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In Search of Silver & Gold : March '98 American History Feature

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1998 
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In Search of Silver & Gold
In Search of Silver & Gold

Although known for her charity, Nellie Cashman was a dedicated andknowledgeable miner who searched the west for the "Big Bonanza."

By Don Chaput

Gold rushes, stampedes, and boom towns attracted hundreds of thousands of people–and hundreds of different personality types–to the American West. Many of these stampeders were gamblers, men of the green cloth; some were lawyers and officers of the law; and others were dreamers, teachers, speculators, clergymen, merchants, or women of easy virtue.

The Earp brothers rushed to Deadwood, Tombstone, Nome, and Goldfield. E. J. "Lucky" Baldwin, Tex Rickard, Dave Neagle, Rex Beach, Jack London, and "Arizona Charlie" Meadows were in the forefront of Western mining rushes. But these people and their ilk were pikers, short-timers, compared to the Irish immigrant named Nellie Cashman.

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Equally at home in the Nevada desert, San Francisco, British Columbia, Baja California, the Klondike of the Canadian Yukon, and north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Nellie began her stampede days in 1872 and did not end them until she died 53 years later. Few who followed the lure of precious metals in the West could match Nellie's enthusiasm and optimism, and no other earned such glowing praise from fellow prospectors and miners.

Nellie was born in Midleton, in Ireland's County Cork, to Patrick Cashman and Frances "Fanny" Cronin in 1845. When she was about five years old, Nellie, her younger sister Fanny, and their now-widowed mother arrived in the United States, refugees from Ireland's potato famine. After 13 or 14 years in Boston, the Cashmans headed west in the late 1860s, settling in the vibrant community of San Francisco, where Irishmen were numerous and influential.

In 1872, Nellie and her elderly mother traveled to the new silver-mining district of Pioche, Nevada, opening a boarding house about ten miles from the camp. At Pioche, they found a wild environment, with thousands of boisterous miners and millmen–most of them Irish–living in a situation where filth, gun fights, and altercations between owners and employees were commonplace. The throbbing life of this mining and milling center must have appealed to Nellie; in the coming decades, she would consistently move to similar communities.

There is no evidence that Nellie engaged in mining during her first experience at living near a mining camp. But during her two years at Pioche, she did become very involved in the affairs of the local Catholic church, participating in bazaars and other money-raising efforts.

When Nellie moved from Pioche, she left her mother with her sister Fanny and her family in San Francisco and traveled alone to northern British Columbia. There, for a few years in the mid-1870s, she operated a boarding house in the Cassiar District, on the Stikine River, not far from modern Juneau. She also worked gold-placer ground, becoming familiar with elementary mining geology.

In the winter of 1874-75, Nellie's reputation as an "angel of mercy," for which she is best known today, was born. While on a trip to Victoria, Nellie heard that a severe winter storm had hammered her fellow miners in the Cassiar diggings and that no one could get through. She immediately purchased supplies and sleds, hired six men, sailed to Fort Wrangell, Alaska, and headed inland through heavy snows. Her success at reaching the miners with the needed medicines and food became the talk of the West, as hundreds of miners considered her their savior.

The Victoria Daily British Colonist of February 5, 1875, in describing the rescue attempt, compared it to other efforts by famous prospectors and woodsmen, and declared that "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." If Nellie had done nothing else for the rest of her career, that incident alone would have guaranteed her place in mining lore and tradition.

In 1879, Nellie headed south and opened a restaurant in the new railroad center of Tucson, Arizona Territory. Within a year, however, she moved on to a new silver camp at Tombstone. Although she is linked to the legendary Arizona town from 1880 to 1887, Nellie left for brief periods to prospect and mine or run hotels in Baja California; New Mexico; and several mining areas within Arizona.

Nellie's career in Tombstone is the most familiar phase of her life; she was one of the fabled town's leading personalities during its glory years of 1880 to 1883. However, because she was in and out of town many times, owned or managed six different enterprises, worked many gold and silver claims, and bought and sold claims regularly, Nellie's financial success during her years in Tombstone is difficult to gauge.

Nellie's charitable activities there, however, are easier to assess. She helped to establish the town's first hospital and its first Roman Catholic church. And, following the 1881 death of her brother-in-law, Tom Cunningham, she took care of her sister Fanny and their five children. When Fanny herself died of tuberculosis three years later, Nellie became the sole spiritual and financial support of her nieces and nephews.

In 1883, when news of a gold strike in Baja California spread over the West, Nellie organized a prospecting expedition that consisted of Milt Joyce, owner of the Oriental Saloon; Mark Smith, an active young lawyer who would later become a U.S. Senator; and 19 other hopefuls. They took a train south to the Sonoran port of Guaymas in Mexico, sailed across the Gulf of California, then tracked inland to the deserts of Baja California, around Mission Santa Gertrudis.

