Nellie Cashman

Nellie Cashman

(1845-1925)

DJ Name: Ca$h Ca$h 

Did you remember to wear your favorite green clothing item yesterday, or were you pinched because you’re a cotton-headed ninny-muggins? Since it’s (still) Women’s History Month and just one day after St. Patrick’s Day, we’re combining the topics of “women” and “Irish” to provide this week’s shuffler: Nellie Cashman. Like Andrée Borrel, Nellie was a jill of all trades and dipped her toes in many different industries. But her life was three times longer than Andrée’s, which means there’s a lot more story to tell from her birth on one side of the world in Ireland to her death in British Columbia. How’d she get from one place to the other? The powers of a leprechaun, that’s how! JK. 

Without further ado, throw on those headphones and shuffle up Nellie’s playlist as we take it back to the potato famine days on the Emerald Isle and the Wild Wild West of the U.S.

Ellen “Nellie” Cashman was born on August 25, 1845, in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland. Nellie grew up in what we can only assume was an extremely idyllic existence on Free School Lane, with her parents and a sister. However, that idyllic lifestyle came to an abrupt end when her father passed away when she was just five years old. The famed potato famine was plaguing the Irish, and Mama Cashman decided to cash out early in Ireland. They said later to the taters and packed up to move to the U.S., where we guess the potatoes were doing just fine. The Cashmans were just one family of a whole lot of Irish families that moved to the U.S. during this era because the (no)fungus-like organism, Phytophtora infestans ruined half of the potato crop one year, but up to three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years. Not good. The potato famine resulted in the death of about one million Irish folks from starvation and other related illnesses while at least another million left their homeland for lands with better crops. 

Nellie, her sister Frances and their mother settled in Boston first, where Nellie worked as a bellhop in a hotel. By 1865, the Cashman fam had pooled their cash and moved to San Francisco. Like for so many other people in America, the gold in the mountains was calling and they felt they must go (west). Now in their 20s, Nellie and her sister Frances diverged on two different paths. While Frances got married to another Irish ex-pat, Nellie opted not to wed. “Why, child, I haven’t had time for marriage,” Nellie said later in life. “Men are a nuisance anyhow, now aren’t they? They’re just little boys grown up.” Instead, as the 1870s dawned, Nellie embarked on her business career. 

First, she was hired on as a cook in some Nevada mining camps, including those in Virginia City and Pioche. Nellie was battle born ready for entrepreneurial success, and she, just like fellow Historic Shuffler Mary Ellen Pleasant, saved up her silver dollars to open up the Miner’s Boarding House at Panaca Flat in Nevada in 1872. Though Nellie could be lenient at times with the miners, often offering them free lodging and food when they were down on their luck, she was also a tough cookie and a savvy business babe who was always surveying her options, chatting up the miners and went on to start more boarding houses and other businesses. 

In 1874, Nellie left the silver mines of Nevada in search of something better: gold. Eureka! She found it — not in California, but in the Cassiar Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. She teamed up with 200 miners and headed north for country number three of her life thus far. Along the way, she started more boarding houses and provided for her miner pals, while also collecting money for the Catholic congregation of the Sisters of St. Anne in Victoria with the goal of building a hospital. Nellie was able to fundraise $500 for the hospital (or over $11,000 in today’s dolla bills), and she parted ways with the miners to head to Victoria to deliver the funds like the good ole’ Irish Catholic she was.

But while she was there, she got word of some scary news: Back in the Cassiar Mountains, 26 miners had become stranded when a snow storm struck. But don’t fret yet because Nellie was no nervous Nellie and she rushed back to save them. She organized a rescue mission, bringing along six men and some pack animals carrying 1,500 pounds of supplies to bring back the boys. But what she was trying to do was borderline bonkers, at least according to the Canadian Army. The army had refused to embark on the mission themselves because the mountains were too treacherous and the conditions too spooky scary. Hearing of her own attempt to be Wonder Woman, the troops were sent out to stop her. But Nellie said “don’t be a negative Nancy,” and she forged forward. Seventy-seven whole days of treading through snow and ice later, Nellie rescued what turned out to be about 75 stranded miners who were suffering from scurvy, which meant they were severely lacking Vitamin C. Obviously prepared, Nellie loaded the lads up with her Emergen-C Vitamin C she packed in her 1,500 pound bag of goods and nursed them back to health thus earning her the nickname of the “Angel of the Cassiar.” 

After a few years in Canada, the rush of pulling gold nuggets out of the creeks faded since much of the gold was found and pocketed. Therefore, Nellie AKA the Miner’s Angel was on the road again. This time she followed the silver rush and ventured to the southwest and first settled in Tucson where she opened the Delmonic Restaurant, which became the first business in this silver rush town owned by a woman. Again, she cared for and fed the bellies of miners who weren’t getting rich so quickly. After a year in Tucson, she sold the Delmonico and hopped on over to a much more boomin’ town (literally because, ya know, there were mines) called Tombstone. There, she opened a shoe store and yet another restaurant that sold meals for 50 whole cents.

Because being a restaurateur just wasn’t enough, Nellie also worked as a nurse. And, she put her fundraising skills back to work, and collected those dolla bills to build the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in addition to giving funds to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Miner’s Hospital. Nellie wanted to make sure that any miner who was down on their luck could be provided for in some way. After years apart, Nellie and her sister, Frances, reunited in Arizona because Frances’ husband passed away so Nellie invited her and her five kiddos to move in with her. Sadly, a few years later Frances passed away from tuberculosis and Nellie, the “Angel of Tombstone,” became the guardian of her children. 

Life in the West chasing the gold was an unforgiving place, but Nellie loved her neighbors and flexed her best beatitudes energy as she cared for miners and convicts alike. In 1883, there was a robbery that left four people dead. This event came to be called the Bisbee Massacre, and the robbers themselves were caught and taken to trial. They were scheduled to be hanged in 1884. The town celebrated and issued tickets for the event, but Nellie was not having it and objected to the circus-esque atmosphere surrounding the hanging. She befriended the five convicts and visited them in prison and begged the sheriff to place a curfew on the town so that nobody could watch the hangings. The sheriff agreed and ticket sales stopped. Nellie’s work didn’t stop there, though. After the execution, the rumor mill reported that the bodies of the convicts would be robbed from the graves so Nellie hired two guards to stand watch for 10 days at Boot Hill Cemetery. 

Eventually, Nellie and the kiddos departed from Arizona onto their next adventure. Gold was the goal, and she found herself back in Canada where she opened (you guessed it!) another restaurant and a boarding house. Once again yet another gold town which struck it big began to decline, so Nellie packed up her buggy to hit the road for The Last Frontier. You got that right, Alaska, and this is where she stayed for many a year due to the success she found with her many businesses and gold diggin’. In 1912, Nellie Cashman was the first woman to cast a vote in Alaska, voting in Nolan Creek to decide to formally make Alaska a territory of the United States. Women in Alaska were not legally allowed to vote at that time (rude), so technically her vote may have been illegal, but that didn’t deter Nellie to become the first woman to cast a vote as she filled out her ballot in support of making Alaska an official territory of the United States. 

In the early 1920s, Nellie set off on another adventure and returned to British Columbia where her life of wanderlust eventually came to an end as she passed away from pneumonia on January 4, 1925 in St. Joseph’s hospital, which her support built years prior. Since then she has been inducted into the Alaskan Miners Hall of Fame and the U.S. Postal Service put her on a stamp as Nellie Cashman, the legendary angel of many western mining towns. 

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