The Wild West of Yester-Year

Ellen "Nellie" Cashman, Angel of the Mining Camps
By Rachel Kovaciny

This woman was in Tombstone at the same time as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. She snow-shoed hundreds of miles one Canadian winter to help rescue isolated miners. She was still traveling by dogsled for weeks when she was nearly eighty. Who was this wonder woman of the west? Ellen “Nellie” Cashman, immigrant, entrepreneur, and legend. Honestly, if you wrote a fictional character who had done all those things, people would accuse you of making up tales too tall to believe! Yet, Nellie Cashman accomplished all that and more.

Nellie and her younger sister Fanny came to the United States from Ireland with their mother during the Irish Potato Famine around 1850, when Nellie was about five years old. They settled down near Boston and lived there for fifteen years. They then headed for San Francisco, taking a ship down the east coast of North America, crossing the Isthmus of Panama either on foot or by mule, and taking another ship up the west coast until they reached California. Nellie would have been about twenty, and her sister Fanny a bit younger. Fanny married Tom Cunningham, a successful Irish boot maker. Fanny and Tom had five children together, but Nellie did not settle down. In 1872, Nellie and her mother opened a boarding house in a Nevada silver camp near Pioche. Although that was one of the roughest mining camps in the country, the Cashman ladies thrived. Their boarding house soon earned a reputation for good food, clean housekeeping, honesty, and a high standard of morality. Not things easy to find in a mining camp!

Nellie and her mother left Pioche a year later, just before the mines started to peter out. Nellie headed to British Columbia on her own, where she opened a boarding house, this time combining it with a saloon. She also dabbled in grubstaking miners. She was known as being kind and helpful to anyone in need. Nellie began to look for ways to help people with more than a hot meal and a clean bed, or maybe a little money to set them on their feet. She collected funds to help build a hospital in Victoria and raised about $500. While in Victoria to deliver the donations, she learned about a group of miners who had stayed at their camps for the winter, only to become cut off from all civilization or help by heavy snows. Nellie and five or six miners formed a rescue party and collected food and other supplies for the stranded men. 

The winter storms were so bad that year, the Canadian army considered it too dangerous to try to reach the mines, but Nellie and her companions persisted. They snow-shoed hundreds of miles, leading pack animals laden with food and emergency supplies, and successfully reached the miners. Reportedly, only twenty-six men had stayed at the mining camp over the winter, but when Nellie reached them after two months of difficult travel, she found over seventy men. She stayed and helped nurse the ill miners back to health, many of whom were suffering from severe scurvy. This episode in her life earned her the nickname “Angel of the Mining Camps.”

Perhaps Nellie Cashman had her fill of snow for a while after that adventure, for she moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she opened a restaurant. In 1880, she sold it and moved to Tombstone, following a silver strike. She was living there, running her latest restaurant, at the time of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881. While in Tombstone, she again helped raise money to start a hospital and build a church. After Fanny’s husband Tom died, she and their five children moved to Arizona to live with Nellie. When Fanny died a few years later, Nellie cared for her nieces and nephews. She brought them with her as she moved around the west, following various gold and silver strikes.

In 1898, she moved to Alaska. By the time she arrived in Skagway, she was in her mid-fifties and an old hand at navigating mining towns. She started another restaurant and invested in some lucrative mines. She spent the next 25 years there, though she often spent winters elsewhere, visiting her now-grown nieces and nephews. At 78, she made a 350-mile trip by dogsled in December. It took her seventeen days. Newspapers all over Alaska carried the story.
Nellie continued her mining-town adventures until 1924, when her health failed. She died at s hospital she helped found in Victoria, British Columbia in 1925.

See what I mean? If I made all that up and put it in a book, you’d roll your eyes and mutter, “No way.” But it’s all true. Nellie Cashman, Angel of the Mining Camps, really existed, and lived a life more exciting than any adventure novel.