But this was a "gold rush" that should never have occurred. The finds were pitifully small, and the Cashman party, like all the others lured by the prospect of riches, failed to find gold. Instead, they were almost killed by the extreme heat and the lack of water before giving up and returning to Arizona. What was noteworthy about this expedition was the willingness of the 21 Tombstoners–all frontier veterans–to put themselves under Nellie's leadership.

In 1884, five convicted hold-up men, two of whom were Irish, were scheduled to be hanged in Tombstone. Nellie believed the authorities were making the executions too much of a public spectacle. According to popular accounts, she coerced a group of miners into tearing down bleachers intended for the many "ticket holders" expected to be on hand for the necktie party. The miscreants were hanged on schedule, but with a little less hoopla than had been anticipated.

Late in the summer of that same year, miners involved in a bitter labor dispute reportedly tried to lynch E.B. Gage, superintendent of the Grand Central Mining Company. Legend has it that Nellie, seeking to head off violence, took a buggy to Gage's home and spirited him away. Nellie's alleged role in this incident has become part of Tombstone lore despite evidence that Gage was out of town and that the man involved in keeping the lid on things was Charles Leach, the Grand Central foreman.

This and other misinformation about Nellie came in large degree from her nephew, Mike Cunningham, who became a prominent banker in Cochise County and who was a great admirer of "Aunt Nellie." Other unsubstantiated "facts" can be traced to John Clum, the ex-mayor of Tombstone who wrote an account of Nellie in 1931 for the Arizona Historical Review. It was Clum's account that gave cohesive form to the notion of Nellie as "The Miner's Angel."

Unfortunately, much of what Clum wrote was hearsay or exaggeration. He left town in 1882 and knew practically nothing first-hand of the events about which he later wrote. When Clum saw Nellie in Dawson some years later, she was again soliciting funds for the church. This second encounter reinforced his image of her as a philanthropist.

In 1888-89, Nellie was in the gold camp at Harqua Hala, in western Arizona, near the California line. She supplied the new camp with groceries and equipment, purchased mainly in Phoenix, and may have operated a boarding house there for a month or two. Mostly, though, she was mining. She owned one of the better Harqua Hala claims, thoroughly prospected the region, and almost married Mike Sullivan, one of the original discoverers.

During this period, the Phoenix and Tucson newspapers published hundreds of articles about the Harqua Hala rush, some of them quite detailed. The best by far was written by Nellie for Tucson's Arizona Daily Star. In the piece, which appeared in the March 6, 1889 edition, she discussed the history of the camp, its problems, current progress, and future. She also commented on geological details, mining methods, richness of ore, assays, surface equipment, types of claims, and leading personalities in the field.

During the next several years, Nellie tried her luck at mining camps in Sonora, Mexico; Globe, Jerome, Prescott, and Yuma, Arizona; and several points in Montana. It was while she was in Yuma in 1897, operating the Hotel Cashman, that Nellie heard of the gold strike in the Klondike. She closed shop, arranged some financial backing, and headed north, making the difficult trek over the Chilkoot Pass to Dawson.

By the time she arrived in the Klondike in 1898, Nellie had worked gold in British Columbia and Arizona, and had owned and worked silver mines in Arizona and New Mexico. In the Klondike, she worked her claims and, for a constant source of funds, operated restaurants.

For much of the time in the Yukon, Nellie had an assistant–her nephew, Tom Cunningham. Together they cooked, served meals, and did the dishes, then prospected and worked claims; when they had the time, they counted their net worth. Nellie made and lost a considerable amount of money in the Yukon. When a major strike paid off, she would invest in further claims and, as she had done everywhere else, she contributed money to the local church and hospital.

By this time, Nellie was a major donor to the Sisters of St. Ann, having given money to their first hospital in Victoria, British Columbia, back in 1875. In Dawson, her social life pretty much consisted of visiting with the Sisters or with the local and visiting priests. Although her business contacts were drunks, gamblers, miners, prostitutes, confidence men, and the hangers-on in one of the world's liveliest mining communities, she was able to maintain her dignity and self-respect.

Generous though she was, Nellie had a harder edge that often was at odds with the popular depiction of her as an angel of mercy raising a cup of soup to a poor miner's lips. The reality was that Nellie was a miner, willing and able to push interlopers away from her claims. Feisty, aggressive, and proud, she became entangled in several major law suits while in the Yukon. In pursuing these cases, she did not hesitate to use all the weapons available to her, even deliberately stretching the truth from time to time or acting on rumor or information known to be false. She won some of the disputes and lost the others, but everyone knew that Nellie was no pushover.

