Ellen Cashman (1845 – 4 January 1925), better known as Nellie Cashman, became noted across the American and Canadian west as a nurse, businesswoman, Catholic philanthropist in Arizona, and gold prospector in Alaska. A native of County Cork, Ireland, she and her sister were brought as young children to the United States by their mother around 1850 to escape the poverty of the Great Famine. The family lived first in Boston, where the girls also worked when old enough, before migrating to San Francisco in 1865.
Cashman established her first boarding house for miners in British Columbia during the Klondike Gold Rush, asking for donations to the Sisters of St. Anne in return. During her time there, she led a rescue of tens of miners in the Cassiar Mountains.
In 1898 she went to the Yukon for gold prospecting, working there until 1905. She became nationally known as a frontierswoman, with the Associated Press covering a later trip. In 2006 Cashman was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.
Born at Belvelly, near Cobh, County Cork in 1845, Cashman was brought to the United States around 1850 by her mother, along with her sister Frances (known as Fanny); they settled first in Boston. As an adolescent, Cashman worked as a bellhop in a Boston hotel. In 1865 she and her family migrated to San Francisco, California.
Following the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush, Cashman left her family home in 1874 for the Cassiar Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. A lifelong Catholic, she set up a boarding house for miners, asking for donations to the Sisters of St Anne in return for the services available at her boarding house.
Cashman was travelling to Victoria to deliver 500 dollars to the Sisters of St. Anne when she heard that a snowstorm had descended on the Cassiar Mountains, stranding and injuring 26 miners, who were also suffering from scurvy. She took charge of a six-man search party and collected food and medicine to take to the stranded miners. Conditions in the Cassiar Mountains were so dangerous that the Canadian Army advised against attempting the rescue. Upon learning of Cashman's expedition, a commander sent his troops to locate her party and bring them to safety. An army trooper eventually found Cashman camped on the frozen surface of the Stikine River. Over tea, she convinced the trooper and his men that it was her will to continue, and that she would not head back without rescuing the miners.
After 77 days of harsh weather, Cashman and her party located the sick men, who numbered far more than 26. Some historical accounts credit Cashman with saving the lives of as many as 75 men. She administered a diet containing Vitamin C to restore the men to health. She was afterward fondly known in the region as the "Angel of the Cassiar".
Her sister Fanny (Cashman) Cunningham was widowed in 1881, following the death of her husband Tom, a bootmaker. Cashman arranged for Fanny and her five children to move to nearby Tucson, Arizona. Fanny died in 1884 of tuberculosis, leaving her children in Cashman's care. Honoring her sister's wishes, Cashman raised the children as her own.
Soon after her sister's death in 1884, Cashman travelled to Baja California after hearing rumours of untapped gold and silver deposits. She joined 21 men in a short-lived prospecting venture. Sixteen hours into the 100-mile journey, in conditions of extreme heat and drought, the group had already nearly depleted their water supplies, and most of the men were suffering from dehydration. They abandoned their venture.
In December 1883, bandits committed the Bisbee Massacre in Tombstone, killing four innocent bystanders and wounding two others in the course of a robbery. The five men were convicted and sentenced to die by hanging on 28 March 1884. Many people were eager to make a spectacle of the execution. A local carpenter built a grandstand next to the hanging site, planning to charge for tickets. Cashman was outraged, feeling that no execution should be celebrated. She befriended the five convicts, visiting them to provide spiritual guidance. Cashman convinced the sheriff to set a curfew on the day of the hangings to prevent a crowd from forming. The night before the execution, Cashman and a crew of volunteers tore down the grandstand. The hangings proceeded as scheduled, but out of public view. When Cashman learned that a medical school planned to exhume the bodies of the convicts for study, she enlisted two prospectors to stand watch over the Boot Hill Cemetery for 10 days.
Cashman and her associate Joseph Pascholy co-owned and ran a restaurant and hotel in Tombstone called Russ House, now known as Nellie Cashman's. According to a popular legend, a client once complained about Cashman's cooking. Fellow diner Doc Holliday drew his pistol, asking the customer to repeat what he had said. The man said, "Best I ever ate."
In 1898, Cashman left Arizona for the Yukon in search of gold, staying until 1905. Her prospecting ventures took her to Klondike, Fairbanks, and Nolan Creek. She later owned a store in Dawson City. She settled in Koyukuk, along with other established miners.