But she kept on going and going in a time that it was hard for anyone, let alone a woman cover the ground that she did. Fearless! Thanks for your comment, Michelle.

  7. What an incredible woman! There are so many untold stories out there, and this would make an amazing movie.

    1. And again, why is she not talked about more? I just told someone that when writing these blog posts and having to come up with ideas, it often is a matter of picking some woman in history because they often do amazing things but then don't get remembered compared to their male contemporaries. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. WOW. I have never heard of her! What a wonderful, productive life she lived! Great story, and all I can say is, she must have been a VERY persuasive person! She got things done!

    1. I can't believe I never heard of her either! Or if I did it was a passing comments couched in the stories of Doc Holliday and the Earps. I think she was someone who was in a position to call in favors when need be. Very selfless and ambitious. I was thinking about Women of Destiny series while I was reading about her--if anyone is looking for inspiration. Thanks, Cheryl!

  9. Well, I'm completely impressed. It's so astonishing that she came from such meager beginnings to become a lady philanthropist and managed to acquire fortunes several times. Also intriguing how she met such famous people of history like Grant, Earp, and Doc. Of course she was Irish. I adore her thoughts about men and marriage.
    Well researched and written post, Patti.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Nellie was a person shaped by her experiences and culture. Like many of those coming out of the so called Irish diaspora, she had grit and a lot to give. Not unlike people in other parts of the world today forced to flee unimaginable circumstances. And what a life she led, knowing and interacting with such figures from history!

  10. I absolutely loved reading about this amazing woman, Patti, and so glad you researched and wrote about her. I confess I've never heard of her, but I'm glad that all her philanthropy has been recognized posthumously. She is an inspiration to all women to rise above her situation and thrive.It's one thing to roast in desert heat, but to go to Alaska in the winter, that is amazing, let alone rescue those miners in British Columbia.I researched a lot about the Klondike gold rush for my first book, and couldn't get over the photographs of the long dark lines of people struggling through the snow-clogged mountains. Would you believe people even took along grande pianos to the gold rush....and had to abandon them. Oh the misery and frostbite.

    1. Hi, Elizabeth. I'd never heard of her either and wonder why. I've been to Tombstone and read a considerable amount about it so I'm surprised to not come across Nellie before, and there is plenty out there about her. I can imagine someone having it in their head that they wanted to haul a grand piano to the gold rush! I mean, I can but I can't: humans are strange creatures with sometimes uncrushable spirit. What is amazing to me about Nellie is how she moved almost alone among men. Like she was the only women to go with that party of prospectors to British Colombia. When asked about how she managed she said something like, "if you act like a lady, you get treated like a lady." I think nowadays we know that is not always the case! I think she must have had an unusual quality about her.Thanks for your comment.

  11. Wow! What a lady she was! Awesome blog!!

    1. Thank you very much! I'm happy to help bring this remarkable lady to light. The way she lived her life has a lot to tell us all.

  12. I always loved the story of Nellie and other women who did to much to help settle the West. Thank you for letting more of the world know of her story. Doris

  13. Thanks, Doris, I know you do your part to keep historical women in the light. I don't know what a girl has to do to get remembered (I'm looking at you, Lizzie Borden, wink)

  14. She was also in Jerome Arizona