By 1904, mining in Dawson had peaked. Nellie began to hear of excitement on the Chena and Tanana rivers–the site of modern Fairbanks, Alaska. Moving there in late 1904, she opened a combination store and mining-supply center. And once again, she raised money for the local hospital.

Nellie did very well in Fairbanks, until she heard her last call. In the distant north, hundreds of miles away, on the Koyukuk River basin of Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, prospectors were bringing in great specimens, and there was wild talk of a huge strike.

She first went to the Koyukuk country in 1905, prospecting along Nolan and Wiseman Creeks. One of the first to file claims there, Nellie would eventually file more than twenty during the next two decades. She seriously worked at least six of the sites and was making plans to bring in larger, more effective equipment when she died early in 1925.

Truly at home in Koyukuk country, Nellie spent most of the last twenty years of her life on Nolan Creek, then the farthest north of any mining camp in the world. She and the from one- to two-hundred others there were really on the edge of the world in a harsh climate, with no amenities, forgotten by just about everybody.

Some have called the residents of the Koyukuk country "losers," "escaped criminals," the "flotsam of the world." Of the eight or nine women in the vicinity, most were prostitutes. One was a clergyman's wife, another a temporary visitor. And there was Nellie Cashman–resident, miner, employer, equipment purchaser, and without doubt one of the steadiest mining personalities in the North.

In this fierce environment, where strength and a variety of talents might allow one to succeed–if one did not fall to venereal disease, frostbite, alcohol, or a mining cave-in–Nellie mined, mostly the placer or alluvial ground on Nolan Creek.

Nellie did take some trips south during her years on the Koyukuk. She visited Arizona four or five times to see her friends and her nephews and nieces, who were like her own children to her. She also went on purchasing trips to Seattle, San Francisco, once even to New York. During a typical year she would leave Nolan Creek at least once for supplies and equipment, traveling the hundreds of miles to Fairbanks by boat, sled, or wagon, depending on the season.

There are no mining ledgers for Nellie's Koyukuk years, but she must have been doing well. She was always working ground, filing more claims. She never lacked for what she needed and always had sufficient funds to travel within Alaska or to the "outside." An intelligent, knowledgeable prospector and miner, she stayed in this harshest of environments because she was having luck and enjoyed it. And like all inveterate miners, she hoped that one day she would hit the "Big Bonanza."

The Koyukuk country was the fulfillment of her dreams. Here, among mankind's forgotten, Nellie worked her claims personally, usually with the help of a few hired hands. Near the end of her life, she even organized a firm, the "Midnight Sun Mining Company," with herself as trustee. The stock certificates proclaimed "No Offices" and "No Officers." Fifty thousand shares in the company went on sale at $2.00 each.

Late in 1924, Nellie realized that she had severe health problems. Gradually, she worked her way down to Fairbanks, Juneau, and then Seattle. Finally, she requested to be sent to St. Joseph's Hospital in Victoria–the very hospital she had helped fund almost forty years earlier. She was there for several weeks under the care of the Sisters of St. Ann and Doctor W. T. Barrett, who had also been her physician in Dawson. Nellie died on January 4, 1925, of "unresolved pneumonia."

Over the years, Nellie's career had made good copy because she was a female seemingly succeeding in a male environment. Inevitably, some of the newspaper notices she received cited her good works; she was, after all, a prime mover in building hospitals and churches in Pioche, Nevada; Victoria, British Columbia; Tombstone, Arizona; Dawson, Yukon Territory; and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Now, because she had been so well known, newspapers across North America printed obituaries. In the East, the New York Times published a few paragraphs that emphasized her reputation as a "champion woman musher" and noted her service as a nurse to needy miners. On the West Coast, newspapers in Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco also pointed out her many travels, her use of dog sleds, and other apparently "non-female" activities. Even the Engineering and Mining Journal-Press succumbed to the same type of assessment, noting that she "was held in high regard by a very wide circle of acquaintances," but failed to give her credit as a miner.

Nellie started off in her first mining camp knowing absolutely nothing about mining or geology. In each successive locale, she absorbed herself in gaining knowledge of terrain, geology, equipment, and people. Then, her apprenticeship served, she spent the last 25 years of her life ably prospecting and mining.

Nellie's great consideration for her fellow man, which led to her lending a helping hand and funds when needed or coercing her frontier neighbors into contributing to churches and hospitals, has obscured her long, fascinating, and mostly successful mining career. But Nellie Cashman was indeed a true pioneer, who could face any challenge that the elements or man placed in her path.

Don Chaput is Curator Emeritus at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Author of numerous books and articles on mining, he has recently published Nellie Cashman and the North American Mining Frontier (Tucson: Westernlore Press, 1995).

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