Nellie Cashman (c. 1845–1925), "Angel of the Mining Camps," wore many hats: nurse, businesswoman, restaurateur, Catholic philanthropist.
For decades she prospected across the American West for gold, in the process giving most of her money to charity. Stories abound that perhaps skate a fine line between truth and fiction. "Nellie Cashman: The Story of A Real Life Dime Novel Heroine," a 2017 piece by Marshall Trimble in True West Magazine, recounts many of them.
She was born Ellen Cashman in County Cork, Ireland. Her family was Catholic and poor.
One account of her beginnings has it that her father died when Nellie was young and that shortly afterward she, her sister Fannie, and her mother immigrated to Boston, then found their way to San Francisco by way of Panama.
Fannie soon married. Nellie, though petite and attractive, chose not to. She set out to make her way in some of the roughest mining camps in the West, declaring, "If you act like a lady, men will treat you like one."
A shrewd businesswoman, her strategy was to arrive in a town that was on the cusp of a boom, establish a thriving business, then sell at the height of the market and leave before the boom turned to bust.
Around 1872, she hit Nevada, opening at least one restaurant and a boarding house. It was probably in British Columbia two years later that she began to be known as "The Angel of the Mining Camps." She organized a daring rescue of a group of stranded miners, snowshoeing up a mountain as part of a team that dragged a sled with 1,500 pounds of donated provisions.
She arrived in Tombstone in 1880. When Fannie's husband died of tuberculosis the following year, Nellie invited Fannie and her five children to join her there. Fannie herself died two years later, at which point Nellie undertook the full care and education of the children. She befriended the five convicted perpetrators of the Bisbee Massacre, and helped prevent their hanging from becoming a public spectacle.
"Pretty as a Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails."
A champion fundraiser, Nellie established Tombstone's first Catholic church, Sacred Heart. "Whether the money comes from an upstanding citizen or a member of the outlaw faction makes no difference to me," she once noted. What mattered was that the money helped humanity.
She went on to help build schools, churches, and hospitals throughout the West. Her many beneficiaries included the Sisters of Saint Anne, the Salvation Army, and Saint Matthew's, the first hospital in Fairbanks, Alaska.
"Pretty as a Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails" was how one wag described her. On a prospecting trip to Baja California, Nellie was said to have saved the party of more than twenty from dying of thirst. On another trip to Mexico, she purportedly took control of a boat from the drunken captain and landed it safely in Guaymas.
She scoured South Africa in the late 1880s, looking for diamonds. Near the turn of the century, she joined the gold rush to the Klondike. She opened restaurants and grocery stores, continued to aid the miners, and in her seventies, legend has it, become known as the "Champion Woman Musher of the Yukon."
She died at Victoria, British Columbia, on January 4, 1925 — in Saint Joseph's, a hospital that she had helped to establish some fifty years previously.
Heather King. "Nellie Cashman." Magnificat (February 2021).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2021 Magnificat
back to top